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English Teachers and Culture Shock

April 26, 2005

I was talking recently to a young woman who had just returned from a teaching post in Korea. She said her first months in her job were a nightmare because of the unfamiliarity of everything. It made me wonder how teachers can prepare themselves to cope with culture shock.

Anyone who leaves their familiar environment for a prolonged spell is prone to the stress of culture shock. Although we know on a rational level that we are going to meet unfamiliar routines and customs, emotionally it takes time to adjust and this period of adjustment leads to unexpected reactions. These could include mood swings, depression, frustration, loneliness, apathy, even panic or physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, colds, stomach upsets. Each of us reacts differently under stress . . .

. . . Firstly, language may be a source of profound difficulty. If you are not proficient in the language of the host country then the problems could accumulate to an intolerable level. Back home you are a sophisticated individual, well able to articulate your needs and ideas. Suddenly you find people looking at you with blank incomprehension, sometimes even wincing as you massacre their native tongue in your attempts to communicate. It's not surprising that you feel frustrated and isolated.

Other changes such as climate, food, different timetables have a more invidious effect. You may not realize that these are the sources of your emotional, mental or physical pain. Small things start to have a disproportionate importance. People's different behavior patterns have a subtle influence too: are they more time conscious than you or less so? Do they use unfamiliar gestures and facial expressions? How formal are they in social and work situations? Do men and women play different roles from those you are used to?

Typically culture shock moves through different stages, from the initial excitement of the new challenge to a sense of being overwhelmed by all that is unfamiliar, followed by a period when you settle in and gradually take a more balanced view of your new surroundings. The second phase can be very alarming and you may have the sense that you have made a terrible mistake and wish to go home. You will be missing your family and friends, you will long for the foods you can't find in your host country, or your favorite t.v. program.

So what can you do to minimize the impact of culture shock? Well, you can make full use of all the technological aids that can keep you in touch with your loved ones; nowadays it is possible through email and even video links to make contact as often as you need to. Join societies, sports clubs, work groups that can bring you into contact with your compatriots so that you can swap experiences, borrow and lend books and magazines and talk about your comparisons of the new milieu with the home country. These are the means by which you will feel less isolated and cut off. It can be very reassuring to find a compatriot who understands your reactions.

Proper preparation before you leave for the new country is vital too. Get up to speed on the essential information about the place: its customs, food, religion, all the systems you will need to have contact with such as education, health-care, driving regulations. Do your very best to learn at least a little of the language and try out some of the typical food before you go.

And if things get bad, tell your Director of Studies. It is only reasonable that the school that has brought you away from your home country should provide you with some support in the early stages. Schools should have an induction period for new teachers and could do much to counter the sense of isolation the newcomer often feels. I'd be really interested to know what your school does in this respect.

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  1. Pete Louvierfe Says:

    I worked for DoDDS in Germany for over 2o years, and even though we belonged to a larger military community with its built in support system, a number of teachers came in and suffered fairly rough times.
    We were assigned a "buddy," who might be a soldier, or another teacher, or even a German.
    The military appointed a "sponsor," who walked us though vehicle registration, ID cards, and so on. I'm sure some of the larger ESL EFL schools or agencies do something like that. It really helps. You might get invited to dinner, or get invited to the beach or the mountains. The group involved with you can have a nice picnic if the weather permits. These "breaking you in" exercises really help.
    The most important thing for me is reading and surfing the 'Net. I go to Google for websites (Where is Brunei?) and images (shows you actual pictures instead of the URLs) and I look for maps. I scour the library. I find people who have been in a place and talk to them.
    I used to teach public speaking, and some soldiers talked about their most embarassing moments. Often they had to do with the new culture. It's good to talk it out, and they did!
    I've never seen a discussion of prevalent smells in Fodor. In Germany, our village would be fog-shrouded at night, heavy with the wonderful aroma of the burning firewood, and the odor of the cattle kept in barns and never let out, ever. That is a countryside odor. But for some, it would be a negative.
    People told me of places where the odor of human waste hits you when you de-plane, and stays with you for your whole stay, wherever you go. Well, that's kind of a "3rd world thing," so don't be shocked. You can only get this from someone who's been there. It is not in the travel brochures!
    With the cell phones and the email and laptops, there should be less trauma and culture shock, but a lot will depend on you and your attitude. Big egos don't fare too well. Check out the film "The gods must be crazy II" and enjoy watching a New York attorney get her immersion in the Kalahari. I've watched it a dozen time, and it gets better each time.
    Pete Louviere, NYU '72

  1. Susan Scott Says:

    Dear Patricia,

    Yes, culture shock takes on many forms but it is a reality to everyone who leaves their comfort zone.

    When I first came to China in 1996, with the Australian Volunteers Abroad Organization, we were told that we would have a period of three to four months high because of the novelty and excitement of being in a very different culture.

    But, then, we would probably experience some forms, which you have mentioned, of negative feelings and thoughts.

    The best way to minimize these feelings is through learning as much of the host language as you can, as soon as you can. This can negate those feelings of isolation.

    Also, keep in touch with your friends and family in your own country. Share your experiences with them so that they are part of what you are feeling. This will, to a certain extent, counteract feelings of loneliness.

    Don't just hang around with fellow expats at Starbucks or some other "western" hideout! sometimes those sessions turn out to be just a lot of "foreigners" moaning about their host

    Take up an interest where you can meet local people. Do you shopping at the local markets rather than the import supermarkets.

    In other words, integrate rather than isolate and just try to enjoy the experience as a unique and exciting adventure.

    Good luck
    Susan (Teacher Trainer/Manager, Shanghai)

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