Most people know about culture shock, but culture stress is something different.
When my family first moved to South Asia, we often experienced culture shock. It gradually decreased, but for a few months to around two years, we had new experiences that felt either captivating or startling. Eventually these experiences became normal parts of our lives. One example is learning to cross the road safely in crazy traffic. All the drivers seemed to do whatever they felt like in the moment. At first it was alarming, then after a few months it felt funny to watch, but then it just felt normal. We got used to it and sometimes enjoyed the unpredictability of trying to make it to the other side of the road. It was a daily, mini adrenaline rush 🙂 .
But there were also ongoing life stressors we never fully adjusted to. This is culture stress. It happened because we tried to make a new country and culture our home. Some stressors felt easier after a few years, but several never did. One personal example is that in South Asia I was unable to exercise outdoors regularly. I drew all sorts of attention when the air quality allowed for me to hike or run in the ways I wanted. It’s not like I could get rid of my red hair, blue-green eyes, and freckles. All I wanted to do was exercise and be outside. It’s important to me. I wasn’t interested in having my photo taken repeatedly or strangers staring at my hair color. But it usually happened. Something that was a personal liberty in my passport country was not forbidden, but highly unusual in my host country.
For a few months it felt charming, but then I didn’t like it anymore. Especially when I realized it was going to continue happening no matter how long I lived there. For the most part no one was rude to me and my neighborhood grew accustomed to seeing me running around outside. Some people even cheered me on and eventually started joining me. I liked that. But I always stood out. It was an ongoing stressor I never fully adjusted to. After seven years I felt at home in South Asia, but physically I still stood out. In my own community this did not bother me much unless someone drew negative attention to my appearance, then pent up stress could bubble over. While I learned how to deal with it, it was never easy. I was grateful for relationships with South Asian friends who had known me for a long time. They treated me like I belonged. They taught me greater compassion and love. There is no way to adequately explain what a gift that was (so thank you for welcoming me into your families ❤ and I miss you). If I ever return to long term life in my passport country, I also want to be welcoming to expats who experience culture stress.
To me, culture shock feels like randomly getting hit with water balloons for a few months. It always surprises me, but starts to happen less often. Then I just expect it to happen occasionally and it’s not a big deal when it does. Culture stress feels like a dripping faucet that is barely audible, but always in the background. Sometimes I deal with it well, but other times I just can’t tune it out and built up tension erupts or I feel inner turmoil.
Stress happens to everyone, but expats experience it in a unique way and need to find constructive ways of dealing with it. Culture Stress can’t be prevented, but it can be managed. We can learn to give ourselves and others grace. (And hopefully we can find the courage for good communication and genuine apologies when we do not manage it well).
I think culture stress happens for any person who decides to live outside his or her passport country for a few years or more. It’s a normal thing for expats to experience no matter what type of international work one is doing.
There is one more thought from my perspective I want to mention. Having moved from South Asia where there were few expats from my own country, to a place where there are many foreigners from my home country, I am experiencing culture stress. The expat community here is kind, but there is an “expat culture” I’ve never experienced before. There are many positive aspects to this, but it also makes for a new kind of culture stress. I’m surprised at how much it affects me sometimes. I know other expats in my community occasionally have the same feelings, so this experience is not unique to me. I do, however, have to figure out the best ways to for me to deal with it.
I also experience culture stress trying to adapt to life with my Southeast Asian friends, but that adjustment feels familiar, so I tend to welcome it more. I never thought I’d be experiencing two kinds of culture stress simultaneously, but it’s happening. If I learn something that seems helpful in this adjustment, I’ll share it. But for now, here is a quote and the link to an article I want to share.
Enjoy it. I’ve found many of the ideas the Kotesky’s have listed to be helpful in dealing with culture stress and I greatly appreciate their commitment to meeting the needs of international workers.
Thanks for reading!
©2019 Chrissy Winslow – All Rights Reserved
“You may say, ‘I know about culture shock, but what is culture stress?’ What is the difference between culture stress and culture shock? What causes culture stress?” What are its effects? What can be done about it? Can it be prevented?’ Let’s consider some of these questions.”
from, What Missionaries Ought to know about Culture Stress by Ronald L. Kotesky
- A link for my book, available in Paperback & Kindle:
- Amazon.com, Flying in Labor: Motherhood, Miscarriage, & Changing Expectations