The Reality of Culture Shock

I’ve heard it said that ignorance is bliss.  After my summer in Spain, I’d have to say that ignorance is definitely not bliss.

With all the physical, mental, and spiritual preparation I did for my trip, I never once thought to research what it was like to live in a foreign country.  I heard of culture shock, didn’t really know anything about it except for the general term, and didn’t think for a moment that it was something I needed to be aware of.

Beautiful monuments, statues, cathedrals, and architecture--constant visual reminders that I wasn't in America. (Plaza Mayor, Madrid)

Beautiful monuments, statues, cathedrals, and architecture–constant visual reminders that I wasn’t in America. (Plaza Mayor, Madrid)

What is Culture Shock?

Merriam-Webster.com defines culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.”

All the while I was in Spain; there were no outward signs of culture shock.  I thought I was adjusting well to all of the changes in environment (except the heat).  My host family repeatedly told me how well I fit in with the Spanish lifestyle.  But inside there was something much deeper going on.  I pushed the anxiety and the doubts about what I was going through aside.  I took each day as a new day to experience Spain, and document everything I could in any free moment I could steal away to myself.

Acting like a stereo-typical tourist, while also fitting in with the Spanish lifestyle, Madrid

Acting like a stereo-typical tourist, while also fitting in with the Spanish lifestyle, Madrid

My Quest for Answers

After I returned home, I did some research on what it is like to physically live in a foreign country.  I found out that culture shock is a real psychological phenomenon.  I stumbled upon it while doing research for some of my earlier posts about Spain.

There is a lot on the internet about culture shock, and this is not intended to a be a lesson about it.  I did find out though that there are four phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery.  Clearly I never made it to a point of mastery, but was definitely trying to quickly adapt through the other three phases.  Another source listed them as stages: wonder, frustration, depression and acceptance.  Just as surprising to me was finding out about reverse culture shock.  All of this explains why I had a hard time re-entering my life in the U.S. and also explains the bouts of depression I experienced.

The psychological effects of culture shock.

The psychological effects of culture shock.

In my quest for answers to what I had gone through, I started to follow blogs of other non-natives living in Spain.  I found sites from ex-pats living in Spain, ESL teachers, pilgrims journeying on the Way of St. James, and the like.  It was a relief to be able to observe their experiences, communicate with them, and most importantly to know that I was not alone in what I was going through.

I’ve also spoken with some missionary friends.  One pointed me to an article on “trailing spouse syndrome”.  I had never heard of that either, but reading that served as another relief for my emotionally weary soul.

Brave or Naïve?

Many people have told me that I was brave to go to Spain alone like that.  Every time someone said that I thought, “but I won’t be alone.”  I was going to live with people I already knew.  Little did I know how this would affect me.

I think that since Pedro, our Spanish host son, so easily adapted to family life in America, and never said anything or showed any evidence of his own culture shock, I just took it for granted that my transition would be smooth as well.  He fit in with us so easily; I think I forgot he was Spanish.

Being brave? No, it's just a unique way of mailing a letter. (Toledo, Spain)

Being brave? No, it’s just a unique way of mailing a letter. (Toledo, Spain)

I am so grateful to my Spanish family for hosting me and opening up my eyes to life in their country.  I miss Spain.  I miss my Spanish family—all 26 of them.  I know I’ll return someday and am already planting those seeds for a trip with my husband.

So was I brave or naïve in journeying to Spain for six weeks last summer?  It was definitely brave!  I have no regrets—only gratitude to my heavenly Father for the experience, the lessons, the love, and the hope He has given me for how He wants to use it for His glory.

Showing off my bravery by eating new foods--pulpo de gallego, a Spanish favorite (Octopus Galician style)

Showing off my bravery by eating new foods–pulpo de gallego, a Spanish favorite (Octopus Galician style)

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4 Comments

  1. Great post! One of the things I like about traveling is that it is fun to experience how other people live. Their environment determines much of the behavior. Just my experience from living on the other side of the state to living in Bellevue, Seattle, Burien, Ballard, Queen Anne, Capital Hill, all of these places even within close proximity offer a different culture. Fascinating isn’t it?

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    • Yes, it is fascinating! To take that one step further, consider the difference in religions and how that effects people’s lives. Even across Christianity, different churches have different environments and ways to experience God. That’s a whole other post though. 🙂

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      • Yes, amazing how people experience God differently too. We live in an amazing world that spins like our thoughts! 🙂 Round and round…..We are what we think and eat and breath and believe and….and….and….right?

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  2. Rookienotes

     /  November 18, 2013

    You’re lucky to have experienced culture shock. Some people never get that feeling. I’m glad there is an online community to help you realize what you’re experiencing is not unique but sometimes expected. I am scared to return to the United States. I want to but at the time it’s scary because I’m being accustomed to living on my own and a whole different way of life. Great Post! And I love the picture of when your hand is in the lion’s mouth.

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    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

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