’m very suspicious of those who always want to quantify experience and tell us that everyone goes through the same five (or seven, or twelve) stages of culture shock. I think we all experience important life changes in our own way.
When I first came to Italy my own “shock” was closer to an immense wave of joy that lasted a good 10 years. I walked around in wide-eyed wonder. I was constantly excited. But those feelings were followed by deep disillusionment that included a severe sense of loss and of yearning. After which came bitterness. Then resignation. And finally contentment, albeit interspersed with lots of ranting and raving.
Individual reactions are just that. They vary. Some responses to changing country can be immediate, brutal and devastating. Most are less intense, but remain strong.
My doubt about the existence of culture shock has a lot to do with the way it’s commonly defined. Moving to a new country and into a different society is a complex experience at many levels. Nowadays, however, everything has to have a name, which can mean putting many kinds of experiences under one heading just to simplify things. But experiences are not “things,” and they’re usually not simple. Assigning an encompassing name to complex feelings can reduce those feelings to banality.
The reality is that most of what happens to people when they move to a new place — to Italy, say — has less to do with where they’ve ended up but what they’ve left behind. Yes, small irritants can eat regularly into someone’s sense of wellbeing. A newcomer can feel intimidated by limitations on personal space, or troubled by the rude drivers. Another one might lament the absence of conveniences they took for granted in their home country. Some dislike Italy’s constant social scrutiny — being looked over head-to-foot or even criticized by friends and strangers alike. Others are uneasy at the sudden lack of familiar foods and comforts.
But these are rarely deal breakers.
Too often ignored is something far more basic: in going to a new place we’re also leaving an old one. And the old one isn’t just a place but also a complex network of relationships. Too often, we tend to focus on the physical and external dimensions of a given phenomenon when what matters far more is its human and experiential sides.
Sure, coming to Italy means being constantly dazzled by good food and sunshine. But what’s all that dazzle when compared to someone’s tight homegrown community of supportive friends and family?
The situation is even more precarious for those who have moved to get away from families that failed to provide such support in the first place. They have fewer resources to deal with the difficulties of being uprooted and distant from anyone and anything familiar.
Ironically, what makes Italians so happy in Italy is just what can make foreigners so unhappy. Italians tend to make binding friendships in early childhood and keep that group intact over decades. They aren’t seeking new friends the way we are. They don’t need to.
Moving young children adds an even tougher dimension. Families often drag their kids abroad extolling the wonders of seeing foreign cultures and learning new languages. But children are not adults. They can’t maintain relationships established at home via Skype or email in the same way as their parents. A child can sometimes experience moving to another town or another country as the death of nearly all human contacts outside of immediate family. Getting them to adapt and thrive depends on parents taking into account and appreciating their vantage point of disorientation and loss.
A sense of shame is what I encounter most often working with expats and students studying abroad for short periods. The hype about how terrific Italy is, how wonderful it is to travel, and how the whole experience should be exciting (and how much others envy it) can lead to a “what’s wrong with me?” feeling when new arrivals face loss, depletion and sadness, all of which are normal responses. But few articulate such feelings, worrying that friends and family might see them as spoiled or tell them stop complaining.
Making friends abroad isn’t easy. Students often meet other students, with all of them here for short stints. Few are ready to pledge to long-term friendships they know will be traumatically disrupted sooner rather than later. Some students spend most of their time simply trying to manage their own sense of sadness and loss.
What matters most in all this is the person’s human context. While it’s great to discover a new country, revel in its sights, flavors and ways, doing so outside the context of enduring relationships comes at a price.
Culture shock? Maybe. But I’d call it the pain of separation.