Culture shock is almost as difficult to talk about as it is to navigate. If it hadn’t been for numerous classes on cultural literacy and a semester of learning about culture as it relates to life and faith, I would feel lost and without the words to describe this complicated phase of my transition to life in France.
Despite having spent a semester and two summers abroad, culture shock is a completely foreign experience to me. The longest I had been out of America before this year was 3 months. So here I am at the 8 month mark today and I have to say… it feels a lot different than 3 months. The name “culture shock” feels a little harsh to me because my reality hasn’t been a great shock or a huge wave of homesickness. Rather, it feels like wading through mud slowly and wanting to yell “THIS IS HIGHLY INCONVENIENT” whenever businesses are inexplicably closed or bureaucratic paperwork seems endless.
Sometimes culture shock is instead called withdrawal, crisis, devastation, and disorientation. For me, I think it would be more relevant to call it somewhat of a mourning period. While it certainly hasn’t had the intensity of periods of my life when I’ve gone through grief, there are still things I have to remember aren’t the same.
Sometimes it means mourning missing friends’ big events (be it graduations or engagements or weddings). Other times it means mourning the loss of a friendship that, no matter how hard you try, can’t seem to stand the test of distance.
Culture shock also means adjusting to new personalites and habits. If I were to make one sweeping generalization about French people, it would be this: French people are not exceptionally warm. I generally feel a certain distance or standoffishness from the French (particularly women). After having spent 4 years in the south, I definitely appreciate people who are warm and gentle. French people don’t smile at just anyone and I’ve actually been told I smile too much.
How I feel about French culture can be very day-specific. Perhaps the worst thing that launches me into feelings of culture shock is when I feel clueless because of lack of cultural understanding.
Recently at school for lunch, there were two choices for the hot lunch. One was fish in a cream sauce and the other was chicken cordon bleu. I said, “chicken please!” and the teacher in line in front of me said, “Hah! That’s ok. You’re still young,” as she exchanged a laugh with the cafeteria lady who served me my chicken. I instantly thought, “Uh oh.” I asked another teacher and confirmed with G later… I had asked for the French equivalent of dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets without knowing it.
A couple weeks ago, I was doing an activity with some sixièmes and a girl knocked on the door. She said, “I think I left my pen in here,” so I quickly replied, “D’accord, vas le chercher” (Ok, go grab it). Once I said it, a number of boys in my class started acting as if they were talking to a dog and quietly whistling and saying “Vas chercher !” as if they were saying “fetch!” The girl was a little embarrassed and I was completely mortified. I check with G after and he said I didn’t technically say anything wrong, the kids were just being immature and mean.
In moments like these, I want to shout, “THAT’S NOT FAIR! HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW?”
Consistently, experts on cultural integration say the keys to navigating culture shock are being aware of what you’re experiencing and having a sense of humor. It seems trite, but I also find that remembering to be thankful goes a long way. I feel way less overwhelmed when I think, “I’m thankful I speak French. I’m thankful to have a boyfriend who helps answer my questions and makes phone calls for me.” These things help me wade through mud and lead me back to solid ground so I don’t end up actually shouting about the ineffeciences of French bureaucracy.