A few days after Xiaowei Zhu, a friendly, outgoing Chinese student, arrived in Toronto, she suddenly became very depressed. She didn’t want to eat the food. She felt helpless because she had great difficulty communicating. Every evening she phoned her parents to share her feelings of frustration, anxiety, and loneliness. The only time she felt comfortable was when she met with some of her Chinese classmates in Chinatown. Xiaowei’s situation is not unusual. Culture shock is an illness suffered by many people who suddenly arrive in a new country. Although individuals differ greatly in the degree in which culture shock affects them, all people go through the same stages in dealing with their new situation.
At first, most individuals are fascinated by the newness of their surroundings. They find themselves surrounded by new friends, new foods, new customs, a new language, and a new lifestyle. They feel excited and interested in exploring a different environment. This honeymoon stage may last from a few days or weeks to six months, depending on circumstances.
But this mentality does not normally last if the foreigner remains abroad and has to seriously cope with real conditions of life. It is then that the second stage begins, characterized by a hostile and aggressive attitude toward the new country. This hostility grows out of the genuine difficulty that the newcomer experiences in the process of adjustment. There are house troubles, transportation troubles, shopping troubles, communication difficulties, and the fact that people in the new country are largely indifferent to all of these. They help, but they don’t understand the great concern a foreigner may have over these difficulties.
It was at this point that Xiaowei began phoning her parents. She was in a homestay with a Canadian family where she where she was frequently served pasta and salad instead of the rice and vegetables that she was used to. In addition, although the family was very friendly and really wanted to help her improve her English, her communication skills were so limited that she felt isolated even though she wasn’t alone. Because of those troubles, the foreigner may get together with others from his or her country and criticize the new country, its ways, and its people. This criticism, however, is not objective; it often becomes the source of stereotypes. For example, when Xiaowei met with classmates in Chinatown, she complained about her unhealthy diet and the coldness of Canadians. The second stage of culture shock is in a sense a crisis in the disease. If the newcomer comes out of it, he or she stays. If not, they leave before they reach the stage of a nervous breakdown. Studies have shown that on average, thirty percent of international students return home within one year of arrival, not having completed their studies.
If foreigners succeed in getting some knowledge of the language and begin to get around by themselves, they are beginning to open the way into the new cultural environment. They still have difficulties, but they have accepted the fact that these are problems they have to deal with. Usually in this stage, they take a superior attitude to residents of the new country. Instead of criticizing, they joke about the people and even crack jokes about their own difficulties. They are now on the way to recovery.
In the fourth stage, the adjustment is about as complete as it can be. The foreigner now accepts the customs of the country as just another way of living. They generally operate within the new surroundings without a feeling of anxiety. Although they will probably still need a long time before feeling completely at home in the new culture, they will in the end actually begin to appreciate what makes the new culture different from what they are familiar with. Happily, when Xiaowei returned to China for summer vacation, she was surprised to discover how much she missed her lifestyle in Canada.