Skip main navigation

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 dyna
© Steve J. Kulich, Shanghai International Studies University

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

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.

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, my own, and other’s experiences have convinced me of the “wave pattern” of cultural adjustment illustrated here. Note the repeated ‘U’s in the pattern across 5 or more stages:

Going through waves of cultural adaption Image 1

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). 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 keep struggling with or adjust to different aspects of a new situation. In the article you can note how Yang goes through each of these stages with recurring ups and downs.

1. The honeymoon period (Enthused Entry and Energized Starts) 2. The culture stress period (Confused Cultural Struggles) 3. The initial adjustments period (Regained Balance/Early Cycles of Adaptation) 4. Mental isolation periods (Challenging Identity Renegotiations) 5. Dynamic acceptance and integrations (Ongoing Balancing of Identities and Contributions)

Conclusions for facing each new wave

Any cross-cultural transition process certainly has exasperating moments and difficult phases. Waves come and waves go. Though these “phases” provide a sample of the potential highs and lows, research suggests that only 10% of sojourners 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 (as noted in Nan Sussman’s article in the next step).

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 gain many new skills, awareness of our limitations, insights into our potential, clarification of our identities, values, relationships, and contributions. Over time, I’ve become more and more certain that being aware of this commonly-shared process can help 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 valuable.

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. /courses/intercultural-communication

© Steve J. Kulich, Shanghai International Studies University
This article is from the free online

Intercultural Communication: Dynamics of cultural identities in global interaction

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now