We’re all set to move abroad! Our bags are packed, and we’ve got our tickets. To say I was feeling excited would be an understatement. Never in a million years did I think that I would ever live abroad! What would it be like? What are the people like? What are the schools like? What will my apartment look like? There were so many questions going through my head. And if you thought that I was excited, you should’ve seen my family and friends. They were looking forward to the experience just as much as I was! They wanted a front row seat to my upcoming adventure abroad.
“You better post lots of pictures and videos! We wanna see EVERYTHING!” I heard this from all of my family and close friends. Well yeah, I’m definitely gonna post pictures on Facebook. But, I didn’t wanna flood my Facebook feed with videos that most of them wouldn’t care about. So, I created a private Facebook page for my family and close friends where I would post videos. The videos would document every step, from leaving for the airport, waiting in line to board the plane, arriving in Abu Dhabi, going to our apartment for the first time, etc. I wanted to show them EVERYTHING! And for the first year, that’s just what I did.
You’ll want to see the actual footage, so click on the video below to get a glimpse of my first year living in Abu Dhabi. When you’re finished, come back and read about my experiences through each stage of culture shock.
In the past when I would hear the term “culture shock” it used to make me think of someone who is truly in a state of shock and staring at someone or something who is different with their mouth dropped and eyes wide open. I would think to myself, I didn’t really experience culture shock. I just went with the flow. However culture shock goes beyond experiencing something new. It’s more of a process that develops over time, and that period of time is different for everyone.
I read a few different articles about culture shock, and some of them described culture shock being in stages. As I read about those stages I thought, “Yeah! This is exactly how it is!” THIS is culture shock……not the gawking at something new, that I thought people were talking about when they would mention it. I had it all wrong!
I’m gonna go through the common stages, describing the symptoms of each stage and my personal thoughts as I went through each stage of culture shock.
- The Honeymoon Stage
- Excitement with new sounds, sights, smells.
- Superficial involvement in the host culture (like a tourist).
- Intrigue with both similarities and differences between the new culture and your home culture.
- Lots of interest in learning, very motivated and cooperative.
- You feel as if you will be able to handle anything—“I am not going to have any problems adjusting!”
Yes, yes, and yes! This is EXACTLY how I felt at the beginning of my stay in Abu Dhabi. I was so curious and interested in everything! What is that smoky fragrance that is passed around at events? Arabic is written from right to left? Books are opened in the opposite direction? There are no addresses or zip codes? Did you see that caviar vending machine? OMG, there’s a vending machine that has gold in it! You can get fined and deported if you stick your middle finger up at someone? The truck that picks up trash is a Mercedes!
Everything was so intriguing to me! I noticed how all the Emiratis walk with confidence. The women seem to glide as they walk in their high heels, full makeup done, and henna done. The men walked chest out with this confidence, facial hair tightly groomed, and smelling good! I kept hearing the phrase “Inshallah” everywhere I went. This means if it’s in God’s will. The answer to so many questions was Inshallah. I also remember telling myself that I’m going to learn Arabic, and I’m so happy that I’m teaching KG because I can be in the classroom with the Arabic teacher to learn the letters…..that didn’t happen, though.
Even the way people greet each other is different. In America we shake hands, and there are even several ways to do that. But if you see someone every day, like your coworkers, you just say hello and move on. In this country, it is customary to go around to every single person in the room and shake their hand when you enter. And it’s not really a shake….it’s more of a “touch and go.” Sometimes you give a shake and then you also give cheek kisses. But it’s not usually one kiss on one side, and one kiss on another side (like you see the ladies do on The Real Housewives of NewYork). From my experience, the cheek kiss is mostly on one side and depending on the occasion, it may be more than one kiss. If you haven’t seen the person in awhile, if it’s a special occasion like a wedding, if you’re giving condolences, or anything else out of the ordinary; you give three or four cheek kisses. The Emirati men greet each other with and handshake and touching their noses. Comparing and contrasting American culture with Arabic culture became weekly thing. I started to ask my Arabic co-teachers cultural questions about the country, the government, the religion, family life, etc. Then when I spoke to my loved ones at home, I would tell them all about the things I was learning. We were all so curious!
- The Frustration/Irritability and Hostility Stage
- You start to feel that what is different is actually inferior.
- The host culture is confusing or the systems are frustrating.
- It’s a small step from saying that they do things in a different way to saying that they do things in a stupid way.
- You may blame your frustrations on the new culture (and its shortcomings) rather than on the adaptation process.
I can definitely relate to this stage. There have been plenty of time when I’ve rolled my eyes at how things were done at the bank, at the store, and especially at work. Why do they do it this way? Why don’t they just do this? Wouldn’t it be easier if…..? I’m not going to go deep into this part because I don’t want to get in trouble for seeming like I’m bad-mouthing the country (yes, you can get in trouble for that). So all I’ll say is this: Yes, I can relate to the frustration stage.
- The Adjustment Stage
- You feel more relaxed and develop a more balanced, objective view of your experience.
- Frustrations are often subdued as travelers begin to feel more familiar and comfortable with the cultures, people, food and languages of new environments.
- Navigation becomes easier, friends and communities of support are established and details of local languages may become more recognizable during the adjustment stage.
It didn’t take long to get to this stage. It wasn’t difficult to adjust to life here because there is such a large expat community. If we need to vent, we vent to each other. If we need to get away for the weekend to blow off steam, we do it together. Just as you learn the ways of a new work environment, a new neighborhood, or a new part of your own country; you do the same for a new country. You have no choice BUT to adjust.
There were also some adjustments I had to make in my classroom. When looking for teaching materials on the internet (videos, worksheets, hands-on activities), I had to be very conscience of some things. I couldn’t show anything with pigs on it. At times there would be a video that would be perfect for my kids. Then in the middle of the song, there goes a pig! Ugh! Now what do I do? If it’s a video that I really want, I edit the video so the pig isn’t in the video. I do the same thing for worksheets. So, I’ve learned to be on the lookout for pigs when searching for resources about letter “p,” short “I” vowel, the color pink, farm animals, or when looking for alphabet charts with pictures.
Once I was teaching natural resources in science, and I found a sorting worksheet online. I saw there was a pig as one of the items to sort and made a mental note to take the pigs out. Well….I forgot to do it, and as the Arabic teacher was helping me get the worksheets together for the kids, she held up the little paper with the pig, frowned her eyebrows, and said, “Is this a pig?” For a split second, I froze. It ended up not being a big deal. I just reassured her that I was going to take all the pictures of the pig out.
I also have to be aware of any videos that may have a people giving each other a peck on the cheek. I had this video of the letter “m,” and one of the words was the word marry. I no longer show that video because the man and woman kiss for just a split second…..it’s really just a peck on the lips. It may not seem like a big deal, but I didn’t wanna find myself in a situation where a parent is complaining to my principal about me showing people kissing in the classroom. But, now it’s second nature. I automatically look to make sure the resources I use are free of any offensive material.
- The Acceptance/Adaptation Stage
- You feel a new sense of belonging and sensitivity to the host culture.
- Acceptance doesn’t mean that new cultures or environments are completely understood, rather it signifies realization that complete understanding isn’t necessary to function and thrive in the new surroundings.
- During the acceptance stage, travelers have the familiarity and are able to draw together the resources they need to feel at ease.
I am definitely at this stage now and have been for awhile now. The things that used to frustrate me in the Irritability Stage, don’t frustrate me anymore (well, at least not as much). I know that it is what it is. I accept the differences, I accept the rules, and I find myself defending them when I talk to friends or family back home.
As I stated earlier, it didn’t take long for me to adjust or go through these common stages of culture shock. You have to be open-minded and willing to experience a new culture in order for your transition to be a smooth one. The only thing I need to worry about now is this reverse-culture shock when I move back home in two months!