The culture that we come from shapes our identity; it shapes our expectations and beliefs and teaches us cues with which to facilitate communication. These can be things that once seemed obvious to us, but in a foreign country, can suddenly feel alien. When we can no longer rely on these cues while in a foreign culture, the result is that we sometimes feel out of place and this can lead to frustration. These cultural differences are sometimes overt cues such as body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, volume, word choice, and slang. Other times they may be more subtle, such as how respect is demonstrated and to whom.
When teachers move to a new country to teach, they are often going for a minimum of one year. They often leave for their new destination feeling very positive (albeit a little nervous) about the experience. They are looking forward to meeting new people and embracing a new culture. Quite often, however, this enthusiasm can fade in just a matter of months, and new teachers may find themselves looking ahead and dreading the months to come. The initial exhilaration wears off and adaptation problems start to become evident. Instead of contacting family and friends and telling them about the wonderful food they've eaten and the beautiful and unique places they've seen, they start to find themselves complaining more, often making stereotypical comments about the local people and customs. What was once new and exciting has become burdensome. Suddenly it seems that the entire populace and the place they are in has become responsible for everything (or just the most recent event) that is going wrong.

Culture shock can come in many forms, ranging anywhere from mild uneasiness and temporary homesickness to in extreme cases, panic. The result is irritability and some degree of loss of perspective. It is important to understand why it happens in order to work on how to better cope and hopefully lesson the degree as a result. Kalvero Oberg was one of the first writers to show that culture shock is like a disease: it has a cause, symptoms and a cure. He identified five stages of culture shock. They are: the honeymoon phase; the rejection phase; the regression phase; the recovery phase; and the reverse culture shock phase.

  • The honeymoon phase: This is where you are excited about being in a new place. There are new tastes, smells, sights and sounds, and you are enjoying your new experience. Although there may be a few problems that arise in daily life, you accept them as part of the package.
  • The rejection phase: This is where communication problems start to arise and become more detrimental to your day to day issues. Your cultural expectations with regards to “time” and etiquette are also being tested on a daily basis. Additionally, you may also start to miss your favorite food items. You usually start to complain about the country you are in, the people who live there, and the culture that you are surrounded by. You will frequently feel frustrated and perhaps even aggressive at times. This is the breaking point for some- you either have to stay strong and push through, or give up and go home!
  • The regression stage: This is where you start to embrace everything from your own culture. You may start to remember it as a place where everything was perfect and where you never had any problems. The grass is always greener…. You will be attracted to things that remind you of home: speaking your native language; watching TV and videos from home/ in English; seeking out fellow country-people; eating food from home.
  • The recovery phase: In this stage, you start embracing the new culture. You may find that you have developed a preference for local cuisine, customs and habits. It is possible that you have started to become more comfortable with the language and are therefore assimilating better. It is at this point that you start to recognize that there are distinct differences between counties and their respective cultures, but there is no right or wrong, no better or worse.
  • The reverse culture shock phase: This is the stage that arises when you have been away from your own country for a prolonged period of time. You start to become more comfortable with the habits and customs of the new country that you are in and may feel that you are not as comfortable in your home country anymore. It may take time to become comfortable with the cues of your own culture once again. This can be the hardest of all of the phases to deal with!

So how can we deal with culture shock? Being aware of it and recognizing its stages is a good starting point. It can often give you the perspective you need to help overcome the challenges of living abroad. There are also some things you can do to better prepare yourself as you go.

When starting out on your new adventure, it is important to become as familiar as possible with the country and the customs. I find that the “culture” section in the Lonely Planet guides can be a good reference point. Use friends, the Internet, and the company that's hiring you to find out as much as possible. Try to embrace the new culture and the things it has to offer. How much you allow yourself to become frustrated will be up to you!

I think that it can also be good to remind yourself of why you became a teacher and why you wanted to go to that destination to teach. Once you are in the new country, keep connected to friends and family from back home. This can give you an outlet that can often offer a new perspective, or just be a friendly ear. It can also prove beneficial for you when it's time to renter your own culture- people will have a better understanding of where you have been and what you are coming back from.

Take the time to learn the language. The reward will be that you will be able to get around more easily and will no longer have to rely as much on others. It will also help you to make friends that may have otherwise been inaccessible to you. Making local friends is part of adapting to the new culture. Making friends with local people who speak English is also desirable, as they will be able to help you if you need it. Don't forget to make some English speaking friends too; speaking English at normal pace can be a welcome relief sometimes.

I also like to take some things from home: photo of family, friends or pets, a favorite candy bar (or for some a big stash of comfort food!), a favorite CD or book to get lost in. These things can be comforting during your low points when everything else around you feels so foreign. See if you can get someone to send over a “care package” once in a while. Sharing your goodies (although you really want to hoard them) with others can also add to the enjoyment.

Keep in mind that it is also quite common to experience culture shock and go through the same stages if you move from one country to another. Even when two countries seem similar enough, don't be surprised if you also go through these stages!

Coming home can often be the hardest part of all of this. It is not uncommon for teachers who have been abroad for many years to experience reverse culture shock upon returning home. It does not always mean that you have had to be away for such a long stretch. Reverse culture shock can be partly due to the fact that returning to your old life and daily routines can seem dull and mundane. It may also be that your niche no longer exists/ is not exactly what you left behind. People have moved on, often without you. It is important o challenge yourself both socially and perhaps even academically upon your return, not just while you are away.