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Culture Shock

Updated: Feb 7, 2018

“The severity of culture shock is influenced by one’s personalities, language skills or lack thereof, duration of stay, and a support system.”

When a person is suddenly transplanted abroad and totally immersed in a new culture, an adjustment process is set in motion. This process is normally referred to as “Culture Shock.” Whether the stay is long term or short term, an immigrant will experience culture shock unless he/she is acculturated and speaks the language of the place of residence. Culture shock is usually due to anxiety suffered because the person does not speak the language and/or does not understand the social protocol, customs, and daily behaviors of his/her new society. Sometimes the person finds that friendliness does not always mean friendship or acceptance. The new immigrant may not pick up joke cues, may not understand handshakes or an embrace, may not understand when or how to approach a stranger, and may not know accepted table manners.

Stages of Adjustment

When a person enters a new culture and is deprived of everything that was familiar, he/she is like an amphibian trying to live on land. There is a feeling at times of not belonging which leads to emotions of alienation from the new culture. This stage in the adjustment process is very important because what happens in the thought process of the immigrant determines whether that individual will acculturate or decide to abandon the process. It is also here that the individual either glorifies or rejects everything about the new culture and begins to suffer nostalgia by not only glorifying but also exaggerating the positive aspects of the original culture. Others scorn their native country by rejecting values and choosing to assimilate or identify with the new values. The severity of culture shock is influenced by one’s personalities, language skills or lack thereof, duration of stay, and a support system. The degree of difference between the new and original culture also contributes to the adjustment process. Levin and Adelman in their book Beyond Language: Intercultural Communication for English as a Second Language (1982) present a w-shaped diagram that illustrates periods of adjustment in a second culture. The stages are not, in my opinion, ordered levels of adjustment; but they offer a visual perception of the process. These stages are:

  • Honeymoon

  • Culture Shock

  • Initial Adjustment

  • Mental Isolation

  • Acceptance,

  • Integration Or Abandonment

There are immigrants who go from honeymoon to acceptance, bypassing all the other stages. These are normally young people who are not well socialized in their culture of origin. Especially for these who come from a third world country and certain countries in Europe to a place like the United States, the excitement of seeing the culture of the “Screen” in real life is more fascinating. The idea of a technological and electronic world with all the amenities this country offers outweighs the duty of having to be nationalistic. Due to their experience and identification with the movie culture, young people are more prone to total assimilation than older people. You can therefore understand and appreciate the difficulty new immigrant parents face in relating to their children. Whereas the parents are busy being culturally shocked and trying to find and send out their proper emotions, the children are instead on a honeymoon and totally oblivious to the psychological and emotional stress that parents are experiencing. And this, my friends, spells emotional and mental pain for the majority of immigrants who come to this country. This is not to say that young people do not experience this phenomena but it is important to understand the issues which parents have to go through as they make sense of living in the new culture. Just incase the children do not assimilate quickly, the parents ought to know not only how to deal with their own situation but to have in place a support system for their children. The children normally find some solace in the schools where they attend. However, if the school is not sympathetic and sensitive to the migration related needs of the new student, the child sometimes suffers academic failure, not because he/she is not capable, but because the emotional, psychological, and social needs are not being met both at home and in school. It might be a good exercise for each of us to look at the Stages and measure our degree of adjustment. If possible, this exercise should be done with the entire family and in groups during those great social evenings we all love. Where are you in the adjustment process? Let us look at each stage:

  1. Honeymoon: This is a period of excitement, fascination, bewilderment, of discovery and inquisitiveness, curiosity and amazement. Arriving in the USA and landing at night in airports like JFK in New York is a breathtaking experience. Viewing the lights from the air is most beautiful. It does not matter which country you hail from. USA is a different kind of country that evokes amazement and wonder at first sight.

  2. Culture Shock: At this stage, the reality of day-to-day living begins to sink-in. The individual is totally immersed in new sets of problems such as transportation (cannot get a job without a car in many cities), shopping, mental fatigue, new currency, housing, job seeking, schooling, driving, stress from trying to comprehend the language (especially when the majority of Americans speak only “Americanese” and cannot understand English spoken without an American accent), etc. There is nothing as frustrating as trying to speak English in the U.S.A., particularly when you know that the word you think you are pronouncing is not being understood by the other person. And when all fails and you try to write the word you are trying to say, the other party says “moobo” instead of “mobile.” And this goes on day after day causing a great deal of stress. There are many things we could talk about here, but let me end by saying that experiencing culture shock is real and is detrimental to the welfare of many immigrants. Whether they will cope depends heavily upon their reaction to the new culture.

  3. Initial Adjustment: Day to day activities are in place and the immigrants understand the how-to of living. The individual may not yet be fluent in the nuances of the spoken language, yet there is a cognitive level of understanding of the basic ideals and the immigrant can express himself/herself without much difficulty. The individual has acquired enough cultural knowledge to survive on his/her own. The basic documents such as a social security card, green card, driver’s license, a job, a car, a phone and a bank account are in place. However, there are many who continue to live at both of these stages of culture shock and initial adjustment. These individuals learn to survive without the basic documents for one reason or another, especially if there are immigration-related difficulties. The life of such an individual is a very frustrating one, especially if the individual is a parent with siblings who still remain in the country of origin. As a community of immigrants we must seek to assist hundreds of our own in this country who find themselves living between a rock and a hard place.

  4. Mental Isolation: After being away from family, friends and a familiar environment, you begin to feel lonely. You miss the music, the native places of attraction, your children or even your spouse, and you long for news from home. You begin to suffer from nostalgia, especially if the social status you had in your original culture is not realized in the new country. Even though you are able to live in the new culture without any problem, you still feel inadequate and have lost self-confidence. There are many of the older immigrants who remain at this stage, always wishing to return to their country of origin yet always preferring to stay in the U.S.A. It is at this stage that immigrants become very sentimental about their home of origin. They start communities and forums to address their cultural experiences. They begin to organize hoping that a replica of their original home experience would be realized right here. They get artifacts, music, cultural ideology, and form guilds to propagate their culture. They feel important to be called Ugandan, Kenyan, Nigerian, etc. They get duo system TVs and satellites to keep in step with their home country. As a community, we must not allow our people, especially our own offspring, to lose sight of their roots. Africans have a rich heritage and we can contribute positively to an American experience by letting some of our deep values bear upon our new environment. Being a Kenyan-American is both a privilege and a duty. It is a privilege in the sense that we can identify with the number one power in the world today, and it is a duty because we have a country of origin to which we owe our very identity, the land of our ancestors. As we begin to prosper, let us strengthen our place here in the Diaspora as we remember our relatives back home. It is very important that you belong to some entity, which propagates and supports your immigrational agenda.

  5. Acceptance and Integration or Abandonment: Many immigrants reach this stage in America. That is why this country is made up of immigrants. They make America their home. They work, create businesses, send their children to school, vote, engage in propagating the “ American agenda”; and their children speak with some kind of American accent. Some of them are so integrated that they do not have any affinity for their country of origin, especially their siblings. They have accepted the habits, customs, foods and behaviors of the people in this new culture. They feel totally at home with American friends, associates, and neighbors, support a sports team, and sing the national anthem. They are totally “Americanized.” They are the kind who would go back to their country of origin and suffer a culture shock because they no longer understand the nuances of the immaterial culture in their country of origin. As a Ugandan, you might remember a young lady who came back from England. She went to a local restaurant to order for food. The waitress did not understand English, so the young lady attempted to explain to her that she wanted “ndege ya nyumba”. She had forgotten that a hen was called “Kuku”. This phenomena is not only limited to a few individuals. Even those at the stage of mental isolation suffer culture shock when they try to go back home. This year one of our own gave up trying to live in America and chose to return to Kenya. After six months of staying there he left a suicide note pinned to his dead body to warn others of the dilemma of being outcasts in two worlds.

Cultural Assimilation is not A Secret

Please, as you read this article, try to find where you are in your immigrational experience so that you can understand the issues you are facing in your day-to-day living. It is no longer a mystery what you are experiencing; it is part of an adjustment process. Sometimes it might help to write on paper your perception of what you are experiencing and try to measure it against the five stages from time to time. Then develop a plan which will help you move from one stage to another. As I said before, some people live under multiple stages. You might be one of them. Other people do not want to leave the mental isolation stage. This is all right as long as you do not suffer mental anguish. This is especially typical among older immigrants. If you are at the honeymoon stage, please enjoy knowing that when reality sets in, you are no longer alone anymore. AAA, Inc. is here to support you, and other African organizations are also available. You may contact AAA, INC, via e-mail, or mail for information and cultural advice or plan to attend AAA, Inc. Events where these ideas and ideals are explained and demonstrated in real life settings. You can find out about the AAA, INC. Events by going to the Information page on this web site. Do not feel helpless; we are here to serve you.

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