By Dr. Lee Dubs
When I was in training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1960’s, part of our psychological preparation included understanding what is commonly known as “culture shock.” Based on research and interviews with North Americans – such as missionaries and government workers – who were living or had lived in other countries, psychologists had identified three stages of a common adjustment difficulty. Almost everyone who experiences extended living abroad undergoes psychological challenges that range from mild to severe. Being able to recognize and to overcome such strains play a major role in determining why some expats eventually leave their host country and why others remain.
Stage one discomfort is called “culture tension.” By the second month the expat often begins to internalize minor annoyances that are the result of cultural differences. When the word “mañana” continually means “sometime in the near future” instead of “tomorrow,” for example, the immigrant may become increasingly annoyed each time they hear it. They might roll their eyes and mumble under their breath as they walk away. Another example of culture tension is when one starts to long for certain products that the new location does not offer. I remember wanting a cold milkshake as I spent my days living in a shack and working in a poor village on the coastal desert of Peru.
Stage two is “culture stress.” As the name implies, many challenges of daily life go beyond tense; they may become seriously aggravating and even stressful. Hearing again that an item will be ready “mañana” might provoke a gritting of the teeth, not a simple roll of the eyes. “If I hear that word one more time I am going to scream!” might well be your thought. You may tell friends things like “I hate the mayonnaise here. Why can’t they sell Hellman’s or Kraft?” The immigrant who feels such culture stress fights the urge to grumble at the clerk. Bad feelings are blamed on the locals, their culture, and even their language. Whenever I hear a frustrated expat in Ecuador exclaim, “Why don’t these people speak English!” I recognize culture stress or the start of its next stage.
A final – and worse – agony is known as “culture shock.” This often hits around months three to five. You feel like you just cannot take it anymore. “I hate this language!” “Why does their bureaucracy take so long and get screwed up anyway?” “I am sick and tired of this food.” “Why can’t they be more like us?” “Why did I ever come to this country, anyway?” “I want to go home!” The words, “these people” and “you would think” are used with increasing frequency. When culture shock hit this Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru, I wrote a resignation from the Peace Corps and was going to look for a flight back to Illinois. Fortunately, friends came to the rescue and helped get me out of my funk before I submitted that resignation. I worked through it and finished my assignment just fine. Some PCV’s, however, could not recover from their culture shock in spite of assistance, and they returned to the U.S. long before their two years were completed. Culture shock is a feeling of pain and misery that can turn into despair. Nothing is right in the new culture. Life is not good.
North Americans in Ecuador (and a lot of other countries) have witnessed one or more of the above emotions in their fellow expats and may feel them themselves. Emotional outbursts by stressed and “shocked” expats are not unusual and are often witnessed in public places. I once was talking with a North American woman about a new teaching job she was to start, when she suddenly burst into tears. Between sobs she said that she could not stand to stay in Ecuador another day. While her friends wondered about the cause of her irrational behavior, I recognized culture shock. My efforts to get her to understand what was happening did not help and she left the country.
In the early Peace Corps years we learned that the best way to recover from those negative feelings is a temporary change of venue, to get away for a while. My friends and I took a trip to a town in Peru where we saw trees, flowers, and grass, things I had not seen for months. I returned to my assignment in the sand feeling much better. Culture shock never returned, and when it came time for me to leave, it was with great sadness. I had become part of Peru and its people, just as my wife and I are now part of Ecuador and its people.
A change of venue does not work for everyone, however, and some really do need to get back to their home country permanently. They cannot recover in the host country and they remain unhappy. They will continue to blame the locals for their bad feelings, they often blame their home country for being there in the first place, and they sometimes exhibit resentment toward fellow expats who are comfortable in the new land.
Those in culture stress or shock may try to avoid contact with people who do not speak their language. They often make no serious attempt to learn the language of the host country. Even though some may have expected immigrants in their home country to speak their language, they do not recognize their own contradictory behavior as immigrants in a country where they reject the national language. Culture shock does not produce logical reactions. Victims in pain look for scapegoats.
A normal response to culture tension, stress, and shock is to focus on the differences. People in culture shock are convinced that almost everything about the new country is inferior to their own. Unhappy immigrants frequently “vent” in private and in public. They complain about almost anything, even local products. They frequently criticize service employees who do not speak their language, and they may loudly complain to each other in public places, where locals hear them and resent them. Attempts by others to help modify their behavior are occasionally met with hostility. Their allies are often fellow sufferers, and they reinforce each other’s frustrations.
Distressed expats who cannot recover from culture stress and shock sometimes do benefit from moving to other countries that have what they need. A lot of North Americans are leaving Ecuador and moving to areas in Mexico where there are larger numbers of their own people and familiar comforts such as Wal-Mart, Costco or Radio Shack. It is usually a wise decision for them. Others, for various reasons, choose to stay where they are unhappy. The culture will not change for them. Locals will not start speaking English for them. The bureaucracy will not suddenly function perfectly for them. The external excuses for their unhappiness will not change. It is they who must try something different if they hope to be happy.
Living in someone else’s country is not always easy. Early bad feelings are normal. Taking action to overcome those feelings is the key. Most immigrants make adjustments and learn to enjoy their new life. Others seek contentment elsewhere. A minority never fully recovers and its members continue to blame others for their discontent. In Peru, I finally came to realize that the cause of my distress was not external; it was within me. I quit complaining, became proactive, and pulled myself out of it with the aid of friends. I finished my Peace Corps experience speaking good Spanish, having a lot of Peruvian friends, and with a new outlook. It ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Lee Dubs first visited Cuenca in the early 1960s and has been a full-time resident for the past eleven years. A retired language professor from North Carolina, he and his wife, Carol, are the owners of Carolina Bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel at Calle Larga. Lee can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.