"Fleeing" to a Third World Country? What to Expect


Culture Shock

The After Shocks of Your Move Abroad



Kalvero Oberg first identified the five distinct stages of "culture shock" in 1958, and we know them today as:  

  • The honeymoon or tourist, stage;
  • The irritation-to-anger stage;
  • The rejection/regression stage;
  • The integration/assimilation stage;
  • The reverse, or rentry stage.

The honeymoon, or tourist, stage:

When one arrives in a foreign country for the first time, everything is new, exciting, different. As a tourist, you will only be in the new country for a short period of time. When you visit, you  do not need to know the native language very well, if at all. The native staff - be it the tour guide or the hotel staff - knows your language, at least enough to meet your basic needs. Getting by in that environment, that four or five star hotel, which is much like your home country, is not that difficult. The environment you spend much of your time in is purposely designed to give you an experience that is familiar to you; comfort, cleanliness, hospitality, etc, so as to give you, as much as possible, a relaxing and enjoyable vacation. The best trimmings of the native land, the music, the food, the dances, the shows, the ambiance, that is, all the positive attributes of that culture are carefully selected and added to provide  stimulus to your senses that allows you to experience, positively, a foreign culture, a world different from your own. As much as possible, all the negatives are carefully excluded.

If one stays at a four or five star hotel for a week, or two, or even a month, one does not really experience what that culture is like, because the hotel environment is not in any way the experience the vast majority of the locals live with on a daily basis.

It is not until one moves to and actually lives in the foreign land, does one get to know what it is like to live abroad. Day-to-day living in a foreign country is completely different than visiting. Unless you have a local to help you, you are on your own. Now, you do need to know at least some of the local language to get around, to order food, to communicate with others.The inablity to communicate with others - even what you consider rudimentary needs - often leads to frustration with the natives. "Why don't they even know basic English words?"

India ManThis is the start of

The irritation-to-anger stage:

Like hundreds of piranha biting at your flesh day in and day out, little things start to irritate. The language barrier, the dog that barks all night long, causing you to lose sleep; the cock that crows at 4 am every single morning, Sunday included; the frequent brown outs; the cut off water without warning; the favorite must have food you don't have because you can't it find at the local market, not even the local super market; the  thousand and one things that are different from back home start to bug you and cause the affliction that silently seeps into the newcomer's or inexperienced expatriate's psyche. This emotional off-kelter condition that sneaks up on the person trying to operate in an unfamiliar environment is what is known as culture shock. 

"Culture shock," said anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, "is brought on by the aniety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse."

One starts to feel like a fresh water fish in a salt water environment. Yes, those are people around you, but despite what you have been told about multiculturalism, they are different from you. You feel isolated. You are now in the minority. The natives appear to ignore you. You are not as important in this new land as you were back home. The subtle, and not so subtle differences,  begin to take their toll. This is when the irritation often turns to anger; at the natives, at the host country in general, at others for not understanding your problems or situation. A person in culture shock gets angry at the store clerk or the taxi driver or the government official for not knowing how to speak his language. At this point, sensing the expat's irritation or, worse, being the victim of their anger, the natives may begin to react to the foreigner. The government official may pretend he doesn't understand what it is you want or ignores you or "misplaces" your paper work, thus causing even more delays, causing even more anger in you. It is one frustrating experience after another.

Either the experience will bring the best out of you, or the worst. You can use living in another culture to make you into a better, more understanding, patient person, with a broader world view and more wisdom. Or, you can allow what is happening to you to bring the worst out of you. You can become bitter, angry, intolerant, short-tempered, finding fault with everyone and everything.

This brings us to the next phase of culture shock,

The rejection/regression stage:

This phase of your experience abroad is also known as the turning point stage. It is at this point where you either accept the reality you find yourself in and go with the flow, or, pack your stuff and head home. At this point you have to make up your mind to reject or accept your situation. This brings you to  

The integration/assimilation stage: Bamboo Rice Seller

At this juncture, you begin to appreciate the differences and accept them. You begin to integrate yourself into your new environment. You think: yes, the infrastructure here is not what I am used to, but on the other hand, the cost of living is lower: ok, so I don't have all the food I am used to, but the fresh fruit and vegetables bought down at the local farmer's market every Wednesday and Saturday more than make up for that: the locally grown coffee, or mangos, or pineapples, or tobacco, or fresh squeezed juice sure is nice and cheap. Sitting at the cafe in the evening sipping the cheap local beer watching the sun set ... hmmm, ... now that I think about it, I wouldn't trade these things for what I used to have back home.

You've picked up enough of the language to chat some with your new found acquaintances and perhaps have even found a local friend or two. You know your way around your new home and have started to feel comfortable in your new environment,  like it was a broken-in pair of your favorite slippers. You've slowed your pace down. If things take a few days, a few weeks or heck, even a few months to get done, well, that's ok. What's the hurry? You now think, my lifestyle is good, so what's the problem?

Once you've adjusted your priorities, re-examined your previously held values about what was important, how time was used, and a host of other changes that take place while living abroad, you enter the

The reverse [culture shock], or rentry stage:

This is when you begin to ask yourself: do you really, given the opportunity, want to go "home?"  Are you willing to give up what you have in your new land to go back to what you had before? Is this new country now your "home" country? Family members and friends have changed since you've been gone, and so have you. You have acquired new tastes, habits and preferences, most likely quite different from those of your former friends and family members. You might not understand why they act or think the way they do and they quite likely will not understand why you feel, act and think the way you do. In short, things are not the same and will never return to the way they were, because you are a different person.

The more you integrated into and assimilated with your new country, the more difficult it will be to re-enter your old native country. If, for some reason,  you do have to return, you may very well experience "reverse culture shock." If you do decide to return home, at least you will have the experiences of having to adapt to a new culture to help you to adjust to your former culture.