Recently we had the privilege to meet with a young couple who were planning to move to Montevideo with their two children. During our meeting we told them that they were almost sure to suffer culture shock once they had moved. We described it for them and assured them that it would pass.
Later after they had made the move, she wrote and told me how glad she was that I had prepared her because it did happen and, since she recognized what it was, she was able to weather the storm.
On another occasion, I met a woman at an English speaker’s meeting who was seated off to herself, looking depressed. I approached to talk to her and she actually said, “I’m about to slit my wrists.” I think (hope!) she didn’t mean that literally, but after listening to her for a few minutes I said, “You’re experiencing culture shock, you’re going to be okay. This will pass.” Today this lovely lady owns a small farm, her new home is under construction and she is doing fine.
Culture shock takes different forms with different people, and can be present in different degrees. It seems to me that it affects women more than men but can seriously affect men as well. Some people who go through this period of adjustment develop hostility and irritation toward the host country and its people. Others just feel depression or a sense of loss or insecurity, excessive concern about cleanliness, excessive fear of being cheated, sadness or any combination of a variety of other reactions. Ultimately it all culminates in a desire to return to the place where things are familiar.
I experienced culture shock for the first time when I accepted an invitation from my son to visit Belize with him. Even though the language was English, the culture and the people were so unfamiliar that it took just five days for the shock to set in. It was hot there and the entire country seemed to have neither ice nor toilet paper. You had to carry your own roll and some of the public bathrooms were awful. I had never seen anything like it. Plus a man who rented a beach cabin to us tried to cheat us. My son took care of that in short order. But in the end, all I wanted to do was get on that plane and get back to Florida. It only took five days for me to get to that point!
A few years later, when I moved to Bariloche, Argentina, I experienced it again. In that case the people in Bariloche, unlike Belize, spoke a different language. I am not easily depressed but I certainly was then. I had the unrealistic feeling that everything I had ever done in my entire life had been wrong—a mistake. Of course that was foolish thinking, but it was a part of the culture shock. I wrote so many emails to my poor daughter that she wrote me in exasperation, “Mom, I don’t know what to do with all your emails!” I didn’t realize how many I was writing. I did the same with friends. It was an unconscious attempt to reach back to the familiar—to things and relationships that were comfortable.
Today I can be in the land of my birth for months on end and when I return to South America it feels so good to be back–like a return to my other home. It is a joy. In fact, some American expats have told us that they feel such a sense of freedom here that it is when they return to the United States on visits that they experience culture shock. It is culture shock in reverse, hard as that is to imagine. One couple who had lived in Guatemala for 18 years told me the only reason they ever go back is because of their aging parents and once they are gone they will never return. They are that much at home in Guatemala.
The area of South America with which I am familiar was a much easier adjustment for me than Belize. I think that it is partly because people here are of European descent. When I go out anywhere, the people look the same as people that I would normally see if I were not in a foreign country. So on the street, in restaurants or stores, things don’t seem strange at all. Also, the people here seem to think and reason the same way. It was not difficult to relate to them once I had a little command of the language. And so, in some ways, the country naturally has a certain degree of familiarity for me.
These things may not apply to everyone. For example, if you have chosen to live in Belize, I have no doubt that you will become accustomed to the culture even though it might take just a little longer. Or, in your case, it might not. And besides, they may even have both ice AND toilet paper in Belize by now! That was a few years ago. But finally settling in a country where things and people are more similar to the way they were “back home” has been helpful to me.
Now that we have established that some degree of culture shock is normal, what can we do to minimize it?
First, I think that just recognizing it as normal and knowing that it will pass is a big factor. You CAN live through this, and you will! The day will come when your new home will be . . . well . . . home!
Next, try to find a support group of other expats who have been in the country for a while. Many problems that you encounter in a new country are probably common and other expats may already have found the solutions. It may take a while to get used to the fact that Latin America may be quite different from what you are used to. In this part of the world there is almost always a way to get things done. Newcomers get upset about things that the rest of us are likely to laugh about! Meanwhile, this kind of group provides social contacts with whom you can communicate while you are learning the local language and building local friendships. In Montevideo there is a group of English speakers that I recommend. You can read about them here. Other cities, both in Uruguay and in other countries, usually have an expat community.
Also, when you face frustration in your host country, don’t forget that you had frustrations back home as well. No country is free from frustration and no bureaucracy free from stupidity. If you want to experience real frustration, just try repairing the roof on a house in Dade County, Florida. Talk about bureaucracy! In all honesty, with all the frustrations and inefficiency I have experienced in Latin America, none of it even comes close in comparison to the stupid bureaucracy involved in repairing a storm-damaged roof on your own house in Dade County!
So far I have frankly found life much easier here! But if you are coming here from the hills of Tennessee where there is (perhaps) little bureaucracy, you just might disagree!
In any event, when we are facing foreign inefficiency, it is easy to forget the inefficiencies we experienced back home and become inpatient and critical—especially when we are going through the adjustment period. So one suggestion is to try to remember that things were not perfect in your native home and avoid being too critical of your new one.
Get daily exercise, get enough sleep, and eat a natural, balanced diet. Loss of sleep, in itself, can cause depression and exercise relieves stress. Remember that high intake of sugar is known to bring on hyperactivity and unmanageability in some children. It can do the same for adults. Try to take care of yourself so that your lifestyle will not contribute to the problem.
Enroll in some classes in the language of your host country. In our area many Spanish classes include an introduction to the culture. Once you begin to be able to communicate enough to get what you need and know your way around on your own, you start to notice the feeling of empowerment—of being at home in your environment.
So do take heart. You, too, will survive and almost surely learn to love your new home.
© Arlean Kelley 10/12/2009 All rights reserved.