I recently experienced culture stress. The situation: the purchase of a new refrigerator and the fact that it took two weeks for it to be delivered, which meant two weeks of storing my food at my neighbors’ house and two weeks of rearranging my schedule to be available on days the refrigerator might be delivered. This ordeal led me to think about culture shock, culture stress, and, finally, the goodness of community.
Before I moved overseas, I was warned about culture shock, the experience of being overwhelmed when we first move to a new country. There are many different models which describe the stages of culture shock, but what most have in common is the final stage of acceptance. What once was strange is now normal; we’ve adjusted.
Even after we reach a level of adjustment though, as foreigners settling into new countries, we always live with some level of culture stress. While our comfort levels continue to grow, we still do life in a second (or third or fourth) language, interacting and relating differently than our home cultures, bumping up against assumptions we didn’t even know we had about how life should work. Very likely, as long as we are living outside of our home countries, we will experience bouts of culture stress.
Most days I feel like I navigate life here in Jordan relatively easily. Then I bump up against a situation that has me struggling once again with some aspect of the local culture, and I’m reminded how foreign I really am. For me, often what triggers culture stress is dealing with situations that would be stressful even in my home country. For example, making a major appliance purchase and having it delivered would have caused me stress even in America. Add to that cultural differences, and suddenly I’ve moved into culture stress. I’ve found myself alternating between becoming unreasonably angry and being emotionally exhausted.
What got me through this bout of culture stress? Partly, just naming it for what it was and knowing that “this too shall pass.” Deep breaths, prayer, hummus and chocolate (not together), and community. Especially community. My other expat friends (from a variety of countries) have sympathized, shared their own cultural challenges, and reminded me that this is how life works here. And my dear Jordanian friends, who often don’t really understand why I’m stressed, have stepped in to take care of me. They’ve explained once again how things work here, made phone calls that were better done in Arabic, and contacted people they knew who just might be able to help me.
Even before my refrigerator finally arrived, I had moved to a place of gratefulness for the gift of community, a kind of community that is easy to overlook “at home.” It was a community that not only shared my struggle, but helped me remember to laugh when life didn’t fit my template, and who rejoiced greatly with me when the refrigerator finally appeared. It’s the joy of this community that makes living overseas a special gift.
About the Author: Libby is an IDEAS Associate and professional librarian. She currently resides in the Middle East and works with school libraries in Africa and Asia. Enjoy other blogs by Libby, such as Corners Are Cultural.