Life in the United States: Culture Shock
Almost everyone experiences culture shock when they come to a completely new environment. Everything is different: the language, the food, the plumbing, the people.
The experience of culture shock comes from not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate.
One of the most difficult parts of experiencing culture shock is that we often are unaware that we're affected. We recognize that we are sad, lonely, and generally irritated that everything is going wrong, but we don't know that it is a normal reaction to being immersed in a new culture. The feeling of culture shock generally sets in after the first few weeks of coming to a new place.
Some telltale signs of culture shock are:
- Preoccupation with minor physical discomforts
- Anger over minor frustrations
- A desire to go back home
- Disturbed sleep patterns - too much or too little
- Changes in mood or behavior such as anger, irritability, resentment, or a persistent preference to be alone
- Idealizing your home country
- Inability to solve simple problems
- Lack of confidence
- Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abused
Immunity to culture shock does not necessarily come from being open-minded or full of good will (essential characteristics for a successful au pair), though these qualities do help with a speedy recovery. Some people are affected by culture shock more than others, but most au pairs go through an attack of it and then make a full recovery.
Although one can experience discomfort from culture shock, it is
also an opportunity for learning and acquiring new perspectives.
Culture shock can help develop a greater understanding of self.
Here are the usual stages:
First Stage: You may feel terrific. You know enough English to get along, the places are interesting, the people are kind, and it is clear that a wonderful experience is at hand. This time is called the "honeymoon" stage, as everything encountered is new and exciting. You may notice that other au pairs who have been here longer tend to complain. You may feel a bit superior to your peers who obviously did not make as good an adjustment as you have.
Second Stage: You may be sensitive to otherwise minor problems in daily life. In this stage, there may be feelings of discontent, impatience, anger, sadness, and feeling incompetent. You are no longer an interesting foreign visitor, but a regular member of the family, and you may feel ignored or taken for granted. At this stage when au pairs get together, they often criticize Americans, saying that heir host parents are always busy and that the children have bad manners, have too many toys and are difficult to control. This is the hardest phase of culture shock.
Third Stage: You regain your sense of humor and enjoy your mastery of American language, customs and cultures. You may not like everything about the country, but you've found enough things to enjoy and learned to live with the rest. You begin to realize that a year is a very short time and that there are so many things you want to do while you're here. You may start to establish new goals.
The Fourth Stage is reverse culture shock. This occurs when you return to your home country. You may find that things are no longer the same as you remember. Or you may find that nothing but you has changed. You will have grown during your stay in the U.S., and you may find that your friends and family are just the same as they were when you left. They may be unable to understand the new you.
How to Reduce and Cope with Culture Shock
Some ways to combat stress produced by living in a new environment are:
- Take a class, develop a hobby.
- Be patient, becoming accustomed to the US will take time.
- Include a regular form of physical activity in your routine. Exercise such as taking a walk, going for a swim or enrolling in a yoga or aerobics class will all help.
- Relaxation and meditation are proven to be very positive for people who are passing through periods of stress.
- Maintain contact with people from your own country. This will give you a feeling of belonging, and you will reduce your feelings of loneliness and alienation.
- Seek out opportunities to interact with Americans. This will help you to learn English more quickly and adjust to cultural differences more easily.
- Volunteer in community activities. This will help you feel less stress about language and useful at the same time.
- Spend time with au pairs from other countries. This will give you a more global view of the world, let you find out how you are all experiencing being in the U.S., and put cultural differences into perspective.
- Focus your power on getting through the transition.
- Pay attention to relationships with your host parents and your new friends. They will serve as support for you in difficult times.
- Establish simple goals and evaluate your progress.
- Find ways to live with the things that don't satisfy you 100%.
- Maintain confidence in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future.
- If you feel stressed, ask your counselor for help.