On culture shock, or the lack thereof

People living abroad often experience ‘culture shock’. I find it hard to describe culture shock in just a few words, but simply put it refers to the process we all go through when coming into contact with a culture different from our own (see below for scientific definitions of culture shock).

culture shock

One of the most typical things about living in a different culture is that you are unfamiliar with the correct way to do even the simplest of things. How to greet your neighbour in the elevator, how to order in a restaurant (regardless of language constraints), how to do the laundry or operate the stove, how to do your groceries … All these things have to be learned again, as if one was a child. This feeling of being completely lost in the day-to-day world can sometimes cause feelings of anxiety, frustration, alienation or depression.

Having lived abroad before, I braced myself upon arrival in Japan. Hit me culture shock! But the shock didn’t come. I was loving every minute of my new Japanese life. All the differences were not alienating or frustrating, they were wonderful and interesting. Although I too was lost in all the aforementioned day-to-day things, strangely (and different from my previous experiences in foreign cultures) this did not lead to frustration or anger. Just fascination.

But wait a minute, it’s probably just ‘the honeymoon phase’, the first phase of culture shock. This phase, where everything is exciting and exotic typically lasts around three to six months. As we have been living in Japan for about six months now, I have been expecting the second phase, often referred to as ‘frustration/ withdrawal/ crisis phase’ for some time now. But so far so good. No crisis phase in sight.

culture shock U-Curve

Culture shock U-curve

Admittedly some things have changed. I don’t take a picture of every single thing I see anymore. I’m no longer constantly amazed as I walk down the street. I have recently had a few non-perfect Japanese experiences such as an unpleasant and alienating doctor’s visit or a conversation that was completely lost in translation. But despite all this I still love my Japanese life and am still fascinated by Japanese culture.

I remain a little distrusting of this serenity and continue to brace myself for whatever may happen next. Maybe there will be a reverse culture shock when we return to Belgium for a two-week holiday. Or maybe the culture shock will happen upon returning to Japan after our holiday. But then again, maybe I will just have the good luck to be stuck in the honeymoon phase forever. Here’s hoping.


(1) Definition of culture shock by Oberg: Culture Shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life.

(2) Definition of culture shock by Hofstede: A state of distress following the transfer of a person to an unfamiliar cultural environment, which may also be accompanied by physical symptoms.