Adapting to a Foreign Country

Oh my. You’re in for quite a ride… and the best part: there is nothing you can do to prepare before hand. When a person makes the commitment to live and work/study in a foreign country for the long-term things can get a little crazy.

Here is the break down of the four stages of adapting to a foreign country:

Honeymoon Stage

Culture Shock Stage

recoverystage

Recovery Stage

Adaptation Stage

These four well-known stages also closely resemble the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”. Why? I have no idea but the part that is hardest to get through is the culture shock/recovery stage transition which I would associate as rough equivalents with stages 1 and 3-6 of the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”.

Unlike the previous post, which I tried to keep light-hearted and humorous, I will go into a little more detail here on the positive and negative effects of adapting WELL or BADLY to a foreign country. I will use Japan as an example because that’s the topsy-turvy world I had to adapt to within a year for my study abroad experience in Tokyo for the 2011 to 2012 school year.

What I noticed happened to a lot of us as soon as we hit the end of the “Honeymoon Stage” is that we would begin to sink into a form of “WHY JAPAN, WHY?!” attitude anytime something absolutely shocked us – age of consent for sex (13 years old for females compared to 18 for males nationwide with each region having the right to choose any age between 13-20), extremely broad police powers, gender roles, weird pornography laws on what Japanese considered ‘acceptable’ and what not, etc. However, no matter how many times you ask yourself this… fact of the matter remains that there is nothing you can do to change it. Culture is culture and the sooner you accept certain norms as just that, norms, the sooner you can break away from the infinite loop of shock.

Because Japan is primarily (98%) Japanese and even Tokyo has relatively few foreigners compared to other countries’ capitals, any and all foreigners in Japan will be stared at wherever they go. It’s highly uncomfortable and annoying to the extreme. There would be days where I’m sure more than a few of us wanted to shout, “Why are you looking at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head?!” Another example on adapting well to a culture is that we would solve this problem by giving them a BIG SMILE. Traditionally, although looking anyone straight in the eyes is considered rude in Japan so if you find yourself in a situation where constant staring is making you uncomfortable just give them a steady gaze AND add a nice smile. It gets the point across without being ‘direct’ about what you want them to stop doing and it’s positive reinforcement that foreigners are not scary.

Here are some other things you can do (that I tried out) in order to help facilitate the whole ordeal of staying abroad long term:

1. Keep up a routine. Mine went straight out the window as I tried to adapt to a whole new style of living with my first host family and I quickly discovered just how dangerous that can be to your mental and physical health. I went six months without having any set goals to accomplish (like I had back home) and these were often times very simple little things for me such as playing with the dogs, starting/finishing an art/writing project, researching something within my major, reading, etc.

Whether you’re in the dorms, your own apartment, or in a host family, first set up some ground rules for yourself: the most important of which will be to not put yourself second or third. Your well-being is your first priority and if that means spending an entire day raiding the arts and craft shops in the Tokyu Hands building in Shinjuku then so be it. Just make sure you’re responsible about it and know when to put other situations above your immediate (not overall though) needs.

2. Eat your favorite foods. Okay so you’re on a tight budget and you’ve been rationing out the lunch money pretty carefully but one day you will pass by the super market window and it’s going to be there in all its glory: a dinky little 12 oz bin of extra chunky peanut butter. So long as you don’t go out of budget every single day it isn’t bad to treat yourself once a semester to something you really, really enjoyed back home but can’t have now because of the expense. I remember my first peanut butter and banana sandwich that I allowed myself to finally have back in December… I cried tears of joy… even though I used to hate bananas like they were the plague because I had to eat them all the time as a teenager (prone to leg cramps + member of swim team = fail)

3. Watch TV from your home country. No seriously. You’re already watching television shows from your host country. You’re also listening to their music, getting pummeled day past day with their entertainment media, advertisements, etc. and in the process you are losing touch with what’s going on in the other side of the world. One episode a night just before I went to bed is the route I took on the nights I wasn’t busy piecing together some essay or research project. Which is a big step for me if you know me at all (I do not watch TV or movies all that often).

I remember having skype sessions with my family and they would be talking about “so-and-so” movie just came out, “this-and-that” television show, “Senator Blah-Blah-Blah-Blarg-Blarg got re-elected” and I felt like a tiny little island in a wasteland of AKB48 and Prime Minsterialships gone wrong, unable to relate to anything my own family was talking about at all and vice-versa on their end as well.

4. And finally make lots of friends within your host and home culture. They’re the ones who will be able to best explain the new culture and will facilitate your transition while those from your home culture will keep your sanity grounded when it all becomes too much culture shock. They’ll also be going through similar experiences and often times sharing those with another person can make the experience that much more positive rather than negative because there will be lots of comedy involved.

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