Culture Shock or “How’s the Serenity?”

CSCulture shock can be a complicated, confusing, disorienting experience.  It is defined as the individual’s sense of dislocation when attempting to settle into a new environment. Moving cities can be hard enough. Moving countries requires you to adapt to foreign values, mannerisms, mind-sets and traditions while trying to find your balance  and create a new home. Some of the most common problems include information overload, communication barriers, homesickness and the lack of a cultural skill set to deal with the new environment.

For me, culture shock has always seemed a bit melodramatic, like ‘man flu.’ My instinctive reaction is to say ‘o, just buck up and get on with it!’  And that terribly-British-stiff-upper-lip I was raised on has generally stood me in good stead. We have moved countless times through several countries in the past twenty five years, and I have always loved the adventure of setting up in a new place. Sure, there are the usual stresses and strains of moving house with a pack of kids and a stack of furniture, but it always leads to a clean slate, a fresh start, new friends to meet, new places to see, and the opportunity to immerse myself in a whole new world.

So imagine my surprise to discover that, on our tenth major move, I had ‘caught’ culture shock.

According to Wikipedia, ‘culture shock is a subcategory of a more universal construct called transition shock.’ In case you are wondering, the symptoms include: feelings of helplessness and withdrawal; irritability; mood swings; physiological stress reactions, and physical exhaustion. In retrospect, I can’t understand why I didn’t diagnose it sooner, but I am convinced temporary brain dysfunction is one of the lesser known symptoms. Or maybe that was just due to the heat and humidity.

Now please understand that we came to the Philippines willingly, and with great enthusiasm. My One & Only and I have long since realized that, like Dory in Nemo, we both have a short attention span. It has extended a little as we have got older but nonetheless we inevitably reach a point – luckily for our marriage, at about the same time – when, like gypsies, we decide it is time to move on. Not necessarily because we don’t like the place we are in, but simply because our feet start to twitch and we know we need a change.

Also, we have had a lot of joy out of living in the Philippines. All of us have expanded our horizons, tried new things,
evolved, made wonderful friends, travelled liberally, eaten extensively and, if one Facebook friend is to be believed, hung precariously upon the lip of the abyss (or glass) gazing down into the depths of imminent alcoholism. I have really enjoyed making Filipino friends – not so easy in a posting where English is not in common use – and love them for their humour, their warmth and their joie de vivre: wherever two or more Filipinos are gathered together there will be a party that generally involves food, costumes and karaoke.

So why was I so unsettled? I made endless excuses for my ever-present sense of frustration – although, let’s face it, I have never been a woman of saintly temper –  as I tried and failed to come to grips with the Filipino perspective on life. Emotional? Well, obviously! For the first time we had not moved as a complete family unit, and I was missing our daughter, which easily explained my frequent, inexplicable bouts of weeping. Endless visits to the doctor for various physical ailments proved it was neither menopause nor depression, arthritis nor cancer. We had a good life, in fact we were living in the lap of luxury, the kids were at a great school and seemed happy, my husband’s job was going well, I was getting on with my writing, and that had given me a fascinating entrée into my new home. So why was I  feeling such a mess?cartoon

I have always considered myself to be – prided myself on being – adaptable and resilient. To paraphrase fellow blogger, Julnar Rizk, resilience involves having a strong belief in your abilities and in who you are. It means having the agility to adapt to change without losing sight of your core values. It requires a focus on the future, not the past, and it means an endless curiosity and desire for learning. I was all these things… once… and yet…

Of course the guilt made it worse. We did have a wonderful life. Every day I spent in the streets of Manila highlighted just how lucky we were, living in a country where, despite the endless construction and signs of increasing development, poverty is a daily grind for the majority. What on earth did I have to complain about? I made concerted efforts to be positive and upbeat. We entertained, I joined everything, life became increasingly decadent. I had done this all plenty of times before without batting an eyelid. Now it was exhausting. My mood swings, frustration, hyperactive self-criticism, grief – it made no sense, my own illogical over-reactions were frightening. I was used to being in control. What was happening to me?

And then I began to realize I wasn’t the only one. I have now seen and spoken to so many trailing spouses, many my age, who struggle to take back control of their lives and their emotions. Maybe I was giving out a new empathetic vibe, but suddenly total strangers were downloading about the struggle they were having settling in.  That may not have made me feel a whole lot better but at least I didn’t feel so isolated.

culture-shock-chartYet despite all the clues, the diagnosis did not fall into place until I read an article recently about culture shock. Apparently it can affect anyone, even the most seasoned traveller. It is a crisis of confidence for which we shouldn’t judge ourselves harshly, yet we inevitably do. It can seem like a mild dose of homesickness or a terrifying Jekyll and Hyde personality change. And it is largely underestimated in the Philippines, which has at least a veneer of the familiar. Yes, there are McDonalds and Toyotas, ATMs and English. But the cultural values can sometimes feel a million miles from our own.

So what changed? Unexpectedly, unaccountably, the storm passed. Almost overnight – although I cannot pinpoint the when or the why – the wind went out of my sails. I realized I had developed a bucket load of coping strategies, including humour. Now I can – eventually – make a funny story about every awkward situation I get myself into, and every pointless battle I fight. Inexplicably I found myself accepting the cultural mores of the Filipinos; swallowing, if not accepting, the social imbalances; keeping my eyes sensibly averted from the traffic;  no longer over-reacting to everything. I still swear too much, but I accept that this can be a good pressure valve and just try not to let too many people overhear me.

There is a prayer I learnt at school: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I finally understand it. I’m not perfect. There are still days when physical violence might be the only option, but I am learning to avoid those situations or walk away – not a bad response to this passive/aggressive city. And there are still some things I would like the courage to change – although I think I will eventually accept that I cannot single-handedly retrain every waiter in Manila to bring out all our meals together. That is just not the Filipino way.

That article I read explained that the best way to handle culture shock is to recognize it, accept it, focus on moving though it: a simple paraphrasing of my favouite prayer indeed, and it is  good advice I am now ready to accept.

I don’t know how much longer we will be here, but it probably won’t be forever, so I am glad I am in a head space to enjoy whatever time we have left, and that the lump of frustration that was stuck in my throat for over two years has finally dissolved. It is a fascinating country, and I have loved learning to understand the way it ticks. It may not be my way, but we live comfortably side by side now, and I am not constantly at loggerheads with that which I do not understand or wish to emulate. And hopefully I have learnt new skills to prevent being crushed by culture shock next time.

* With thanks to Google images for the graphics.

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