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Culture Shock? Wakarimasen = I don’t understand

Many who plan to teach abroad fail to understand the full throttle of what ‘culture shock’ can do to a…

By Stephanie Lim , in Blogs Secret Life of an English Teacher , on January 29, 2008

Many who plan to teach abroad fail to understand the full throttle of what ‘culture shock’ can do to a person’s psychology. From personal experience, culture shock can either make or break your stay.

Wakarimasen’ was the most useful phrase I learned before leaving Canada. At times I felt like a broken record because that’s all I knew how to say, but it helped the Japanese slow their speech so I could consult my pocket dictionary. Later, I took Japanese language lessons to fix that problem.

Not knowing how to read or speak Japanese was a concern for me. However, after my first night in a foreign country, I realized there was more to ‘culture shock’ than simply the language barrier. From differences in food, to beliefs, to values, to what actions are accepted or not, to my position as a woman in their society, I knew I would have to work hard, learn fast, and persevere if I were to survive in Japan. With no family or friends to support me in my immediate surroundings if I experienced difficulties, I knew I had to build a new support group. If I don’t, I may end up going home by the end of the week like the many I’ve seen.

The Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada said that those who go abroad experience three phases. The first is the ‘honeymoon’ phase. This means one feels excited and positive about their new surroundings. However, when the second phase ‘culture shock’ kicks in, one feels a sense of dislocation and discomfort. These symptoms could include irritability, a loss of a sense of humour, withdrawal, and negative feelings about the host country’s people and culture (for other symptoms see the ministry’s website). In the third phase, ‘adjustment’, one has accepted the new surroundings and balanced the honeymoon and culture shock phases.

Everyone experiences culture shock differently, and some may even experience ‘reverse culture shock’. That’s the readjustment one has to make when they return to their home country. For Amy Cherry, she felt all these phases while living and working in Vietnam.

“It took her a while to get used to how much smaller — houses, food servings, even the people — are in Vietnam compared to America. But she didn’t fully appreciate the differences until she returned to Georgia to visit her family,” reported Phillip Ramati for The Macon Telegraph on January 24, 2008.