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Although I am American, I lived outside the country (in Micronesia) from age 2 until my senior year in high school. When my family moved back to the US, I encountered culture shock in a few ways.
Perhaps the most important to me at the time were the problems I had understanding the behavior of American women. Relations between boys and girls where I grew up were very restricted. Girls never touched boys, for example, unless they were attracted to them. This was very different in the US even in those days. I had a very hard time understanding what behaviors meant that a girl was interested in me and what behaviors did not. That made things pretty difficult.
Another major problem was with the issue of eye contact with superiors. Where I grew up, it was very rude to look into someone's eyes, especially if they were superior to you. This gave me a lot of problems dealing with teachers and coaches my senior year in high school.
I taught English in the South Korean city of Mokp'o for one year. I expected things to be vastly different in terms of culture, religion, food, etc. However, I was a bit shocked by two things: one, before the school year began, all the professors of the university where I worked met to bow to a pig's head and stuff its mouth with money to ensure success for both teachers and students. I did not feel comfortable at all with this as it seemed they were worshiping this pig's head...a bit too Lord of the Flies for me. They assured me that I did not have to participate, but I felt that it was noted that I did not and looked down upon by my co-workers.
Another way I was a bit shocked was the level of sanitation for food sales in the open market. Sides of beef, fish, pigs were out in the open with flies and other insects openly crawling all over them and these were for sale to the public who seemed unconcerned by this. Although the prices were more expensive for meat in the grocery stores than the open market, I chose to purchase my meat there.
One other thing that just came to mind...I lived in an apartment provided for me by the university. It didn't bother the other professors at all to show up at my apartment after 9pm, sometimes as late as 10pm to help them with translations or other writing work. I was told to "be generous" and not to cause problems. The phrase that they always used was "when in Rome" which drove me crazy. It seemed to me that that phrase went both ways...I recognize and respect their culture as I was living and working there, and they do the same for me.
My experience was very positive overall, and I still keep in touch with many of my students and acquaintances from South Korea. They are very generous and friendly people for the most part. It is among my fondest memories and has helped me see the world with different and perhaps more opened eyes.
Quite a few years ago, my husband and I traveled to China to adopt our daughter. I never thought I would travel to such an amazing place, and though it has been years, I have many memories of how different things were there.
At the airport in China, there were guards with machine guns. I was nervous of making sure to appear friendly and welcoming. Sometimes a headache can make you frown: I didn't even want to do that.
The sidewalks are washed down each and every morning, which I really admired. There were many restaurants where you could choose your food alive and have it cooked: this included exotic birds—ugh. Skinned animals for food hung in many windows, which I was not accustomed to.
A cab driver refused to take us (me, my husband and baby daughter) in his cab. I was stupefied and angry for my baby's sake.
The people there love to see babies. Crowds of women would come up and pat our daughter's cheeks. I did not understand a word they said, but their smiles spoke volumes.
Chinese food in China is NOTHING like Chinese food here in the U.S. I was sleep deprived with the baby, and my stomach for lunch and dinner was weak. (Breakfast was a Western-style spread: I should have packed a lunch!) Except for breakfast, I ate white rice and drank orange soda. The food was so different and I didn't feels so great, so I played it safe.
Their grand (five-star) hotels, which are cheaper than ours, where like malls on the ground floor. Everywhere we went, people of all ages practiced tai chi in the parks and open spaces.
The thing that blew me away more than anything is two-fold. China was by far the loudest place I have ever been. Where there are cars (everywhere), there are horns of cars and trucks blasting: they don't even seem to think twice about it, and the sounds even of bicycle bells: there are so many bicycles. What amazed me more than the cacophony of sounds was my baby's ability to sleep through any noise at all, even rush hour.
I loved that I had a chance to go. What a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. The people were very nice, especially the monks at the temple we visited. My daughter is a true blessing: it was worth every step.
But when we were about to leave, a national dignitary died and we weren't sure we could get home, but all went well, and I was thrilled to be on American soil again. There really IS no place like home!
On a different note than the previous posts, I experienced quite a culture shock in my first weeks of college life. I grew up in a large, affluent suburb of Chicago, but was still completely overwhelmed by the size and diversity of the university. I floundered around trying to find a niche that suited me. I didn't know what to do with the almost complete freedom I had for the first time in my life. I wasn't naive, but I was nonetheless a bit shocked by the flagrant underage drinking and casual sexual relationships. Once I settled in it was all my new culture, but it took a while to figure it out.
One does not really have to leave the United States in order to experience culture shock; simply move from one geographical area to another totally different one. For instance, some (not all) people of the Bible Belt, after just meeting someone, think nothing of asking in the second sentence about what church one attends. This may not be meant as a rude gesture, but for people from the North or the West, it is rather baffling as it is akin to interrogating a person about his/her political beliefs. When a person asks why the other inquires so about religious his/her religious affiliation, then the asker is, ironically, affronted. Or, if the person says which relgion he or she practices, then, if it is not the "right answer," either the asker looks at the person as though he/she is the spawn of the devil and literally flees, or he/she tries to convert the person to the appropriate sect.
I spent a couple years in South Korea as well, not teaching English, but I had a couple interesting experiences that might be called culture shock. But one that always stood out to me was the experience of being the only white person around and having everyone stare at me and assume I was different, etc. This gave me just the tiniest bit of insight into what it must be like for people that are the minority all the time.
Dumped off of a bus on the streets of Budva, Montenegro at 10:30 PM, far from the actual station, knowing none of the local language, and no way to find a room. After a half hour of charades trying to get a local to call our friend for us, a kind soul finally took pity and got us in touch with our ride. It was probably the most out of place I'd ever felt, but it was also a great experience.
I'll never forget visiting the Vicksburg, Mississippi area during the late 1960s when I was still a pre-teen. It was in the middle of the summer, and we saw many children from apparently poverty-stricken families living in ramshackle homes running around completely naked. More recently, during a trip to rural eastern Kentucky, we visited a family relative. We saw several outhouses that were still in use; many of the rundown mobile homes had no screens or windows. Perhaps my biggest culture shock appeared when I visited the Casbah in Tangier, Morocco. Buckets of urine were routinely dumped in the streets since there was apparently no indoor toilets. The stench in the 112 degree heat was overwhelming. Beggars followed me at every step.
I remember two experiences of culture shock while growing up. As a thirteen-year-old, I crossed the border into Juarez with my parents. I was shocked by the poverty and the lack of sanitation. I remember going into a drugstore and sitting at the counter to buy drinks. Large glass containers of fruit drinks sat on one end of the counter, open and covered with flies in the summer heat. (We bought bottled Cokes.) The crowds and the noise frightened me. I stayed very close to my parents. I regret that this has been my only experience in Mexico. I wish I had had an opportunity to travel beyond the border and really see the country and enjoy its rich culture.
My other experience with culture shock occurred in the deep South. In the summer of 1962, as the civil rights movement and conflicts were really heating up, I traveled by car from the Midwest to Georgia, through Mississippi and Alabama. We stopped at a gas station in Mississippi where I saw, for the first time, "Whites Only" and "Colored" water fountains. I was shocked. Segregation existed in my small town, for sure, but not to this extent and it was "understood," rather than publicly posted. I became very aware of the realities of racism and segregation on that trip.
I will mention a different type of culture shock. When I first taught at a private school, I realized that I really did not know how the other half lives. When I saw not just what my students had was different than what I knew, but that their approach to life was also different, I realized I was in a different world. Later on I took a staff development involving training for teachers to be sensitive to the culture of poverty and they also included the very rich. I understood some of it a bit better then, and wished I had known it earlier.
My first trip to the States as a naive English teenager was a tremendous culture shock. I grew up in the north of England in a row of terraces just like Coronation Street. When I arrived in Detroit it was like another planet: yellow traffic lights suspended across the streets and each house different from the one next door. It was quite terrifying for a 17 year old. I got a cab to a mall which seemed like a town indoors to me. People went out for breakfast and gorged themselves at all-you-can-eat buffets.
The people I stayed with were very kind to me, but hugely racist (which I could not understand as they were italian immigrants).
We then went to a hunting lodge which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There was an outside toilet and we were warned about bears. This nation seemed to be such a place of contrasts that I knew I would be intrigued by it for ever!
While teaching kindergarten in Australia, I became aware that a town park had imported oak trees planted among the native eucalyptus trees. When the oak leaves fell off the trees in the autumn, my class and I took a walking field trip to the park. My students didn't understand why the leaves had fallen, since eucalyptus trees remain green year-round, and had no concept of how much fun it could be to play in piles of fallen leaves. They did catch on after some demonstration.
Another challenge to my mindset was preparing for Christmas, which occurs during summer vacation in Australia. I wanted to wait until late November, since I was used to starting Christmas activities after Thanksgiving. I did finally realize that school would be done for the year in mid-December and that I needed to get busy with preparations for my class's part of the combination end-of-the-school-year and Christmas-holiday program.
I'm a white girl from the Midwest, and the first time I went on a missions-type experience in Brooklyn, New York, I was an adult but felt a bit naive. Though I've been to plenty of big cities both here and abroad, somehow living in the neighborhood with the "natives" was a real eye-opener for me. It's best not to make eye contact with people on the streets as you pass by, as it is seen as a sign of aggression rather than friendship. Visiting the projects showed me something I still find surprising: people who have nothing in the way of housing spend their money on extravagant electronics (TVs, etc.) and clothing. Love new experiences and learn something new every time.
India, 1984. My first time anywhere and the whole thing was a mammoth sensory overload. It's almost impossible to describe how alien and non-western it is. We started in Delhi and then headed for Varanasi (kinda 'Mecca' for Hindus), I spent ten days simply open-mouthed and reeling at the noise, smells, crowds, animals, filth, ceremonies, poverty, history, music, dancing and people. Everywhere... people. And more people. And still yet more people. In every cranny and nook, there were people. And they constantly stared at us, all the time.
Since then I've spent more than a year in India and travelled all over the world. But I have never discovered anywhere half as far away from home as the sub-continent.
My first real culture shock came when I began teaching in an urban school district. The kids talked about how their parents were gang members and drug dealing was a family affair. I had kids who would say their parents would tell them that if they got bullied or challenged by another student not to come home if they didn't fight them. The ease in which these students can locate drugs and guns is frightening also. I grew up in rural Oklahoma we didn't have guns, drugs, gangs and really very little crime.
To be in a school where the kids might have had to come to school to eat because it may be their only meal for the day or they did not have a clean uniform for school because someone shot up their house last night-- this was a culture shock. I never really understood that lack of family stability and support which is prevelant in so many communities. One day I got very angry at a student who had been sleeping in my class for three days in a row. I laid into this student without thinking and made a scene in front of the class taking points and threatening to write a referral. The student did not get mad but came to me later and told me that her mom was on dialysis and that she (15 year old) had to take care of her infant siblings, keep the house, cook the meals and make sure they all got to school. She said "That's usually ok Miss I can do that no prob-- but this week my little sister has had a cold and couldn't breathe and I have had to rock her at night so she wouldn't cry. " Culture shock.
I think that so far the biggest culture shock I had was when I went on mission trips across the United States. I come from a very small town in the center of Illinois, where everyone is a middle-class white farmer. I traveled to New York City, New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta over the course of a few years, and it was amazing to see how much diversity, culture, and poverty one can fit into a big city.
A big culture shock that I have experienced would be when I went over my Korean friends house and I was motioning her mother to come closer and instead of using a downward motion I motioned my upwards to come closer. Later did I found out that the upward motion is reserved for calling animals over. That was really embarrassing!
My biggest culture shock was starting my doctoral degree program. I had learn a whole new academic language, and a new way of looking at the world.
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