Friday, May 25, 2007

Culture Shock

I wrote this report on my experience with culture shock in Taiwan. It is mostly based on my true experience, but I cut out some stuff and simplified some other stuff.

Culture shock

Executive Summary
Culture shock is a phenomenon that affects virtually anyone who leaves one cultural setting and enters a new one. Culture shock is generally referred to as occurring in stages that evolve over time. The purpose of this paper is to describe the author’s personal experience with culture shock, including the situation, background, and related circumstances, the type of cultural adjustments and transitions he went through, the critical cultural challenges he faced, his progression through the stages of culture shock, the causes of the shock, and some of the lessons he learned. Finally, the author will make some recommendations on how to handle future cultural challenges.

Situation, Background, and Related Circumstances
In the time I’ve spent in Taiwan, I’ve experienced culture shock in many areas. To understand a shock, one must understand the context—where did the individual start and where did he find himself. To experience a shock, a person must change environments, usually suddenly. It is this sudden change that causes the feelings of euphoria and, later, frustration.

For this reason, to describe my experience with culture shock, I first have to describe my life before I moved to Taiwan. By examining the “before,” and comparing it with the “after,” we can see what level of change I experienced and in what areas. Then it should be possible to understand why I experienced culture shock in the way I did.

To begin with, I am from North America—Seattle, Washington, USA. Other than one year I spent studying in Spain, I lived my whole life in Seattle.

Immediately prior to my move to Taiwan, I was working at a state university in an office the primary purpose of which was the collection of library fines for overdue books. My past work experience included other office work and various labor jobs. It is important to consider this when examining my culture shock experience, because the job I took on in Taiwan—teaching elementary school English—was unrelated to any work I’d done in the past, and so constituted a shock of its own.

Another aspect of my situation that contributed to my culture shock was my age. I was at least ten years older than the majority of my new co-workers. This is important to consider because it affected the make-up and cultural mind-set of my expatriate support group.

Obviously the most important factors from my previous experience were my deeper cultural encodings, such as my language (English), and my literacy skills. Other such encodings included my understanding of social norms and expectations, which were based on North American standards.

How did my move to Taiwan cause a shock to my North American sensibilities? In many ways there were superficial changes, such as in location, climate and infrastructure. Though superficial, these changes were significant, as were the sudden changes in my peer group, contact with family and friends, and the usual unfamiliarity that comes with arriving in a new location.

In the next section I will describe some of the causes of the unfamiliarity I experienced.

Cultural Adjustments And Transitions
My first realization that I was entering a new cultural atmosphere when I chose to move to Taiwan actually came before I arrived in the country. The airline I took to on my first trip to Taiwan was EVA Air, a Taiwan-based airline. During the flight I noticed something different from my previous experiences on overseas flights: the in-flight beverage service was much more conservative. On flights I have taken to Europe on Western airlines, the beverage service continues throughout the trip, with the flight attendants making regular circuits through the plane to make sure passengers always have drinks available. On EVA, however, a meal was served immediately after take off, followed by one circuit of the beverage cart, and then the lights were turned off and most passengers went to sleep. If a passenger wanted a drink after this point, he or she had to either ring for service, or get up and find a flight attendant for assistance.

Now, this is clearly a superficial difference, but it offers a clue to a significant difference between Western and Taiwanese culture. While Western culture is one in which alcohol consumption is quite common, Taiwan is not a drinking-oriented culture. In fact, when offered drinks on the plane, most people chose water, tea, or juice. This was in sharp contrast to my previous overseas flights, in which Western people tended to take copious advantage of the free cocktails.

Because I come from a family in which drinking alcohol is the norm, this difference in cultures represented and significant cultural adjustment that I had to make.

My next adjustment came when I arrived at the airport in Taiwan. My company had arranged for a driver to pick me up and take me to Hsinchu. When I first saw the driver I said hello to him, but he just stared at me for a moment, and then he grabbed my suitcase and quickly walked away toward the parking lot. I followed, realizing that he did not speak any English. It was a long quiet ride to Hsinchu, during which I had plenty of time to consider the fact that I was now going to be living in a place where I could not speak, read, or write one word of the local language. It was at this time that I first realized that while I was here, I would be at the mercy of the people who were my “handlers.” I had never been in such a situation before, and the prospect was rather daunting.

Throughout the course of the next few weeks, I experienced a number of other cultural adjustments. I found that, contrary to what I had expected, Taiwanese school children are not well-behaved. I also found that those few Taiwanese people who I met tended to ask questions that in the West would be considered very personal, or even rude. For example, people asked me my age, my marital status, and how much money I made—all fairly taboo subjects in the West for people who have just met. As I am an easy-going person by nature, these differences were not difficult to adjust to, but they did add to the sense of being a stranger in a strange land.

Critical Cultural Challenge
In the previous section I already alluded to what has turned out to be the most critical challenge for me as an American expatriate living in Taiwan: the language barrier. In my home country, as well as in Spanish-speaking countries, there is little or no language barrier (naturally there is more of one in Spanish-speaking countries than in the US, but it is still relatively low). In fact, my undergraduate degrees are in Spanish and Comparative Literature, so I could say without boasting that I have a high rate of literacy, at least in my home country. Because of this, my sudden arrival in a place where I was essentially illiterate was very difficult to deal with.

Some of the immerged immediately. The first time I went to a grocery store, I realized that I was unable to determine the contents of most of the items on store shelves, and there was no one available to answer any questions I had regarding the products the store offered. Because of this, I found myself eating at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants much more often than I ever had before. In general, I found that I was hungry almost all of the time.

I also found myself signing documents for my company which I couldn’t read. In fact, my inability to read the local language was more of a handicap than my inability to speak. Even in the United States, I can get through most days without speaking to anyone. Being able to read, however, is essential to navigating the world. Being able to understand street signs, product labels, prices, documents, mail, and many other written communications was something that I took for granted in my home country. Suddenly finding myself in a place where all of this was impossible made me realize how difficult it must be for illiterate people.

This illiteracy remains my biggest cultural challenge as I continue to live in Taiwan. Despite my studying Mandarin, and despite the increased use of printed English since I first arrived (as well as the considerable increase in the number of Western goods available), I still find it very difficult to perform activities that would take no effort in the United States. Some examples include my inability to read and understand the schedule at the public swimming pool, the confusion I experience when trying to decipher my phone bill, and the degree to which I have to surrender my fate to those who I rely on to help me with my school, tax, and immigration documents.

Progression Through The Stages Of Culture Shock
My honeymoon, or euphoria stage lasted a very short time. This is mostly due to the fact that I began full-time work at an elementary school three days after arriving in Taiwan, and the first three days were spent observing other teachers. In other words, I have very little time to spend as a tourist. Added to this was the fact that I did not know anyone in Taiwan, and I arrived after all of my co-workers had finished their group training and had received their teaching assignments. For this reason I had no experienced expatriates to show me around or to help me find ways to spend the few leisure hours I had.

Despite this, it was very exciting to be in such a crowded, dirty, noisy, and vibrant place. The juxtapositions of old (street vendors and people pedaling ancient bicycle contraptions down the middle of busy streets) and new (the evidence of high technology everywhere) made my head spin. Unfortunately, as I began a new and completely unfamiliar career as a teacher (I’d never worked with children before), I had very little time to enjoy it. For that matter, most of the time I had I spent alone in my room wondering if I had not just made the worst decision in my life.

As you might guess from the previous section, my frustration stage began quite early. The pressures of learning a new job were enormous (just try going from working in a cubicle or loading trucks to teaching 900 second graders and you will understand what I mean). On top of that, I was extremely isolated. To be frank, I was miserable.

After a few weeks, however, I began to meet other teachers that worked for my company. Soon I was invited out for drinks, and so began a long phase of my social life in Taiwan, that of hanging out at bars. In hindsight, I can say with certainty that I fell in with the wrong group of people. At first it was fun (perhaps this was my actually “honeymoon” stage), but soon it became boring and trashy. I realized that most of the people I knew I’d only seen when they were intoxicated, and all we did when we were together was complain about what a terrible place Taiwan was. This only added to my feelings of frustration.

During the first year and a half that I was here, my only thoughts about Taiwan were negative. The people were stupid and rude, the infrastructure was primitive, the climate was oppressive, and nothing was done correctly. The only good thing was that I was being paid good money just because I could speak English. Still, I had no intention of staying. I was going to take my teaching experience from Taiwan and move to Spain, where I’d spent a year abroad during my undergraduate career, and shake the dust of Taiwan from my shoes.

Sometime in the middle of my second year in Taiwan things started to improve. I weaned myself off of the life of a barfly, and started socializing with a group of people who had more diverse interests. I can’t point to one watershed moment, but I do remember going bowling one night and one of my friends said (and this might have been the first time one of my Western friends said such a thing), “I like Taiwan. There’s a lot to do here, and I get paid good money for easy work.” It struck me that this was true. Contrary to what the whiners always said, that there was nothing to do in Taiwan, the truth is there are a lot of activities besides bar-hopping that one can participate in. There are sports groups, outdoor activites, museums, movies, and a limitless range of hobbies that people can engage in. It was at this time that I realized that the problems weren’t with Taiwan, but with me. All I needed to do was find something outside of work that I enjoyed doing.

At the end of my second year in Taiwan, I left for the United States for the first time with the feeling that I couldn’t wait to get back. I had finally found my niche here. I had fallen in with a good group of people, both local and expatriate, and I had found more than enough activities to keep me busy. In addition to starting a membership at the local swimming pool, I went bowling regularly, played cards a couple times per month, joined a boxing club, and traveled all over the island. All of the old frustrations were still there—I still couldn’t read, write, or speak Mandarin very well—but with all kinds of activities to take up my time, it didn’t matter as much. Probably the most important change that helped me adjust to my new home was that I stopped socializing with people with negative attitudes.

Once I found ways to enjoy my life, I also found that the stress of work was much lower, and that I felt at home in Taiwan. In fact, I still do.

Since I still live in Taiwan, and plan to do so for the foreseeable future, I haven’t yet experienced this stage of culture shock in relation to my life here. Nevertheless, after spending a year abroad in Spain, I did have a degree of reverse culture shock upon returning to Seattle. When I left for Spain my life was very stable. I had been working nights at UPS for seven years, was in a long-term relationship, had a home, two cats, and was almost finished with my bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington. When I returned to the United States, however, all of that was gone. My relationship suddenly ended, I had to move out of my home, I had no job, and I was deep in debt for the first time in my life. The worst thing was that I had no direction. To compensate, I took an extra year at university while I tried to find out what to do with my life. Luckily, I was able to get a job at the university and was able to pull myself out of debt. It was a long and difficult road for a couple of years. I was penniless, and had to sleep on the floor, but I worked hard and saved every cent I could until I was finally able to pay off my debts and begin thinking of the future again, rather than getting through one day at a time.

It was about that time when I decided to throw caution to the wind and move overseas again.

Causes Of The Shock
The reasons for my culture shock in Taiwan are fairly straightforward. The most significant cultural differences that caused me to go through the various stages of shock center around the language barriers that I faced. Unlike any other overseas or domestic experience I have had, my time in Taiwan was the first time I’d ever been completely illiterate. Not being able to communicate with the people around me made me feel isolated, dependent, helpless, and, more often than not, stupid.

Other cultural differences didn’t really affect me very much. I expected people and customs to be different in a place as far away from my home as Taiwan is. In addition, I’ve been abroad several times before, so it isn’t surprising to me to find differences in new places.

In addition, my hometown—and particularly the university environment where I’d spent the previous six years—is a very culturally diverse environment. I believe that having lived in such a place helped to mitigate many of the factors that could have contributed to culture shock.

Lessons Learned And Recommendations
Of all that I have learned by way of my experience living in Taiwan, I think the most important things are that before one decides to live in a new cultural setting, he or she should spend some time getting to know about the destination. This should include learning about the history, as well as the contemporary culture. It is also important to learn at least some rudimentary phrases in the local language. Maybe the most important thing one can do is to talk to other people who have spent time in the destination country. Find out what they struggled with, and what their coping mechanisms were. If possible, it would also be a good idea to visit the country as a tourist before deciding whether or not to relocate there. Armed with the kind of information that this type of research can provide, one can make a more informed decision as to whether he or she will be able to be successful in the new cultural environment.

Culture shock is a phenomenon that affects anyone who moves from one cultural environment to another. It affects different individuals in different ways and to varying degrees, and it is not the same in every place. Obviously moving from the U.S. to England would be different than moving from the U.S. to India. Some people handle the adjustments very well, while others flounder and end up retreating. The expatriate life is not for everyone. Nevertheless, if one takes the time to examine him or her self, as well as doing a careful study of the destination he or she has in mind before making the move, I believe that the chances of having a successful and rewarding experience overseas will be greatly increased.

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