Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Culture shock

What’s the difference between culture shock, homesickness and a bad case of nostalgia?

On a simplistic level, the symptoms of all three can be the same: varying levels of depression, increased stress, tiredness, flu-like symptoms, to name but a few. However I think it’s not true to say that they are gradations of the same problem.

Taking them in reverse order – nostalgia.

“Nostalgia comes from Greek nostos "homeward journey, return home" and algos "pain" - with the word nostos originally referring to the journey of Odysseus and the heroes from Troy. And if you have a yen, well, you will be surprised about the history of the word. It is from in-yan, the Chinese expression for "craving for opium" and yen first meant "craving of an addict for a drug". This became yan and, eventually, yen for a "powerful craving." (http://dictionary.reference.com/features/wordtraveler04.html)

Interestingly in modern English it’s meaning has developed to include attachment for a specific TIME rather than PLACE – we are nostalgic about a childhood summer, or student days, and less about our homes. This is especially true for “serial-expats” who may have difficulty saying where home actually is. Whole industries have developed around exploiting nostalgic feelings – museums, historically themed parks, the online “family history” sites, even to some extent social networking sites - let’s be honest, who doesn’t look up past flames on facebook/my space/friends reunited!

“An important feature of nostalgia then is the relationship between past and present; indeed it may be seen as a barometer of the present.”

Homesickness, I think we can agree, is a much more specific longing for a place or person (places/people).
“Homesickness is the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from the specific home environment or attachment objects”
Interestingly the above definition suggests that the anticipation as much as the actual distance from home is a real issue for some people. I attended a boarding school from the age of 11, and was one of the lucky ones who didn’t suffer homesickness, but I can imagine the distress and consequent academic influence for those who did suffer. But adults suffer it too! More importantly, it is completely irrational, and it is rare that the promise of a return next week/month will alleviate the symtoms.

In my view Culture Shock incorporates elements of both nostalgia and homesickness, but is forward looking. With nostalgia and homesickness we are looking back – either in time, or physically – and making a mental step that what is behind us is better, more fun, more comfortable. Culture Shock looks around and forward and says “I can’t cope/don’t want to cope with this”. In other words you blame your current environment for the symptoms rather than idealising the past. In many ways this makes culture shock much harder to deal with. We can be nostalgic in a positive way and remember the past with a smile. Homesickness will pass – either after a visit home, or by getting used to it (this is not to undervalue the real pain it causes though). If you don’t deal with culture shock as an expatriate it will affect home and work life, and possibly quite severely – just because it is so easy to blame “the natives” for everything that is wrong. People who have experienced culture shock testify to the fact that culture shock comes in waves – you have good days and bad days. This is why culture shock is often described as a rollercoaster. You can have really good moments – the peaks – when you are enjoying everything new around you and suddenly hit a really big trough where the slightest misunderstanding is exaggerated beyond proportion.

I’m not going to discuss here how to deal with culture shock (I may return to the theme later on) but I do want to stress how important it is to be prepared for the effects and symptoms of it.

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