Culture Shock, no expat is immune to it

11:29 AM

A couple of months ago I wrote about what one goes through being an expat. What I left out there is that the stages listed are also the stages in dealing with culture shock. Yes there is a honeymoon phase, yes there is a phase of disorientation and frustration, and yes there is a phase during which all falls into place.
The truth though is that you can’t skip a step, whether you like it or not you’ll go through them all. There are of course various intensity levels to each phase, some are affected by stage 2 a bit more than other.

Stage 2 is the nastiest phase, because it’s a crash to reality, in the honeymoon stage, one is still new to the place, exited about it all, want to embrace it all, because it comes as a change of scenery, but the first few weeks or months chances are that the reality of LIVING there hasn’t even sunk in.

The question is why do everybody hit the expat wall and spiral into a form or another of culture shock?
The answer is actually very simple: Culture is pretty much part of any society’s backbone, it goes to the core and affects every aspect of life, much more than one would expect it to be.
You can prepare yourself before moving to a country as much as you want, you will still find yourself confused by little things you never really imagined would be so different.
In the case of India, I hear many people telling me “How what a wonderful place, I love the culture, and the food and the colours, and the smell, it’s must be awesome to live there”. I even had expat to be contact me saying that they can’t wait living there because they already went on a few trips on holidays and loved it.
Yes the food, the festivals, the colours, the smells, and the approach to spirituality are all part of the culture, this is the culture package one need to familiarise themselves with when visiting on a holiday, and in preparation to live there. The difference is while you are a tourist, you can label it awesome, if you are going to live there, you need to learn that it’s as awesome as it can be nasty, India is a land of sharp contrast, that would be lesson number one.
But these big obvious changes is NOT what is going to make you go into culture shock, because these are the ones you can prepare for in advance.
What is most likely to send one over the edge is a accumulation of small everyday things.
On the top of my head I remember a few I dealt with now. There was the fact that shopping for everyday things isn’t the same, some stuff that are available in certain places back home aren’t available in the same places in India and will have you roam around to find it. A month or so after I moved to Bangalore I felt completely lost and confused because I could not find a glue stick in the supermarket, which I needed to glue my Christmas greetings envelope shut, because I found out that they don’t come with self adhesive flaps. I found the greeting card shop, assumed it was a stationary shop, but they had no glue, had to ask a friend about it to be sent to what a real Indian stationary shop is. I felt stupid asking for such a petty thing and blushed.
There is also the fact that certain things don’t have the same name in India, even if you speak English, it will take time to familiarise yourself with local idioms and accents. Tomato sauce is almost always Ketchup here, and I once found a big bottle of tomato sauce thinking that it was pasta sauce, and when I cooked with it, I nearly gagged and forced myself to eat it because I am against wasting food, but what happened was that the nice imported pasta I bought to cure a bout of home sickness ended up being doused in ketchup, sickly sweet at that. I had no idea that if you want tomato concentrate sauce you need to look for tomato PUREE. Needless to say I sobbed silly over my spoiled pasta.
There is the fact that you need to know how to deal with cockroaches, even in a house you keep spotlessly clean, the fact hot water in your tap comes only if you have a water heater installed and switched on (they are often just in the bathroom). You also end up having to deal with learning how to cross the road in a lawless traffic, have to learn the price of everything not to be cheated because as a resident you can’t have that happen every time you want to buy some food. You need to learn to give approximate direction to your cab driver and then stop often to confirm said direction along the way because no one knows how to drive to one specific address. Your food will never taste the same, it will take ages to put together a meal that would have taken half the time back home…but most important you will need to develop a thick skin, because otherwise India is going to eat you alive, discrimination, poverty, corruption, having to deal with the nastiest stereotype about your own culture spat at your face, and possibly being accused of being a liar for daring to tell these know it all that no it’s not like that at all, learning that privacy is pretty much a foreign concept in India and learning how to cope with it, all these and then some more will just be more than you can handle on certain day.
My advice? Vent, VENT away, find a support group, an expat community in your city, an online group, start a blog, speak up, and get it out. Bottling up is the worst thing you can do to yourself.
I know, I did it, I even tried to delude myself into thinking I just had to adjust harder, to the point of loosing the sight of who I was.
No you will never be Indian, and guess what no one has to, and no you one should not stay passive when they think something is wrong, India like all countries and all culture has some good and bad and the bad needs to change, and yes some locals will have the same complaints you have and want to change them. No Indian food isn’t superior to your home food, it’s as good and as bad as what you grew up on. If you find yourself saying stuff like “Who needs a lasagna when dal and rice is such a healthy yummy hearty wonderful meal” that means you are already down the delusion path. This is pep talk to kid oneself into trying that much harder to shed all that they have been simply because things are different. This is pep talk to just prove oneself that they are just better than the rest and are above culture shock.

Who said one has no right to feel frustrated in the first place? And nobody is a failure for simply having to deal with culture shock, one become a failure deluding themselves into thinking they are so much better and won’t be affected. One is a failure when they think that the only way to adjust to a new culture is to be more local than the locals themselves (the locals might even grow to dislike you for it).
If you can’t have one thing, you can always work toward getting it.

So in short, culture shock is normal, nobody can fully escape it because culture defines everything we are and what is around us, and we all have a threshold of tolerance beyond which we snap, and  while preparation and learning about a culture can help, one should prepare themselves feeling frustrated as part of the process to make it easier.
That’s what 8.5 years of expatdom, many mistakes and a lot of stumbling upon the path has taught me.

You Might Also Like


  1. When I think back to the first 2 yrs of marriage to my Indian husband, I'm surprised at how many disagreements we had over cultural misunderstandings.
    I certainly didn't realize it at the time. 

    I didn't have a clue about the Indian 'family hierarchy' & truly thought my husband's family hated ME for the first year we were married. I had seen the 'choti bahu' treatment working with poor Hindu families in India- but had NO IDEA I'd be subject to it as a 40 yr old professional woman marrying into a middle class Muslim family. Boy, was I in for a shock!

    Then there was the time I fed the Muslim Dalit carpenters working on our house lentils, omelette & rice for lunch. Not only did I get in trouble for feeding them, but I fed them on the patio furniture & with our everyday family tableware!!!
    I thought I married a Muslim, did I read the wrong Quran? There's no caste in Islam as I recall? And as Muslims are we not required to feed them & provide water for them if they are thirsty or hungry?
    Anyway- I held out & dear husband went to ask the Imam. I was RIGHT!!!
    Hubby came back & said, "Yes, the Imam said we must feed them. And they can eat on the patio furniture on our plates."
    That was an entire day's worth of arguing. 
    Geez, some of the things I put up with.

  2.  Yes it is not the first time I hear of the caste system creeping into other religions, that's because it is apparently less a religious thing than it is cultural. The way religions are practiced in India is also much different from how they are practiced in other part of the globe. I remember visiting a church in Mysore once to see people do a puja that pretty much looked hindu in style to Mary. A thing not done in the West at all.

    I'm fortunate not to live with the in-laws, I am pretty sure I would have gone crazy in no time. They alread  more or less expected me to turn Indian, at least my MIL, because somehow my being a foreigner is a bad thing and I must redeem myself.
    She has that nasty tendency to try to corner me in a room alone to give me mean lecture about how I need to compromise and all because she did the biggest sacrifice letting her son marry me in the first place...gasp!
    DH told me to totally ignore it, and leave the room if she comes in and there is nobody else to avoid being cornered. He pretty much ignores all the thing she says to him about me behind my back too, there is no point in arguing with her at all, we tried in the begining, with disastrous consequences. Sad though that we can behave for the odd week we are around them but she can't even suck it up and leave it alone...after nearly 6 years of marriage!

  3. shatranj4:03 AM

    It's not just non Indians that suffer culture shock and adjustment issues.  My extended family has been outside India for over 30 years and every time any of us goes back, we have a hard time adjusting to the food, hierarchy, and inconveniences of living.  The main difference in how each person in our family deals with it, is our attitude to change.  Some take it in their stride while others try to be all posh and expect 1st class treatment just because they are NRI.  We get ripped off just as much as a non-Indians because the shop keepers can pick up from our accent that we are not local.  We don't know any of the roads, so we can't tell the auto driver the way.  We practically have to have an escort where ever we go so we can find what we're looking for!  It becomes a burden for the family who remains in India because their whole time is taken up chauffeuring us around.  Even we have a hard time adjusting to food, climate and the lack of privacy.  It's a matter of attitude, I think.  After a while, you either adjust or suffer.

  4. This is exactly why I say that EVERY expats go through it, and "re-partiates" do have issues getting adjusted to back home to so experts advise to treat going back home long term just as settling in another foreign country. Indians settling in the US go through culture shock too.
    Attitude carries you only that far, been there, know tons of expats who've been there, the fact is that attitude or no attitude it takes years to ajust, and the frustration phase which is the nastiest of culture shock usually last 6-12 months or so. How one is affected by culture shock depends less on attitude than personal level of tolerance, emotionality, and what kind of evironement one grew up into and what kind of environement they find themselves in in their new country.
    As a kid I travelled a lot, and not the hotel route, we road tripped across Turkey, and Morocco, and across Europe as well, we ate local food, in Turkey when we were not camping we were staying in families that offered a room to paying guests, we went to public beaches, small eateries, dealt with sometimes less than hygienic toilets. I even got my share of food poisoning. Our trips were usually 3-4 weeks long as my parent stook a big leave to do these every Summer.
    You'd think growing up visiting so many places, and staying in less glitzy accomodation, driving around in our own car with just a road map, I would have been immune to culture shock, I was used to different cultures, I knew not all had the same standards of living, and I knew to expect siilar things in India. I made the choice to move to India, I have never regretted it one bit, but YES there have been some though moments, and I did have a mild case of culture shock, there have been moment of anger and frustration, and all the freaking pink positive attitude in the world didn't help one bit. I even tried deluding myself into pertending all was well, because of the saying "Fake it until you can feel it". Well faking "all is well" is the most ridiculously stupid thing I ever did in my life. I should have acknowledged the anger and frustration and agreed that craving food from home wasn't me being a failure as an expat. Thankfully I realised what was happening before it completely destroyed me, I started to vent, write in a diary, share my struggle with other expats online and the culture shock nasty phase finally gave to the "adjusting phase"
    And the most annoying thing one can tell an expat in the anger phase of culture shock is to stop mopping around and be positive...this is the most useless piece of advice to give, because that is like telling them they have no right to feel the way they do"


Blog Archive