Going through waves of cultural adaption

Though culture shock processes are often presented as U or W curves, this reading shows that waves of cultural adaptation keep coming. Culture is dynamic and our adjustments keep going through highs and lows that ultimately expand us.

Facing the continuing waves

The attached article follows the ups and downs that Yang faced when he went to the US over 20 years ago. You can download and read the article to best see these processes explained and generalized. Highlights from Yang’s story are provided for your review here.

Yang’s case of lifelong cultural transition processes

When my friend Yang got his acceptance letter to do graduate studies at a university in the USA, he was thrilled! His dream to study overseas was finally coming true. He had worked hard on his English, made several American friends, read about the culture, prepared diligently for the TOEFL and GRE examinations, and chose some good schools to apply to. Now that long process of hard work was bearing fruit. He was not only accepted, but also given a scholarship. The application process was over, his dream fulfilled.

But what Yang didn’t realize was that a whole new process was just beginning - a process of cultural transition. In the coming years, Yang went through each of the normal phases of cultural adjustment, and for a short time, that dream felt like a nightmare, at others, like a rude awakening. But over time, Yang managed to adjust and find his place in his “new world.”

Yang’s and my own experience have convinced me of the “wave pattern” of cultural adjustment. After the first U of the entry years, there comes another U as one faces the realization he or she will never fully adjust (a kind of delayed identity crisis), and other circumstances with work or family stages might precipitate further U’s. These represent the psychological highs and lows that come over time as we struggle with or adjust to a new situation. And they keep coming. Yang’s story illustrates these.

Because of his good preparation, he first went through the typical “Honeymoon” high. Then he hit the frustrations of culture shock and unexpected stress. After that he made some psychological adjustments and embarked on the long process of cultural adaptation. Later he faced a growing sense of cultural alienation. And finally he managed to work out his own terms of dynamic integration (though those displacement waves kept coming back every 3-5 years, causing him to keep renegotiating his various identities and place in this ongoing process).

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1. The honeymoon period (Enthused Entry and Energized Starts)

After Yang had gotten his acceptance letter, his excitement kept growing. He got his Chinese passport, passed his US consulate interview and got his visa, packed his bags, and bought his airplane ticket. Soon he was soaring on his way to California. That “soaring” attitude continued for several weeks. The enthusiasm he had built up allowed him to view his first experiences in America very positively.

Yang’s first letters were very enthusiastic. “America is a great place. I love it here! The people are so friendly and life is so convenient. I’m having a wonderful time!” He was full of enthusiasm and optimism. Just like when two lovers get married and start their life together, all the new experiences seem like a happy “dream come true!” (the attached article explains more of this stage)

2. The culture stress period (Confused Cultural Struggles) Yang’s letters after several months reflected a big change of tone. He started writing about the many problems he was having. He started to criticize everything around him. “These Americans all act so friendly, but really they are just selfish. Many have said, ‘we should get together for lunch sometime,’ but no one has yet invited me to join them to eat. They are really superficial and hypocritical!”

Were these Americans really being unkind or unsympathetic? Probably not intentionally (though he did have several encounters that felt like discrimination). Most were just following their cultural patterns (“We’ll have to have lunch sometime!” is just a common way of parting, and does not suggest a real lunch invitation). And because Yang came from a different cultural system, he was now confronting those differences. But his initial tolerance and energy for adjustment had now worn off. The more tired he got, the more critical he became, and the deeper his sense of culture shock grew.

Yang’s growing feelings of frustration, misunderstanding, encountering difficulty and homesickness were stretched out longer than Dr. Dong’s story above. After one year in the US, Yang wrote that he was really frustrated and couldn’t wait to finish his studies and return to China. This is often the hardest part of the transition process. But the longer you live in a new place, the more you slowly get used to it. Yang did – he is still there and now doesn’t want face the readjustments of coming back!

3. The initial adjustments period (Regained Balance/Early Cycles of Adaptation) Like most people, Yang is a born survivor. After several years in the US, we heard from him again. His attitude had totally changed. Gone were his feelings of depression or impatience with “those Americans.” He had just graduated, was feeling good about himself and was looking for a job to stay longer.

Somewhere in the middle of Yang’s early years in the States, he had begun to adjust. He got used to everyday activities and became comfortable with studying, shopping, living and working with Americans. He was more confident of his language and communication skills. And so he was willing to continue his stay abroad. And he has done so successfully now for more than a decade.

4. Mental isolation periods (Challenging Identity Renegotiations) One of the most surprising stages of cultural adjustment comes much later (and this is often overlooked in the classic U or W curves, based on short-term adjustments). People like Yang overcome culture shock, adapt to daily life and proceed fairly smoothly in their adopted culture for a long time. But over the years, a troubling question arises: “I can live here, but will I ever feel natural here, like I belong?” This feeling of being a “permanent outsider” or some sort of displaced nomad seems to grow stronger year by year.

Even though an engaged cultural learner can catch up with the current cultural conditions, you never fully regain the years you missed out on (at least experientially). The history, music, TV shows and educational experiences of other people in this context are not the same as yours. And a growing distance from “home” compounds these feelings of being a “long-term cultural outsider.” …You worry you are not truly “yourself” anymore and that it is impossible to truly feel like the locals, so you’re just trapped somewhere in between. This can cause a deep sense of confused identity and psychological isolation.

This phase seems to hit people at about the 7-10 year mark (like the “7 year itch” in marriage, or mid-career dips in jobs) …But the psychological adjustments this emotional dip requires are good ones for developing greater cross-cultural competence.

In Bennett and Hammer’s Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), this is when we might break more freely from our ethnocentric patterns to a degree of ethnorelativism. By confronting the problems and identity crises we face, we can learn to develop more tolerance, a more realistic sense of our role and contribution, and grow in new ways. Yang did this over time.

5. Dynamic acceptance and integrations (Ongoing Balancing of Identities and Contributions) Yang has now been in the US over 20 years. He has married, has a good job and seems to feel very comfortable there. But he is now aware of what parts of his life are still Chinese, where he can function well with Americans, and in what ways he is a mix of both, and what he values of both. This “third-culture” or “blended culture” identity allows Yang to relate well to other new immigrants to the US. In many ways, he has become a multicultural person, able to contribute to both China and America.

There will undoubtedly still be periods (maybe due to job stress, a missed promotion, family strains, and so on) where Yang might again go through the highs and lows of the next wave. This does not mean that he has not fully adjusted, just that he is continuing on his long road of cross-cultural development.

Conclusions for facing each new wave

The cross-cultural transition process can have its exasperating moments and difficult phases. Waves come and waves go. Though these “phases” provide an sample of the potential highs and lows that sojourners might face, research suggests that only 10% go though these 5 stages in this way. Some start and end low in their overseas experiences, but have a high phase in the middle (see the recommended article by Nan Sussman below).

However our ups and downs come, most of us find ways not only of coping, but also of swimming meaningfully through them. We’re stretched, but we develop many new skills, awareness of our limitations, insights into our potential, clarification of our identities, values, relationships, and contributions.

Observing students like Yang and my own experiences, I’m assured that being aware of this commonly-shared process can help most of us pass through more willingly and climb out of the lows more purposely. Such an awareness and openness to this process can make our own cross-cultural adjustment journeys more meaningful.

Recommended Citation:
Kulich, S. J. (2015). Facing the continuing waves—Lifelong cultural transition processes. Retrieved from the SISU Intercultural Institute, Shanghai International Studies University online Course. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/intercultural-communication

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)