The term “culture shock” sounds like a newly invented, catchy phrase that covers many things—and that is exactly what it is. More and more people are jetting across the world, visiting countries they know virtually nothing about, and “culture shock” describes the wide and varying range of emotions that they feel. It is a combination of the physical and psychological stresses that are experienced when a person moves into a new environment. Sights, smells and tastes are all different. The people are of a different culture and have a different frame of reference. They think differently, have a different sense of humour and priorities that are different from yours. Then, there is the added problem of communication. You may not speak their language, and hence feel further alienated.
It is not necessarily the locality itself which causes the problems, but the additional stresses that occur within a person as he or she tries to adjust to a foreign place. Its duration can be quite lengthy. Foreigners already settled for several years in a country will still come across the odd moment when they experience culture shock. But knowing what to expect and how it may affect you makes the period of adjustment much easier.
Cultural Comparisons
If you want to feel relaxed and comfortable in the country that you are settling in, the differences between the local people and your own way of thinking and doing things must be examined. They are simply cultural differences. There is no right or wrong involved.
As a child, you were taught what was socially correct within your own culture and society. You were brought up to react a certain way. When you move from country to country, and from culture to culture, this social etiquette alters. For instance, within much of the Western world, embarrassment is shown by downcast eyes, a serious face and a look showing that you wish you were elsewhere. Through¬out much of Asia, laughter or smiling is a normal reaction to embarrassment. But when Westerners are faced with this, they judge it against their own social conditioning and often deem it unacceptable, or they may take it as an indication of something other than embarrassment.
You may be tempted to say that you are right, or that your way of doing things is better. Try to avoid imposing your opinion on others. In Vietnam, especially, the mix of visitors spans many continents and even throwing a dinner party for other expatriates may cross several cultural boundaries. Greetings are different and socially acceptable conversation varies, as does the manner in which people treat each other.
Recognising Culture Shock
It is not something that is always obvious. Conversations about the emotional stages that a foreigner goes through—trying to cope with life away from home and the problems encountered—are not usually voiced as freely as restaurant recommendations. The mental adjust¬ments that are required increase the stress level in a person and this manifests itself in a variety of ways.
You question your sanity, for instance, when a minor incident upsets you tremendously. Arguments over the smallest of things become common. Things that you normally cope with easily frustrate you. You become annoyed at your own seeming inability to function efficiently and effectively. You blame yourself, feeling that you are the only one suffering such problems. Problems associated with stress—such as ill health, depression, poor sleeping patterns, leth¬argy, becoming withdrawn or an alteration of normal behaviour patterns—take hold.
Some new arrivals feel as if the only contacts with Vietnamese that they make are with people out to get something from them. A serving lady welcomes you into the shop with a broad smile and a little voice at the back of your head says “She’s only smiling because I’m a foreigner and she thinks I will pay much higher prices than a local would”. Someone starts a conversation with you as you wait at the airport for friends to arrive and the same little voice says “He’s not really being friendly, he just wants someone to practise his English on”. These feelings may emerge when you are tired or worried but unfortunately, they can be a recurring thought. Your fears may have some basis at times but most Vietnamese are simply being courteous and curious about you.
Who Suffers from Culture Shock?
Everyone suffers from culture shock. Even the most travel-weary person who has “been there and seen that” experiences it. Every new country has its own culture. Moving to a new place means a readjust¬ment, no matter how many times you have done it before.
If you have lived in a similar place previously, you may not find it so hard to cope initially. China has historically dominated much of Vietnam and many aspects of its culture have been adopted here. So if you are familiar with Chinese ways, you may already know about the Confucian set of social values or the traditional practice of gift-giving during the New Year. But there are also many differences between the two cultures and you may find yourself expecting one thing but getting another.
Unanticipated reactions from another person, or a surprise emo¬tion of your own, can cause culture shock. A first-timer usually expects everything to be new and different and realises that he will have to tackle a range of problems in trying to settle down. However, a long-term expatriate who has been through the worry of moving, finding friends and learning a new language, often thinks he has overcome some of the other issues as well. Well, this is usually not the case. One expatriate complained, “I know better and it shouldn’t have happened to me!” after an air-conditioner was placed in the wrong position for the third time because she had not been there to supervise the installation personally.

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