“I’ll take a large water with lemon and no ice.” My new friend, whom I’ve known for three hours, looks at me perplexed and asks, “Anna, we are in Georgia. It’s over 100 degrees. Why are you ordering a drink without ice?” My response, “Due to the cool climate in Russia, I prefer not to put ice in my drinks.”
My name is Anna, and I am a foreigner married to a U.S. soldier. Ten years ago, I would have laughed out loud if you’d told me I’d be living in America as an Army spouse. At the time, I was climbing the corporate ladder in Russia. Today, I reside in Columbus, Georgia at Fort Benning.
You may be wondering how a Russian city gal ends up with an all American boy? I often wonder myself (insert smile here). Well it’s a long, romantic story that warrants telling at a later date. For now, let’s just say fate brought us together. His homemade chocolate chip cookies sealed the deal.
Several years later, we now live in the States. Since arriving, my husband and friends have been playing tour guide while I soak up the American lifestyle: Rodeos, football games, beaches, road trips, BBQs, and so much more. I’ve been exposed to new and interesting lifestyles.
Point being, it’s been fun. So why, three months later, do I feel like the excitement has worn off?
Culture shockis the feeling of confusion, excitement, and frustration when traveling or living in a new place. It’s important to note that these feelings are not just limited to people, like me, who move to a different continent. Military spouses, subject to frequent moves, are exposed to culture shock even when relocating from state to state.
Multiple emotions, like excitement, fear, and frustration can hit all at once, leaving us to feel a bit overwhelmed. Okay, VERY overwhelmed. Speaking from experience, however, it doesn’t have to be this way. By understanding the emotional stages of culture shock, you will be better prepared to cope during extreme change.
There are four main stages: 1) wonder, 2) frustration, 3) isolation, and 4) acceptance. There is no exact order of how, or when these emotions will occur. Nor, are you guaranteed to experience all four. Everyone’s journey is different.
The Emotion — Wonder is the excitement of everything being new.
My Advice — Use this time to embrace the things you’ve never done before. Depending on where you are located, complete the things on your personal bucket list. For example, do what the locals do. Ski Aspen in Colorado or drink coffee at a French street café. Eventually the excitement will likely start to dwindle, so live it up while you can!
The Emotion — Frustration is the feeling you get when you try to do something that is second nature back home. In your new territory it doesn’t exist or you are greeted with an unexpected obstacle. I once got a ticket three days in a row for parking illegally. I didn’t mean to, I just couldn’t read the sign because I was still unfamiliar with the language.
My Advice — Try not to let negativity overwhelm you. Remember that magical feeling you felt upon arrival. It still exists. It just may be tucked into a cold, dark corner hidden under all the annoyances that seem to keep popping up. Expect that these frustrations will occur. If you continue to make the same mistakes over and over, consider asking a local what is acceptable and what is not. Approach each situation with a sense of humor to lessen the dramatic impact. File your mishaps as “cultural”mistakes. Soon they will become funny stories you tell your friends and family back home.
The Emotion — Isolation occurs when you start to realize the cultural gap between you and the locals. As a result, you may start to avoid or reduce the people/things that cause you frustration. This can lead to sadness and a constant desire to find a way out. To your chagrin, tapping your heels three times while whispering, “There’s no place like home,”has yet to work.
My Advice — Remember, the more frustrated you become, the more likely you will feel isolated. Don’t hibernate or become a recluse. This will only make things worse. Immerse yourself in something you really enjoy. Use it as an opportunity to discover a new passion or to meet peoplewith similar interests. Your new friends will be interested in learning about your heritage. This is your chance to deflate old or silly stereotypes. People unfamiliar with your homeland may not be familiar with all the great things it has to offer. Educate them and encourage them to visit if there’s ever a possibility.
The Emotion — Acceptance is the realization that things here are different, and you’re okay with that. This doesn’t mean you have to “like”everything. You just learn to appreciate WHY it’s different from what you are used to.
My Advice — Embrace the change and the people that surround you. With an open mind, you will soon realize that each new experience — good or bad — will change you for the better. You will develop a new appreciation for things back home and a clear understanding of how you’ve grown since you left.
Understanding your emotions is the first step in reducing culture shock. To help minimize the impact, here are a couple suggestions:
Read about the culture. See how people live, what they do, and what they eat. What are their holidays and unique traditions?
Talk to people. Learn phrases and words that are helpful. Use the local lingo to convey that you’re part of the community. Be friendly to people. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or an explanation. You will be surprised at how willing people are to help.
Experience events around you and make a point to fully explore the area. Get out of the house and explore the city museum or try the local cuisine.
Try new things and be open-minded about your experiences. View things that you don’t necessarily like as different, not wrong.
Embrace the differences.
Culture shock is still part of my daily struggle, but I have learned to find great pleasure in my new American home. I am not ashamed to admit that Russia will forever be my comfort zone. But for now, the military is in control of our destiny. We are not sure where we will go next, or for how long. Until we can return home, I promise to live in the present where each new experience will be viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow.