Culture shock is a well-known, expected phenomenon in the Foreign Service community. It doesn’t happen to every person with every transfer, and there are degrees of effect, but it is something we warn our patients about whenever they relocate. I am in culture shock.
There are phases to culture shock. The first is the honeymoon, where the new location is pleasing and exciting. Prague is certainly beautiful—amazingly beautiful—but the aspect of Prague that impressed me most in the weeks after I arrived was my ability to walk through the city and have no one pay attention to me. My last three years were in Islamabad, Pakistan. It was too dangerous to freely walk around the city and, in those few places we were allowed to go, a tall, gray-haired (head uncovered), fair-skinned woman walking about was always met with curiosity. Everyone stared! So, for the first six weeks in Prague, I walked for a couple of hours after work—more on the weekends—just because I could and no one would care. It was absolutely liberating.
The second phase of culture shock is negotiation. That's where I am. In this phase, the new living circumstances may cause frustration, anxiety and even anger over differences in language, cultural ethics and available food choices. This is a time of comparison between what was one’s life in contrast to what is one’s life and may lead to mood disturbance or even depression, in extreme cases.
Life in Pakistan was life on the edge, especially the last two years. Somehow, being in the middle of it conferred a sense of control. Now that I have moved on, I am beset by concern for those I left behind, especially my Pakistani friends who are less protected than the diplomatic residents. I feel helpless to do anything but worry, so I worry. I watch the news. I fret when a new incident happens. Recently, the Navy Yard gate in Islamabad was attacked and people were killed. The Navy Yard was one of my favorite places to shop and I felt safe there. In Prague, I feel safe everywhere. That is a very good thing, but now I also feel guilty for enjoying this safety and freedom in Prague when my former colleagues don’t share it.
The final phase is adjustment. When I get to that phase, life in Prague will feel normal to me and Pakistan will be a memory. It isn’t that I will lose my concern for my colleagues who remain in Islamabad, but I will accept that my focus is my life and work in the Czech Republic.
Foreign Service employees may also suffer reverse culture shock when they reenter the United States for a long visit or for a work tour. Returning to the U.S., especially from a country that is very different, can be mind-boggling.
Many years ago, I came home for the birth of my first grandson. I was living in Ghana at the time and, while it is a pleasant country and I enjoyed living there, food choices were quite limited. On my first day back in Mississippi, my daughter sent me to the grocery store with a list that included corn flakes. I stood in the aisle at Kroger looking at what seemed to be dozens of choices of corn flakes—different brands additives and sizes. I simply could not choose because I had grown accustomed to buying the one option available to me, if there was any available at all. Having so many choices was overwhelming! I was forced to call my daughter and request that she name a particular corn flakes item so I could continue shopping. And, yes, she thought I was completely wacky!
For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.