November 12, 2012

Culture Shock!

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

A strange thing is happening to me: Here I've happily been living as an expat in Johannesburg for more than five years, but suddenly I’m suffering from a severe case of culture shock.

My symptoms? I feel cut off from my loved ones; I can’t communicate properly anymore; whenever I ask for something, I am not understood; I have a huge and terribly urgent to-do-list, but not the slightest idea of how I can get these things done, leaving me frustrated and depressed. In short: I feel completely bewildered, miserable and out of sync. Functioning in daily life has become difficult for me, let alone getting things done.

Must be culture shock, right?

I turned to the internet for a diagnosis and looked up the definition of ‘culture shock’ on Wikipedia. Here it is:

Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments; also a simple travel to another type of life. Culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of five distinct phases: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, Mastery and Independence

The problem is, my self-diagnosis might not be completely accurate: While the first part of the definition is spot-on, until ‘way of life’, the rest is not applicable.

Because I haven’t immigrated or traveled or anything like that. What happened to me is that I got a new phone. From my husband’s employer, for free. For security reasons, apparently, but what kind of security reasons I couldn't quite figure out. Perhaps to be able to track my every move? But who cares, the phone is a present, and who am I to argue when I get something for free. Especially if this something happens to be some fancy-shmancy latest Nokia smartphone.

From Old to New, from Known to Unknown, from Simple to Fancy.

And I dived right into the phases of culture shock with my new smartphone, starting with the Honeymoon phase:

When I first laid hands on it, I was in love. It was so nice, so full of promises. I was doing a happy dance.

And when I was a new expat in Johannesburg, I was taking in all the new vistas and smells and experiences, feeling like I was on a long holiday, excited and happy.

Moving on to the Negotiation phase:

The problem with my new phone is that it’s a Nokia Windows-based phone. And it must think in Finnish, because we don’t get each other at all. The problem with me is I’m not good with electronic gadgets. I simply don’t care enough. With an iPhone I might have managed, having experience with iPads, but this was a whole new world I was entering.

The first few days I had no clue how to even answer calls on my new phone. And when I tried to call someone, the button I pressed would result in something completely different from what I anticipated. I still can’t send an SMS. Hell, I can’t even TYPE a proper text messages without my phone wanting to correct me with (Finnish?) words and phrases that I don’t want to type.

When we moved to Johannesburg, I had similar experiences: I had to organise basic necessities for our family like utilities, telephone line, internet, car registrations, insurance, etc. People didn't understand me because I had (ok: have) this thick foreign accent, while I was struggling to understand them, too, because the English spoken in South Africa is a far cry from how the Queen of England communicates. And not only was language a problem, but also mentality: Little did I know that South Africans do not consider something worthwhile unless you have spent time in a queue and diligently waited for it. They must have had a good laugh at that Telkom shop, over five years ago, when I called and asked if they could please come to install my telephone landline cum internet the next day!

Out of pure frustration we typically move up one rung on the culture shock stepladder and enter the Adjustment phase:

After a few temper tantrums (and, I admit, a lot of foul language) I had to accept that my phone would not budge and adapt to me, but that I had to learn how to get what I want. Easy? No. To make a simple call, for instance, I have to slide open this and press that button and tilt the phone towards me until it lets me dial a number. So far, not even the expert, (meaning my neighbours’ teenage son) has been able to install my emails on this phone from hell.

But at least I remembered what is most important in this phase: to get help. Because it was very similar during my adjustment to life in Johannesburg: Through trial and error I found out that there is no point in getting impatient or even shouting at people when you want and need something. The best strategy is to stop being afraid of looking stupid and ask questions. Ask how you can get this done or that resolved. South Africans are very helpful if you apply the right attitude, I found.

And turning to other expats is vitally important, too. To listen to or read other people’s stories or advice, like this blog here. Because we get to know what we need right now; we get ideas of what we could do; and if all fails, at least we know that we are not the only ones struggling, and hopefully we can have a good chuckle.

The Mastery and Independence phase would be the next, but when it comes to my phone, I’m still far from it, I fear. Sigh.

But I know I will get there. Because that’s what happened to me as an expat in Johannesburg: after a while, I knew where to find the tiny globe for my sewing machine, what to do when the garbage removal team asks for a Christmas bonus, who can fix the dent in my tyre rim (hint: it is NOT Tiger Wheel & Tyre, it’s more complicated), and how things are handled with a teacher’s birthday.

The thing is: my new phone has a lot more functions than my old one – and it looks cooler. Same thing with our expat living: Living abroad adds a lot of excitement and new experiences to our lives. It may be a bit of a challenge at first. But please don’t give up. Just try to get over the culture shock, and you will discover how much more interesting, deeper and richer your life has become.

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.infoGuide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.