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The shock of the new

Tuesday October 17, 2006

Roger Crisp

Moving to another culture is both exciting and frustrating, which is how it starts - culture shock, that is. As a tourist you?ll tend to remain at the honeymoon stage. If you stay and settle down, things move on and culture shock really takes off.

It sounds as if it should be a sudden, short, sharp experience but, according to the experts, there can be up to six stages of it, depending on how you divide up the process between the honeymoon and the resolution. You can?t buy anything at the chemist for it and nobody?s immune from it.

Culture shock is more of a drawn-out rite of passage, a cycle of integration, adaptation and readjustment. Following the honeymoon period you have to deal with the trivia and frustrations of daily life. ?You have to live somewhere to know the bad points,? a friend of mine once said.

In the middle stage of the process, little things can take on a vast significance. Is the water safe? Why can?t they repair the fridge today, or now?

After several years in Saudi Arabia I referred to the Koran as ?just a book?. Metaphorically, I had dug in my heels, defending my version of common sense. In my defence, I thought we were having an objective discussion about cultural attitudes. Now, I know: there?s nothing wrong in having critical opinions but let the locals do the criticising. Let the Irish tell Irish jokes; the Jews the Jewish jokes.

Humour, though, is an important way of dealing with culture. Recently, returning from Paris by Eurostar, a French guard said: ?Where did you get those strawberries from?? My first thoughts were, ?Here we go. They?ll be confiscated. So much for a Unified Europe.? The guard repeated his question, so I explained I?d bought them on the street a couple of hours ago. Then he smiled, ?Ah, but you should come back in two months time and buy the strawberries from the Garrigue. They?re small, but they?re the best there are!?

At a post office in Bahrain the clerk, on seeing my letters were going to England, said: ?Hmm, English? Same-same British, same-same American, yes?? To which I replied, ?So, Bahraini same-same Saudi, same-same Qatari, yes?? At which he laughed and we shook hands.

Moving on, both from idealising the home culture and from finding the new one totally irritating, heralds the start of a recovery. There are, though, two extremes of person who may never recover. One is the ethnocentric, who does everything ?as it should be?, meaning how it?s done at home. It?s ?criticise my country and you are criticising me; criticise me and you are criticising my country?. The other type is the person who has ?gone native? and totally rejected their home culture.

This rejection can also be aimed at fellow countrymen. A globe-trotting friend moved to Spain, having decided that he never wanted to live in the ?Islamic Republic of Britain? again. But he didn?t really care, either, for the Little Englanders he found there.

At worst these people, the ethnocentrics especially, can develop severe problems such as alcoholism, depression, drug addiction, psychiatric difficulties ? even becoming suicidal.

Culture shock doesn?t only happen abroad. The longer you?ve been away, the more likely you?ll have to go through a similar process on returning home, which is where the ?gone native? ones are most affected.

On its lighter side, though, it can simply be that your cultural reflexes are misplaced. A long-term BBC Middle Eastern correspondent told me that, on coming home, he had been shocked at how much female flesh was publicly on display. At a dinner he?d recoiled in horror, initially, as a female acquaintance placed a customary peck on his cheek.

Your travels may simply not register in the mindsets of those you meet. After a series of long stints working and travelling in the east I wandered back into my local pub and met an acquaintance.
?Where have you just come back from this time, then??
?Outer Mongolia and China.?
?Uh-huh.?
He paused and took a mouthful of beer.
?Did you see who won the local football last weekend??

Not everyone will be enthralled by your experiences. Too much expectation can make return culture shock worse. If no one wants to listen, then get it off your chest, perhaps by writing about it.

The phrase ?culture shock? was coined by Dr Kalervo Oberg in the 1950s. Perhaps though, the surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico was nearer the mark, capturing the uncertainties of the condition with his title ?The Enigma of Arrival?. The ?arrival? is the easy bit; the ?enigma? is what you need to sort out.

Inspired? If this strikes a chord with you, why don't you share your experiences with other Guardian Abroad readers? Visit our talkboards and spark up a conversation. Or if you're interested in submitting an article, look at our editorial policy to find out how.

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