Dealing with Culture Shock

NOT YOUR HOMETOWN SUPERMARKET - A group of expats on a Center-organized tour of a traditional wet market. Photo: Community Services Center

Taiwan is a relatively easy environment in which to live, but inevitably many expatriates find the transition to a new culture to be a challenge.

If you’re an expat in Taiwan, you have probably experienced some symptoms of culture shock. Maybe excitement about living in such a vibrant culture, or perhaps exasperation at the crowded cities and sweltering summers. Most people have heard the term “culture shock,” but what exactly does it mean?

The first group that experiences culture shock consists of tourists, international students, and international workers. This group usually stays in the host culture temporarily, expecting to return home after a certain period of time. Interestingly, those in this group frequently also experience reverse culture shock after returning home. Members of the second group, immigrants and refugees, tend to stay long-term or even for a lifetime. This group usually crosses cultures in the hope of having a better life, and may come from disadvantaged backgrounds. For them, the process of culture shock and cultural adjustment can be longer, more difficult, and more complex.

Since the process of culture shock also depends on individual factors beyond which group you belong to, every individual’s experience of culture shock will be different. For some, such as those with a history of successful cultural adjustments, it will not be severe. Others will experience severe culture shock, even to the point of needing to return home prematurely. Additionally, culture shock can occur quickly, over weeks or months, or else appear as a slow process taking years or even decades. It all depends on the individual’s mindset, support network, and unique life experiences.

What is culture?

Cultures are like icebergs, with the small obvious part appearing above the water, but the enormous unseen part lying deep beneath the surface. When we think of culture, it’s easy to imagine the types of things you see in National Geographic pictorials: colorful clothing, delicious foods, interesting architecture, and exotic languages.

Culture is much more than this, however. When we learn about or adjust to living in a new culture, we encounter a whole world of differences below the surface. These “hidden” aspects of culture include communication patterns, taboos and social rules, family structures, and social hierarchies.

Different writers have described different models of culture shock, but most agree that the process includes four or five stages. These stages constitute a U shape. Typically a person will feel elated at the beginning, terrible in the middle, and then finally successfully adapt to the new culture. 

The first stage is called the Honey-moon Stage, and for good reason. When we move across cultures, it can feel just like our honeymoon. Everything we encounter is new and exciting. The freshness of our new home feels exhilarating, and we want to experience as much of it as possible. Naturally, though, the honeymoon stage will end. If we expected an exotic, enchanting life in our new culture, sooner or later we will be faced with the reality that our life will be more or less the same, with the same familiar headaches. Just because you live overseas doesn’t mean your child won’t get sick!

As the honeymoon feeling fades, the Distress Stage begins. Differences between the home and host cultures become more apparent and problematic, and day-to-day stressors begin building up. The list of common symptoms is long, and includes difficulty concentrating, sleep and appetite changes, relationship conflicts, homesickness, boredom, compulsive eating and drinking, and irritability towards the host culture.

In the third stage, things are still looking bad. The Re-integration Stage is characterized by a refusal to accept cultural differences, and hostility and even contempt towards members of the host culture. In this stage it is common to idealize life in one’s home country and think seriously about returning home.

The second and third stages are the core of the culture shock experiences. Psychologist Ronald Taft described six core aspects of culture shock: (1) stress from working to adapt to the host culture, (2) a sense of loss from changes in social networks and professional networks, (3) a feeling of being rejected by members of the new culture, (4) feelings of confusion about one’s role, self-identity, and values in the new environment, (5) surprise and stress due to noticing cultural differences, and (6) feelings of powerlessness due to not being able to cope with the new environment.

This stage is the polar opposite of the honeymoon stage–everything about the host culture seems bad, and there’s no way to escape it. With time, though, the culture shock passes. It is partly an issue of gaining skills. With better language skills and more experience navigating life in the host culture, many of the initial stressors are easily overcome. Another key is a stronger social network, with growing personal and professional connections facilitating smoother adjustment.

On a deeper level, many people find they are able to accept certain parts of the host culture. The extremes of complete acceptance during the honeymoon stage and complete rejection during the culture shock stages have given way to a more balanced understanding of which aspects of the host culture are acceptable and which aspects are best ignored.

The fourth stage is termed the Autonomy Stage, and it eventually leads to the final Independence Stage. The ideal result of successful cross-cultural adjustment is that the individual feels comfortable in the host culture, possibly even feeling like it is a “second home.” It’s important to note that not everyone will achieve this final stage. Many people get stuck in earlier stages, or leave the country before the process of culture shock and adjustment has completed.

With long-term expats, the differences in adjustment become clearer. You may have noticed that some people tend to become more integrated into the host culture than others. Assimilation occurs when individuals accept the cultural norms of the host culture, and lose their original cultural identity.

Separation is the opposite, and occurs when individuals completely reject the host culture in favor of preserving their culture of origin. A clear example is ethnic enclaves, where people recreate their original culture in a certain place. The final type is integration, which is a happy medium. Individuals are able to have an awareness of their own cultural background and identity, while still having a degree of integration with the host culture.

The Taiwan environment

Adjusting to life in Taiwan is a unique experience for most Westerners. Some aspects of life in Taiwan make the transition more challenging. Taiwan lacks the international milieu of Asia’s more globalized cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore. English is less commonly used, and imported goods and Western-style services are harder to find. On the other hand, living in Taiwan can be a uniquely rewarding experience. It’s easy to appreciate Taiwan’s thriving traditional culture, beautiful scenery, and friendly people. In addition, living here is made easier by the good transportation system, comprehensive health insurance, and the many Taiwanese people who have studied or worked abroad.

Becoming fluent in Chinese is not a prerequisite for living in Taiwan. If your lifestyle includes a driver, personal assistant, and membership in the American Club, it isn’t terribly important to know how to say much more than “hello” and “thank you.” If you are living more independently, however, you will experience more challenges with the language. Some of the more common challenges for using Chinese include apartment hunting, ordering food, or consulting a mechanic. Having a Chinese-speaking friend can be extremely helpful, but knowing the language yourself will definitely pay off.

Some foreigners find that living in Taiwan isn’t right for them, or the challenges of living here are too great, and decide to return home or move elsewhere as soon as possible. At the other extreme are foreigners who have decided to make Taiwan home for the long term, and may have married a local, started a business, or gained permanent residence.

Personally, I find Taiwan to have a wonderful balance between the familiar and the unknown. For me there’s always an element of adventure to navigating Taiwanese culture, traveling around the island, and studying the Chinese language. At the same time, it’s easy to find familiar comforts like pizza or take a convenient taxi or MRT ride across town.

Tips for adjusting

Patience is very important. Remind yourself that it’s normal to have difficulty navigating a foreign country, and that sooner or later you will feel better and you will discover what you enjoy about living here. It’s also important to have realistic expectations about your personal and professional adjustment. If you expect that you will quickly and effortlessly master the local language, culture, and work environment, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Because a key risk factor for culture shock is stress, simple stress reduction strategies are important. Pay attention to how you are eating, sleeping, exercising, and relaxing. Since your social connections may have suffered from moving overseas, consider joining groups and taking more time to meet people (for example, go to as many AmCham functions as you can).

If you are having difficulty adjusting, remember that you can ask for help! How can you know if you are having difficulty? If you are not sleeping well for many weeks, you are having trouble. If you find yourself drinking too much, you are having difficulty adjusting. If you see any significant change in your life patterns, you are having difficulty. If you find yourself angry all the time, you are having difficulty.

The Community Services Center in Tienmu is the largest provider of English-language counseling in Taiwan. We provide individual, couples, and family counseling in English and Chinese. The Center’s counselors have experience working on a wide range of issues (including culture shock). We can help you develop stress reduction strategies. The Center also provides classes, tours, and other events for the international community. Many of the Center’s publications are helpful for expats adjusting to Taiwan, including Taipei Living and Taiwan A to Z.

– Michael Mullahy is a post-master’s counseling intern at the Community Services Center. This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS.