When I heard for the first time about the so-called “culture shock syndrome”, I would have never imagined that it could happen to me as well. Shocked by a culture? Why? I have always been curious and passionate about cultural diversity. Since my internship in Tanzania, I have often traveled experiencing local life, food, and accommodation, and I have been used staying in unfamiliar cultural and linguistic settings as well as making friends with local people. I have been trained in anthropology, I have worked with immigrants in Italy, and many of my friends have an immigrant background too. I definitely love engaging in cultural diversity. When culture shock happened to me, I had to realize that I completely misconceived what “culture shock” is and I realized that cultural adaptation has various stages, some of which might be tough.
Discovering the truth of culture shock
Culture shock has little to do with “culture” in the academic sense. Most of all, it has to do with the stressors coming from living in an unfamiliar environment. It is not caused by obvious cultural differences such as food, language, beliefs, rituals, social practices, communication, and interaction patterns. Culture shock, particularly in migrants and expatriates, is the result of a combination of stressful life conditions and unmet expectations. Of course, social practices and lifestyle might affect the way the environment is impacting on us: noises, hazards, annoying little things, can be an important source of stress. Before leaving, I knew that my lifestyle in Kathmandu will have been significantly different from my lifestyle in Milan, but I felt self-confident and ready to cope with this change. In the first two months, I didn’t realize how subtly some stressors were affecting my emotional balance: I felt fully motivated and prepared to face all the challenges and difficulties found in the new environment. Excitement and energy were very high, and I couldn’t see how tired and stressed I was slowly becoming.
When in Kathmandu, I was able to feel well included in the work setting and I also had some social life and recreational activities in my spare time. I was used to attending Nepalese dance classes and enjoying some food and coffee in my favorite places. I practiced stretching and some meditation every morning. I was amazed by going to Buddhist temples and very excited to explore new places. I definitely loved Nepalese food and I have been able to learn how to cook some basic recipe. I found myself very at ease chilling in the only gay-friendly bar in town and to get connected with local people.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t aware of how stressful it was to adapt to the new environment. I missed very much green spots here in Kathmandu. I really enjoyed having long walks when in Milan, both to unwind my mind and to keep my body active. When I was walking here in Kathmandu, I realized that it was not definitely a relaxing activity. Besides, the neighborhood where I lived, Naya Bazaar, was very crowded and noisy, though very interesting from an anthropological point of view. Sleeping was (and still continue to be) often interrupted by various disturbances, most of all caused by stray dogs barking loudly outside my window. During the daytime, they are definitely lovely and friendly, but during the night (despite the best earplugs) they become my nightmare.
At the same time, I wasn’t aware of how much unmet expectations have caused me stress. Some of the plans that I made before transferring to Nepal, needed to be changed or completely abandoned because of excessive costs or unfavorable conditions. For instance, traveling around Nepal, having instruments to play music or some weekend in a quiet and comfortable place. In the workplace, though two months and a half had already passed, I started realizing how hard it was having any sort of impact around. As a volunteer project manager, I didn’t have direct responsibilities and power on staff and projects and this made me felt disempowered and ineffective.
The first emerging feelings related to culture shock were homesickness and demotivation. I suddenly started missing my friends and my regular lifestyle, my flat, the places I used to go when in Milan, and feeling less self-confident in the workplace, unable to see the sense and direction of what I was doing. When the excitement and the energy of the beginning faded away, I felt a sort of emotional collapse. Sadness, sense of disempowerment, impatience, and irritability came to complete all the typical symptoms of the syndrome. I ended up seeing only the negative side of being in Nepal, and I felt trapped. I was really tempted to give up and to leave the country. On the other side, I found this temptation unreasonable. I was emotionally challenged by the stressors, but I didn’t want to lose the chance of learning how to cope with them and to see what was next.
Since the beginning, I thought it was a good idea to inform my sending organization about my emotional state. I talked to my line manager in Estonia about my feelings and I finally figured out what I was going through. Then I talked to close friends, some of whom had similar volunteering experiences abroad. Finally, I also informed my mentor in my hosting organization about it. Everybody was very understanding and supportive. I started feeling a little bit relieved by knowing what my problem was. I was not doing bad: I was only stressed. I just needed to become aware of my state and to apply some coping strategies to adjust my balance.
My way to cope with culture shock
After I accepted to fully embrace this challenge, culture shock’s symptoms seemed to fade away. Anyway, it was just a temporary effect. Though aware of my situation, in the following weeks, I experienced ups and downs. During that time, I alternatively considered opposite options such as shortening my deployment versus staying until the end. Of course, discomforts haven’t changed: stressors were still there as before. Nevertheless, I slowly started perceiving them differently and feeling as an active agent of change, not as a victim.
Dreams came to help me as well. One of them was particularly intense and enlightening. It made me realize that I couldn’t escape the challenge of adaptation wherever I have moved to, even my favorite place. Adaptation difficulties were just a consequence of a precise choice: engaging in the development and humanitarian work. Thus, they were unavoidable. I started seeing all the pieces of the puzzle and refocusing on my motivation: why I am here? On the other side, I started mitigating the stressors, taking care of my feelings, and engaging in relieving activities.
Christmas time was approaching: a period typically marked by extreme joy or sadness for many people who have a Christian background. My flatmate and colleague, Michaela, was writing greetings cards, and, inspired by her, I decided to do the same to mitigate my homesickness. I enjoyed it very much, from choosing the cards to writing and posting them. They haven’t arrived yet after more than one month, but this is another issue. Besides, I decided to take my meditation practice more seriously. Training the mind to focus on the present time helps to avoid negative thoughts and wanders. I didn’t forget that Kathmandu gives a unique chance to connect with Tibetan Buddhism: I started appreciating the opportunity to visit Swayambunath and Boudhanath temples on a regular basis. Both of them have always had a positive impact on my wellbeing and nurtured my spiritual life.
Friends and colleagues to whom I disclosed my situation, were definitely supportive during that time. I appreciated having an Italian colleague living with me: I realized how important was speaking my mother tongue as well as having a good rapport with her. I found particularly important sharing ideas, feelings, and ritual moments like Christmas and New Year’s Eve with other European volunteers. The fact of sharing a similar background, made me feel closer to the Christmas atmosphere that I used to know back in Italy. At the same time, little daily activities such as cooking and doing laundry, became an important source of relief, exactly as looking for a quiet and comfortable place in town where meeting a friend, having a conversation, or drinking a coffee. Being ironical and using humor with myself and with what I considered funny around me, helped me to cope with the daily stress too. At the end of the day, laughing is definitely an important source of dopamine and a counterstrategy to reduce stress.
What is exactly culture shock?
Two months have already passed by the time I started feeling the first symptoms. Around one month ago, thanks to my sending organization Mondo, I had the chance of having a Skype session with a therapist. It was definitely a useful chance to get feedback from a specialist: I finally knew that I was on the right track with my coping strategies. Regarding the role of culture in the culture shock, as I mentioned above, I can say that is not what is supposed to be. I haven’t been “culture shocked” because Nepalese people venerate a female child as a living goddess (the so-called “kumari”), they sacrifice animals during Hindu rituals or they let dogs and cows going around freely. Neither because people eat with hands and get rice three times a day as it was mentioned in the list of things giving culture shock in Nepal on a blog.
Of course, there are some recurrent behaviors that annoy me here, like spitting mucus out loudly and continuously or cars and motorbikes driving crazily with no rules, but I can’t definitely relate them to “culture”: they are mostly related to poor health and administration. And they definitely don’t “shock” me: they just give me some annoyance. At the end of the day, people here complain about road conditions and traffic management exactly as I do. So, what is exactly culture shock? It is the result of a combination of diverse stressors coming from an unfamiliar setting that is affecting temporarily the emotional and cognitive balance. It is a natural part of the adaptation process and each person is affected to a different extent.
If you experience such feelings, I might suggest neither to be scared or to feel inadequate to the role you are appointed for. Talk to your line manager and ask for support as soon as the main symptoms appeared. And, in case you decide to read something about it, rely only on scientific articles or accurately sourced posts.
* All pictures are mine unless stated otherwise