Wednesday, 6 April 2011

April 6, 2011: Learning Journal 12

This week we read one of my favorite readings that we do in the Field Study Preparation Course.  It is an article by Gary Ferraro called "Coping with Culture Shock."  While it focuses specifically on business men and women going abroad, there are some great lessons to be learned about what happens when we encounter culture shock.  This is definitely one of the readings that I want with me in the field, and no better way than keeping that on file that writing a learning journal about it.

One of the best things about this article is that it treats culture shock for what it is, being much more complex that merely what we experience when we first get off the plane and realize that things are bit different than we are used to.  He says that culture shock comes in four stages.
  1. The Honeymoon- Everything is different, but there is something fun and romantic about it all
  2. Irritation and Hostility- Here is what comes after the honeymoon.  A small number of problems become huge really fast, and all of the sudden all of those little differences from the honeymoon are frustrating. 
  3. Gradual Adjustment- This is the passing of the crisis and a move towards "gradual recovery" (163).
  4. Biculturism- The last stage represents full or near full recovery, and means that you have the ability to function in both cultures effectively.   
I have definitely witnessed these steps within my own cross cultural experiences and with those who I traveled with.  Given only 3 months in the field, it is hard to believe that biculturism is really possible, but I think we can certainly aim for gradual adjustment.  Another thing to keep in mind is that these steps are not necessarily linear.  Steps can be skipped, repeated, and falling back into step 1 or 2 happens all of the time.

So we know that culture shock is bound to impact everyone in their own different ways, but what are some of the common symptoms? 
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawl (I tend to do this)
  • Excessive sleep (something else I can fall victim to)
  • Compulsive eating and/or drinking
  • Irritability
  • Exaggerated cleanliness (sometimes I get obsessive about brushing my teeth when I feel culture shock and anxiety)
  • Marital stress
  • Family tension and conflict
  • Chauvinistic excesses
  • Stereotyping of host nationals
  • Hostility towards locals
  • Loss of ability to work effectively
  • Unexplainable fits of weeping (this happens to people ALL the time)
  • Physical ailments (psychosomatic illnesses)
  • Feelings of isolation (I tend to do this)
  • Weight loss
  • Feelings of helplessness (I tend to do this one too...)
  • Tenseness and moodiness
  • Loss of confidence
  • Fear of the worst happening (Sometimes I can fall into this)
The point is that it is all different for everyone, but as a facilitator especially these are all symptoms I need to be familiar with to identify culture shock.  I am sure there are also other symptoms that are not listed that I have yet to encounter.

So then the practical question, once you identify that you are having culture shock, how do you combat it?  Ferraro has a few suggestions. 
  • Understand that learning about the host culture is a process that continues throughout your stay
  • As soon as you arrive, be aware of your immediate physical surroundings
  • Within the first few days, familiarize yourself with some of the basic, everyday survival skills of the community- using local currency, public transport, using the phone, etc.
  • Try to understand your host culture in terms of their culture rather than your own- this can be difficult, but it is necessary to open yourself up to a new way of living
  • Live with the ambiguity- especially at the beginning.  You will not have all of the answers, and that is okay.
  • Make conscious efforts to be empathetic- put yourself in the other persons shoes
  • Be flexible and resourceful
  • Learn to postpone judgments or decisions until you have acquired enough information
  • Don't evaluate yourself according to your usual standards of accomplishment- especially at the beginning!  This is a remedy that I really need to pay attention to this time in the field.  It is not easy.
  • Don't lose your sense of humor
  • Avoid US ghettos abroad- Don't hang out with only the backpackers in Dharamsala... got it.
  • Be adventurous!  But of course, within BYU field study program rules. :)
  • Learn how to best manage stress- I think that learning this about yourself and the group members you travel with is really important for group dynamics and for general sanity.  Field studies are stressful!  You have got to stay on top of it and know how you manage stress.
  • Take appropriate health precautions
  • Let go of home (for now)- SO true!  It is not healthy to be on the phone or Internet too much.  Love your people, miss them, but be where you are in the moment. 
  • Keep in mind that there are no absolutes in studying other cultures
  • Keep the faith- Not sure what this means, but I think it is just remember your motivations for going and know that you are on the way to getting to step 4, or at least step 3 (Gradual Adjustment).
I was grateful for the chance to read this article again, especially after returning from my experience in Ghana.  This is a very real issue, and it should be understood and dealt with in its complexity.  

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