Dealing with Culture Shock – Don’t Isolate

Many experts describe culture shock as a psycho-physical phenomenon that presents in 4-5 stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation/Depression, Adjustment, Mastery, and Re-entry. One of my colleagues, however, thinks of it as something more akin to bi-polarity with fluctuating periods of enchantment/excitement and frustration/homesickness. So far, my experience has been conforming mostly to that latter model. It’s been mostly positive, but there have been some intense bouts of acute stress and anxiety that have sent me reaching for the prescription bottle in the last three weeks. The pattern that colleague described supposedly plays out over long periods, but the fluctuations have felt more rapid to me, cycling from high to low in as little as hours. This past week was especially difficult due to apartment search drama, about which I may say more if I can find a way to make it interesting.

There are, of course, ways to cope with the fairly inevitable sense of disorientation that comes from adjusting to a new environment, be it a new country, job, or school (or in my case, all three). But one of the hardest pieces of advice to apply, I think, if you are an introvert or have a history of depression (or both) is to resist the urge to isolate. When it’s difficult to communicate, when the environment is intimidating and draining, the pull of solitude is incredibly powerful. At least it is for me. Solitude is my way of recuperating and restoring myself. At my healthiest, it is the best, most effective form of self-care that I can practice. So, it’s difficult sometimes to recognize when I shouldn’t be doing it.

Moving to a new country and getting situated in a new job is definitely not the time to turn inward. This is a mistake I made early on in graduate school and one I’m trying not to repeat now. Intimidated by people who seemed so much smarter than me and an academic environment so different from what I was accustomed to or expected, I pretty much never went out. And it meant that while I had some friends, I felt cut off from the social life of my department most of the time. When you repeatedly turn down invitations, people tend to stop asking you to go out drinking with them. And that–rather than classes–tends to be where a lot of people do their bonding.

This is why three Friday nights in a row I’ve done the unthinkable and gotten half in the bag with nearly complete strangers instead of succumbing to the desire to go take a bath and fall asleep watching Netflix. This is why tonight I forced myself to stay at a party and make small talk for longer than was comfortable. And to my surprise, I haven’t regretted those choices, even when it meant racing to catch the metro before it closed at 1:00 am. I think perhaps it will take someone with a similar temperament to mine to understand what a big deal this is, how unnatural it feels to cope with the stress of moving into a new apartment and adjusting to a new set of students and trying to manage the various and occasionally bewildering differences between the US and Russia by seeking people out rather than turning inward.

I have never and still do not see my strong tendency toward introversion as a liability or a defect. If anything, it fosters a sense of autonomy that makes certain parts of this transition easier. But navigating this whole process does also require me to draw on interpersonal resources that I, and many like me, am not accustomed to developing or utilizing.

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One thought on “Dealing with Culture Shock – Don’t Isolate

  1. This is the way to go, absolutely. Especially in Moscow, where any meaningful social interaction is bound to involve some form of drinking. Also, very good choice of drinking places so far – nice and quiet. Much more fun than Netflix!

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