Stages of Culture Shock

19 Jan

I read an article recently about the background of the term “culture shock”. The term was in used as early as the 1920s, but Kalervo Oberg was the one to identify the stages of culture shock often experience. Oberg was born on a commune founded among Finns in Canada at the start of the 20th century. The community disintegrated after a few years, as members experienced disillusionment with their pursuit of eden.

You can read more of Oberg’s background and the commune he was born on in the full article. I just want to highlight this description of how culture shock sometimes manifests itself:

When moving abroad, the expat begins with a naïve fascination for his or her new home. But soon they begin to despise the new country, exclusively befriend fellow foreigners (often to moan about the natives) and irrationally romanticise everything about home. Then, after a while, there’s a breakthrough. You realise that what you’re experiencing is just another way of living. After that, it all makes sense.

I find it a slightly confronting, but accurate picture. It doesn’t reflect my personal experience with culture shock exactly, but I went through a similar progression. I also have several friends who went through similar stages.

I like the phrase “after a while”. It’s not a specific timeframe. It’s different for everyone. The important thing is that at some point the realisation dawns – this place is different. It’s supposed to be different. Accepting that different-ness, without trying to assign labels of “wrong” or “right”, “better” or “worse”, is an important step toward being happy in a new culture.

So, how does this relate to youth work, and TCKs?

Firstly, we as youth workers are also living in a different culture. Processing our own experiences of culture shock is essential if we are to be effective in our ministry. Secondly, we see a lot of kids arriving overseas for the first time (or yet another new place) who are struggling to cope with culture shock. Understanding some of the stages they are going through (or will go through) can help us to walk through it with them.

I’ve looked at the stages mentioned in the short quote above, and come up with some ideas for how to help our kids (and new youth workers who come in) to move through toward a breakthrough.

Despising the new country
I think most long-term expats have heard newcomers talk about how they “hate” the new country, the local people, or aspects of life there (traffic, food, or whatever). It can rile a longterm person who has made the new culture their home, but sometimes we need to simply allow grace for someone who is feeling out of their depth and struggling to keep up with so many changes. This is especially true for spouses or children who did not have much of a say in the move. The sense of powerlessness and resentment can be quite strong, and can lead to a burden of guilt, especially among Christians who believe the move was a step of faith.

Spending time exclusively with other expatriates
Many kids are in international schools, or are homeschooled, and therefore naturally spend a lot of time with other foreign kids. I think the problem is when a person actively avoids interaction with the local population where possible. Some people try to avoid interactions which require them to speak in the new language. I think it helps in this stage to talk about positive experiences you have had, and encourage positive interactions.

Complaining about the host culture/natives
This comes naturally to someone in the throes of culture shock. Unfortunately, it can be easy for even a seasoned and content expat to fall into a bout of host-country-bashing. As youth leaders I think it is important for us to do our best to limit this sort of negativity. It’s fine to acknowledge certain limitations or inconveniences of living in the host culture, and we should aim to create a safe space for kids to express their frustrations. I think we should look for places to offer positive opinion, and strive to avoid the downward spiral effect that can occur in a group setting. A line sometimes needs to be drawn, especially when complaints start to turn into stereotyping and racism.

Irrationally romanticising their home culture
The key word here is “irrationally”. We all have a fondness for home (or homes, as the case may be!) Certain sights, smells and sounds will always carry a deep resonance.  A symptom of cultural shock is seeing our home culture with rose tinted glasses, at the expense of our opinion of the new host culture. Reality will never measure up to fantasy, and when we compare the best things of “home” with the worst parts of our new culture, things look bleak. We can encourage kids to remember that life is a mix of ups and downs; that there are benefits to the new culture that were not available to us at home, and drawbacks from our home culture we do not experience in the new culture. Sometimes it is not helpful to say it directly, which can be confrontational, or sound patronising. Rather, we can contrast their observations with our own experiences: “I’m really thankful for the help of my housekeeper, I could never afford to have house help in Australia” or “I really miss jiaozi when I’m visiting home”

Breakthrough! Different, not wrong
It is always wonderful to see a friend reach the place of breakthrough! Every situation is different, and wishing they would “just wake up and get it!” doesn’t help. Recognising that they are struggling with something difficult, and patiently (prayerfully) walking through it with them, is sometimes all we can do. Give your new-to-town friends and youth some extra grace in that first year. Gently encourage them that it will get better, but try not to put a burden on them to “snap out of it”. These things take time, but when they make it to that place of breakthrough, you’ll be able to share the sweet joy of it with them!

That’s some of my thoughts – I’m really interested to hear what experiences others of you have had!
What helped you process your own culture shock?
What did friends say/do that was very helpful (or unhelpful)?
What suggestions would you give to those who are new in town?


Posted by on January 19, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs


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3 responses to “Stages of Culture Shock

  1. Gena S

    January 21, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    I followed the link from our site ( and discovered your wonderful post. We experienced a very rapid version of this on our first mission trip to Kenya (we held a crusade in Masai land, among other things). Our first night was an exhausted mix of ‘Wow, we’re here’ mixed with gut level reactions to military with AK47s roaming the nighttime streets of Nairobi and initial overnight accommodations of decidedly third world status. Our culture shock was swift and intense, and thankfully gave way to the joy of ministry opportunities within the next day. Long story short by the end of the trip we had rapidly gone through all of the stages (to be honest we kind of skipped the native bashing) of culture shock, so completely that returning for a final couple of nights to the African Inland Mission (dedicated to the needs of foreign missionaries) we felt reverse culture shock at being served “westernized” food and being catered to by the wonderful Kenyans whom seemed very near to being treated as mere servants. We all agreed to stay more ‘local’ from start to finish next time and have not regretted it. Your article will stick with me, I’m sure I’ll think of these points on future trips or while helping others ready for their own. We’d love to feature you as a reader story on our site if you would be interested. We look forward to connecting!

    With Aloha,


  2. Tanya

    January 22, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Hi Gena,

    Thanks for coming by, and your wonderful comments! Reminds me of my reactions to my first trip to China (3 weeks when I was 17). I remember drinking “red” tea (regular western style) at our hotel in Shanghai when we first arrived, and being served it (expecting green tea) on our last day back in the same hotel and finding I’d lost my taste for it. It was a strange but clear sign that things had changed in me even in 2 weeks. I hardly touched red tea for the next 9 or 10 years!

    Would love to contribute to your blog some time, too!



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