Joseph Shaules, an expert in cultural psychology gives an insight into the anxieties new arrivals have to deal with, and what causes them.
Why is it that emotionally healthy and intelligent people in some cases struggle to adjust to life in a new country? Jane was a cheerful Asian-American who was looking forward to moving to Japan and confident she would adapt easily. Yet Jane was blindsided: “I became withdrawn and negative — the total opposite of the person I normally am.
”Hasn’t today’s international society taken us beyond culture shock?” As an educator who has worked with expats for many years, the answer is clear – No. Also educated, global expats can be affected.
As I mention in my book The Intercultural Mind, recent advances in psychology help us understand why. The root of the problem lies in the unconscious – the “autopilot” that leads you through the routines of daily life. Your unconscious mind is very sensitive to new patterns abroad.
There are three common responses to moving abroad: culture surprise, stress or shock.
Culture surprise is about the wonder that comes when you see differences in foreign places. Your unconscious is alerting your conscious mind to differences. Jane noticed signs in Japanese, plastic food in restaurant display cases and rice fields. Even aspects of life abroad you think you are prepared for can take you by surprise.
New things can be exciting, but it also causes mental strain experienced as culture stress. While focusing your attention and solving problems your mental batteries get depleted. Even more than from exotic customs, it’s trying to get everyday tasks accomplished — trying to find shampoo or using a foreign ATM — is what tires your mind.
When Mary moved to Shanghai, she says that the bustle of the town had been exciting at first, but combined with a search for a simple loaf of wholemeal bread it quickly made her irritable and judgmental.
These processes are unconscious, this is why it is difficult to prepare. Jane spent a lot of hours researching her new home in Tokyo — even using Google Maps to find out about the streets around her flat. “I thought I was an expert,” she says, “but I was very wrong! I was not prepared for having to try and function ‘normally’.
”You may not be aware that the pressure is building until you feel culture shock — a potentially strong yet vague sense of discomfort or depression. It is the result of the processes in your unconscious mind being swamped by new patterns. Unlike culture stress, which comes from certain situations, culture shock may come from out of nowhere.
Thankfully, your mental processes have lots of flexibility. As you get used to new routines, you get your mental autopilot back on track. Jane discovered that she felt increasingly at home in her new country. “When it was time to go back home,” she says, “I was in tears at having to leave.” Until then, take your time adjusting. Forcing yourself to continue to explore can sometimes backfire. Reach out to other people if you are struggling and be mindful of how you feel.
Culture shock will remain with us in the current century because its root causes are built into the architecture of the mind. Living in another country is not just a long vacation — it taxes mental resources. Yet it is in many cases also a source of growth. The strains of adapting, far from indicating problems, are part of what gives your stay meaning. Moving abroad is what you make of the challenges it offers.