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What to make of culture shock?

GLPer Kris Gilmour has been exploring the dimensions of culture shock after his PACE International experience in India. In his blog and accompanying film, he makes some interesting observations and has some great insights into being a foreigner in India or anywhere else in the world.

I see culture shock as process of change, a change in self, which has implications equally at an individual and global level. I suggest a formula, although not prescriptive, as a way of explaining this process; an inherent human insecurity with difference and ‘the other’, leading to discomfort. This in turn provides us with a challenge to either accept or solve the cause of this feeling and that choice inevitably leads to knowledge and the opportunity to learn. This can be applied to any example of displacement; domestic or international, forced or leisure, large or small.

Culture shock is a response to an unfamiliar environment. It can manifest overtly or benignly but it is the choices we make when we arrive in a new place, which have the greatest impact on us. Do we choose to integrate or ‘normalise’ our space? Do we adapt to, or raise walls to our new environment? Do we go intrepid, towards the experience of the new, or attempt to find the familiar? It is worth noting that culture shock is not exclusive to a travel experience and can very actively occur whenever and wherever we enter new environments. Think about the feeling you may have had when joining a new group be it spiritual, fitness, hobby or professional.

The constant factor in culture shock is our individuality. It is our unique context that leads us to new encounters and influences our responses. And so this begs the question; what does culture shock look like?

Through this film I wanted to identify that there are macro and micro implications of culture shock that each derive from a human insecurity about the ‘other’. When we encounter a new place, particularly when traveling, we tend to concentrate on how it may be similar and/ or different to what we are more familiar with. This is a useful way to compare and contrast lifestyles and practices in a new place, however, the trouble comes when we make attempts to recreate the ‘missing’ elements of home. This behaviour is rational and totally understandable, however the choices and effort we make to create a familiar environment directly influences the impact of culture shock.

In this film I suggest a method of how to manage this. It is essentially a question of timing and moderation. As soon as we feel the twang of discomfort at the sight of a challenge on the horizon we must seize the opportunity to integrate with our new environment and rush towards the encounter with an optimistic spirit. The sooner we engage with a new experience it acts as a symbol of willingness and welcoming to your surroundings. People will notice the effort you have taken and the novelty will become the bridge to social integration with your new space.

Culture shock is an indicator of difference from what is normal to us. It is subjective and we each respond uniquely. To get the most from it however, it is important to embrace difference without a goal to find familiar. Embracing difference is key to removing our insecurity about ‘the other’, which can in turn ease the effects of culture shock.

We have absolutely nothing to loose from challenging ourselves; embrace the feeling culture shock gives and see it as the opportunity to learn about ourselves and others.

Disclaimer: This work is my opinion based on observational evidence and personal experience. Ethnographic methodologies including, observation, conversations with locals, students and other travellers and historical interpretation are used to inform my analysis of culture shock. This investigation was undertaken as part of my academic project for PACE360 on my PACE International placement during the 2015 Winter Vacation in India.

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