Culture Shock!

Contributed by Caroline

I’ve always had these funny little “aHA!” moments that seem to come later than they should. I remember the time I found out that the saying, “eavesdropping” was not “ease dropping”.  I thought you’d ease around the corner and listen in on people’s conversations! Made sense to me. And then there was the discovery of the “old wives’ tale”. I’d thought it was “old wise tale”. Legends sounding so wise that they were passed down the generations. Some of my discoveries don’t have to do with mispronunciation. I won’t even go into the time [in HIGH SCHOOL :O] that I realized that the word refreshment had to do with being refreshed!!!

A few months ago, I was driving down the street here in Okinawa. I was taking notice of how the old buildings didn’t seem that strange to me, driving on this other side of the street with the steering wheel on the other side of the car didn’t feel so weird anymore. It was becoming normal. I thought back on my first weeks, even months here. The hard struggle of adjustments. Suddenly a phrase was rolling around on my tongue. Culture shock. Hm. CULTURE shock. CULTURE SHOCK!!!.  Suddenly with eyes wide open and mouth agape I realized that what I had experienced was just that. It had a NAME!!! And it was documented somewhere!!!

Growing up in the states, I’d mostly thought of culture shock as a southerner trying to figure out why life in the North ran so much faster while the northerner tried to understand the slow pace of the south. I just thought it had to do with things like grits vs. bagels and lox, rural vs. uptown – that sort of thing.

Before moving to Okinawa, I was SO looking forward to such a cross-cultural experience. Non-military friends would look at me with wonder and say things like, “You are so brave!”. I’d smile and probably felt a bit proud.  Sure, I was a bit nervous but I was really looking forward to living on an island again. We’d lived in Hawaii before and have such fond memories! I was looking forward to being in an Asian culture again. Again, as in Hawaii.

Fast forward three months. One hot Okinawan afternoon, I’m picking up my kindergartner and nearly break down on a new friend. We’d planned to get together but I asked if we could reschedule because I was having an “off” day. We ended up at a picnic table where she let me pour out my anxious heart while our boys played on a playground.

That day, I was mostly anxious about being anxious. I was finding it so hard to adjust. I felt thrown by the way nearly everything in my life was opposite or just very different than it had been. “I didn’t think I had any expectations before coming but I must have expected it to be a lot like Hawaii because I keep thinking about how it doesn’t remind me of Hawaii at ALL!!  I can’t figure out how to adjust my air conditioner because it’s not written in English! I keep turning on my windshield wipers instead of the blinker. Even the gears are written in the opposite order on my dashboard! And the other day I bought something from a Japanese store, said, “Arigato!” and teared up as soon as I walked away. Because I felt so weird about feeling so different and I felt stupid for feeling so weird!!!!

My friend was kind and patient and somehow managed to give me dignity during the unraveling. She told me that she thought it took most everyone [moving to the island] at least six months before they felt normal. What? I was confused. “But how come you never hear about that? How come I’ve not heard one person talk about it?” I asked. “Well, maybe it’s like childbirth. You forgot how painful it was after a while.” she answered. Hm. That makes sense.

She went on to say that after a while, people come to love it.  “After a while, you’ll see…” she continued as I looked on suspiciously, “that it is a lot like Hawaii.”  I wanted to believe that she was just a bit nuts but she seemed so sane, wise and like she knew what she was talking about.

“Seems like you are very disappointed with yourself. Like you don’t think you’re doing this “right”.” Ah. she’s perceptive too! She was right. I felt like a failure. All I could find on-line before moving here was how much everybody loooooved Okinawa. The only thing I ever saw that was even slightly negative was that it was HOT. Yep, it was hot and the Okinawans were incredible but I’d still had such a hard time.

Turns out, there are some things you can never quite be prepared for. Some things (most things?) just have to be experienced. Until that day, I thought I was alone in this. I feel that my anxiety was nearly doubled by my sense of failure. If during those initial days, I could have told myself, “I heard it would be like this. This is normal. It will pass.” I might have been better able to focus on the adjusting. Rather I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me that I would feel so unnerved in my new environment.

You know what? I’ve been here for over seven months now. And I love it! I do! I really do. And it reminds me of Hawaii. I can’t even explain why but it just does. There is something relaxing in the air for me.

culture shock –noun

a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.

I have one thing to add to that definition: NON-permanent. )


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17 Comments
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  • January 7, 2011

    I had an experience (here in the States) that made me think back to this post. I just love love it. I think it should get re-posted on Okinawa Hai once a year.

    kellyerace
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  • May 23, 2010

    It’s true, Okinawa is a lot like Hawaii. Whenever I go to Okinawa I feel like I’m home just like Hawaii (I’m from Hawaii). The plants, atmosphere, size and population are similar. Even the people are similar due to Hawaii’s large Japanese and Asian population. It’s interesting to read about people’s culture shock.

    aloha
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  • May 23, 2010

    The five stages of culture shock (posted above by nobby) really is great information, especially the part about reverse culture shock. Someone who has already PCS’ed back to the US should definitely do a full post about it. I spent some time abroad while I was in college and the reverse culture shock was, by far, the hardest part of the whole ordeal. I was prepared for differences heading to a new place; what I was not prepared for was the differences I would notice when I got back. I remember being completely overwhelmed by the size of American vehicles, all the English signs and billboards, and certain mannerisms of my family. You don’t generally hear a lot about it but going “home” again can be rough!

    Heidi
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  • January 14, 2009

    Where was that excerpt from? It was a great sociological explanation of culture shock. If you’re still following this thread, you HAVE to re-post it somewhere else, where more people can access it..perhaps as a discussion in Okinawa Hai Society. 🙂

    cnunez
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  • October 24, 2008

    I moved to the US and found this article helpful in understanding the five stages of culture shock. Im sure I’ll need it again after PCSing to Oki.

    The Five Stages of Culture Shock

    Culture shock is divided into five stages. Each stage can be long standing or appear only under certain conditions. It is important to realize that culture shock is a perfectly normal condition which affects persons differently, just as grief, shock and other pressures in life. Some people show stronger reactions than others and not all experience all the five stages of culture shock. Some people do not progress through to the final stage.

    The first stage is often called the “honeymoon stage”. It is characterized by tension and expectations. While it is going on, people enjoy the excitement that arises from being in a new place where everything is interesting. Some people never leave this initial stage of the excitement that goes along with being abroad. They are constantly experiencing a mild ecstasy and behave like eternal tourists: travel to new and interesting places, make friends only with their fellow countrymen and retain their old way of living. For most people however, the honeymoon passes by and they enter into the second and most difficult stage of the culture shock.

    The second stage is the actual shock. It can be characterized with loss of courage and general discomfort. Changes in character occur, depression, lack of self-confidence and irritation, people become more vulnerable and prone to crying, more worried about their health, suffer from headache, bad stomach and complaint about pain and allergy. Difficulties with concentration often occur and reduce the ability to learn a new language. These factors increase the anxiety and the stress. In this period, the self-awareness dissolves and people have trouble with solving simple problems. Conversations on this stage are about things that can not be bought, what you must get along without, and everything that the people in the new country do wrong (which means “differently”).

    This stage can be characterized with escape, because in this period you always think of returning to the old country. People tend to regard ones own culture as the only way to do the things. This attitude has been called “ethnocentrism”. That is the belief that ones own culture, race and nation is the navel of the world. Individuals identify with their own group and its habits. All critical remarks are regarded as a provocation to the individual just as the group. “If you criticize me, you are criticizing my country, if you criticize my country, you are criticizing me.” Therefore people often show hostile and aggressive resistance against the host country on the second stage of the culture shock. This hostility comes from natural difficulties that a family or individuals run into in the adjustment process. “I feel terrible in the new country, there must be something terribly wrong here”!!! There are problems in school, difficulties with language, trouble with lodging and employment as well as the fact that the people in the host country just don’t care about these problems or don’t seem to understand them.

    The result is aggressiveness and discomfort because the people don’t seem like foreigners at all. Therefore it is important to understand culture shock and what is going on in relations between people. It is important to consider carefully the conduct toward people suffering from culture shock. In the beginning, people are often well received, but when time passes and the novelty disappears, the attitude often turns into indifference or dislike which immigrants experience as hostility. Thus aggressive hostility can escalate on both sides. Instead of regarding the difficulties in a cultural context, people speak about these problems as if they were specially invented by the host country, in order to get the visitor into trouble. Under such circumstances, circulating stereotypes emerge, which can lead to collisions if people don’t practice tolerance. “These Icelanders”, or “these immigrants” are so and so…….!

    The third stage of culture shock is characterized with one’s plunging into new ways of living. With patience, it is possible to reach this stage by the end of the first year. Key aspects in a new culture are being learned and the earlier chaos and lack of direction seldom appears. Relations with the native population are initiated, such as neighbours and workmates or schoolmates. The vocabulary and pronunciation is being learned. Instead of standing outside and watching the culture with critical eyes, people plunge into the life of the new country.

    The fourth stage is the final stage of the assimilation, characterized with full participation in the way of life in the new country. People seldom think of “them” and “us”. They have assimilated to life, regarding both emotions and general activities and life just as easy as before moving.

    The fifth stage: Long after people have moved back to the homeland, something unexpected happens. They experience the fifth stage of the culture shock. It is called a reverse culture shock or returning shock, and appears after the return home again. The homeland is not comfortable any more because people have been away from home for a long time and have become comfortable with customs and habits belonging to a new lifestyle. Much has changed and it takes some time to get used to way of life, gestures and symbols of one’s own culture.

    nobby
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  • August 18, 2008

    I just want to add, from a child’s perspective…I lived on Okinawa from 7th-9th grade while my dad was stationed at Futemna as the chaplain. This was in the mid-80s. This just made me think of how it was living there as a child and I don’t really recall a huge culture shock for some reason (probably because we’d already done a tour overseas, in Sicily, when I was younger, and change was just normal for us kids at this point…heck going from California to Sicily to North Carolina to Okinawa…EACH one of those moves was culture shock in a sense, even within the US! LOL!) But anyway…What this post made me think of was how I always remember so vividly that those that really hated Okinawa (and my dad worked with young marines so I met plenty of them) were the ones that didn’t get out there and really experience the island and the people. They were the ones that sat in their barracks and moped. And didn’t really get away from the American culture onbase and out to experience what they had a fantastic opportunity to experience. So my advice would be, once you’ve settled in a little (but don’t wait too long) is to find a way as soon as you can to get out and experience the culture. Immerse yourself in Okinawa and get to know the people and you will find that the shock goes away pretty darn fast. During our 3 years living there, there weren’t many weekends we weren’t out doing things out around the island. We probably did just about everything there was to do around there…and hit just about every festival and special attraction. Before you leave you should definitely experience at least one tug-o-war (you’ll have to research those because I don’t recall where they were but I do know we went to several and WOW, you HAVE to go!), try to go to the Cherry Blossom Festival every year and the Parade of the Geisha Girls…and if its still there…you must regularly visit Suicide Cliffs/Prayer Tower, and go to Expo (if its still there? Is it?) and go to at least one (or regularly attend) tea ceremony (although I have to admit I never could stomach the green tea)…and you must experience Boy’s Day and Girl’s Day and Oban and and…on and on and on……. oh Okinawa just has SOOOOO much to offer you! Enjoy!!!

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  • August 13, 2008

    Abby – keep up the excitement! I am still a Newbie (been here almost 3 weeks) and can tell you that the first couple of weeks are total ups and downs. There is a lot to process and by the time your TMO arrives and you are sitting in your new home – you think “wow, I live in Okinawa. This is crazy!”. There are tough communication blocks (the aforementioned air conditioner’s and water heaters off base) as well as the struggle of whether you want to eat out and “deal” with the communication issues. HOWEVER, what I can tell you is that the people of Okinawa are warm and friendly, the American population (at one time or another) has been in the same situation as you – new, unsure and probably excited about being here. The one thing I have found, walking on the beach or in town, WAY more American’s are friendly here than are at home! Most people are looking for a smiling face!

    It will be tough, you will likely have moments of tears and sadness, but then you will get out there, meet a new friend, eat fantatic things that you have never tried and BE in your new home and it will be good.

    Happy Travels.

    Kelly A
    Reply
  • August 13, 2008

    My husband and I are going to be arriving in Okinawa in October – and I am so nervous!! I too have thoughts of being in a whole new culture and how amazing it will be – but I have not heard too many negative things – which makes me even more nervous!! I find myself wondering if the bad things are just so bad that no one talks about them – or is it really perfect over there after all! We are excited – and can’t wait to get there!!

    Abby
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  • November 7, 2007

    Hey, truthfully, I’m still miserable, but your post helped me look on the bright side of things.
    Even though I know it happens to people, I never imagined it could feel so bad.
    I know there is an end in sight, but hearing that there is from someone who’s been through it makes me feel so much better. Thank you

    Reply
  • November 7, 2007

    hey laurazee ~ i’m not sure when you posted this as our comments were “frozen” during the transition. just wanted to thank you for reading/commenting/being a part of this lil’ blog community. i know you’re not alone in your feelings. still hard though. ugh.
    [i’ve emailed you someting personally as well.]

    Caroline
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  • May 12, 2007

    I think we all freak out in our own special ways. So when you’re in the thick of it and you look around at all those faces that seem well-adjusted just know that they’ve either been through it or are hiding it at that very moment.

    mereditz
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  • May 12, 2007

    Thank you. I am slightly afraid that I will freak out. My husband and I should be moving for a 2 year tour and I have never lived out side of Florida.

    mbwilliams
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  • April 9, 2007

    Good site!!!

    Reply
  • February 27, 2007

    THANK YOU! SO on Target for how I felt the first few months here, down to the windshield wipers!!! Just loved this piece and I agree that everyone must feel this way. The first 3 months I was here have to be some of the hardest I’ve had. But, once I got over the culture shock I, too LOVE okinawa. Thanks for expressing it so well!

    downtownjuliebrown
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