When I first came to Germany I lived in Munich. I was relocated by my UK/US company and was paid in pounds for the first six months (Germany was still in DM's so I was pretty well off). My company paid for the relocation and my two week intensive German course. My flat, in the trendy Glockenbach Viertel, was furnished, and my German boyfriend's best friend lived in the city already, providing us with an instant circle of friends and excellent tips for things to do and see. It should have all been wonderful, and indeed it was for the first few weeks - but then it all started to go horribly wrong, I became miserable and then gradually, very depressed.
At first I blamed it on not speaking the language. Then I blamed it on the company. Then I got made redundant and I blamed it on that. Later I just blamed myself for being too old to learn a new language, for being too stuck my ways. Then I started to blame it on the city, the country and the people.
After a particularly difficult month where I actually started to feel physically and mentally ill - I was diagnosed with a Thyroid problem* and began treatment. I also went to an American Psychiatrist who specialised in "Culture Shock" - and amazingly after just a few weeks - I was happy again.
It was a tough period - and I learned a lot by going through it - but one of the most enlightening things I took away from the experience was the Five Stages of Culture Shock - information that would have been very beneficial prior to my move to Germany.
Kalvero Oberg was one of the first writers to identify five distinct stages of culture shock. He found that all human beings experience the same feelings when they travel to or live in a different country or culture. He found that culture shock is almost like a disease: it has a cause, symptoms, and a cure.
Phase One - The Honeymoon phase:
You're excited about being in a new place where there are new sights and sounds, new smells and tastes. You may have some problems, but these are put down to "foreign differences". New acquaintances will want to take you out and "show you off. Everything feels new and each day feel like a holiday - even when you're working. Unfortunately, this honeymoon phase inevitably comes to an end.
Phase Two - Rejection phase:
The problems begin - shopping problems (can't buy your favourite foods), communication problems (you don't speak the language well enough to join in conversations), people no longer care about your problems (you're not "new" anymore), they may help, but they don't seem to understand your concerns. You might even start to think that the people in the host country don't like foreigners. You start to feel aggressive and start to complain about the host culture/country.
It is important to recognize that these feelings are real and can become serious. This phase is a kind of crisis in the 'disease' of culture shock. It is called the "rejection" phase because it is at this point that the newcomer starts to reject the host country, complaining about and noticing only the bad things that bother them. At this stage the newcomer either gets stronger and stays, or gets weaker and goes home (physically, mentally or both).
Phase Three - Regression phase:
The word "regression" means moving backward, and in this phase of culture shock, you spend much of your time speaking your own language, watching movies from your home country, eating food from home. You may also notice that you are spending more time with a group of people who speak your own language and are frequently complaining about your host country/culture.
In the regression phase, you may also reminisce about the good things from your home country. Your homeland may suddenly seem marvellously wonderful; all the difficulties that you had there are forgotten and you may find yourself wondering why you ever left. You may start to think of your home country as a wonderful place where nothing ever went wrong for you. Of course, it’s not true, just an illusion created by your culture shock 'disease.'
Phase Four - Recovery phase:
If you survive the third stage successfully (or miss it completely), you will move into the fourth stage of culture shock called the "recovery phase" or the "at-ease-at-last phase." In this stage you become more comfortable with the language and you also feel more comfortable with the customs of your host country. You can now move around without a feeling of anxiety. You still have problems with some of the social cues and you may still not understand everything people say (especially idioms). However, you are now 90% adjusted to the new culture and you start to realise that no country is that much better than another – there are just different lifestyles and different ways of dealing with the problems of life.
With this complete adjustment, you accept the food, drink, habits and customs of your host country, and you may even find yourself preferring some things in your host country to those at home. You have now understood that there are different ways to live your life and that no way is really better than the other, just different. Finally, you have become comfortable in your new home.
It is important to remember that not everyone experiences all the phases of culture shock. It is also important to know that you can experience all of them at different times: you might experience the regression phase before the rejection phase, etc. You might even experience the regression phase on Monday, the “at ease” phase on Tuesday, the honeymoon phase on Wednesday, and the rejection phase again on Thursday.
Phase Five - Reverse culture shock:
This occurs when you return home. You’ve been away for a long time, become comfortable with the habits and customs of a new lifestyle and you may find that you are no longer completely comfortable in your home country. Many things may have changed while you were away and it may take a little while to become at ease with the cues and signs and symbols of your home culture.
There is a risk of sickness or emotional problems in many of the phases of culture shock. You need to remember to be kind to yourself through all of these phases and give yourself time to adjust. Seeking help may seem a little over the top - but if you are going through a particularly bad rejection phase and don’t really know why you’re feeling quite so miserable – it might help to talk to someone who understands.
I think I am successfully in Phase Five now – I’m starting to feel more comfortable here than in the UK – and if I ever go back to live in London I can see myself going through similar adjustment problems with reverse culture shock. However – I’m glad I’ve gone through it and learned from the experience. I’m only sorry I had to put my partner through such a hard time and wish we’d known about these Five Phases prior to going through them.
So what’s the cure? Work through the phases. Now you know what it is you’re feeling you can start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Get professional help if you need it – find other Expats to talk to, and then pat yourself on your back - if you’ve managed to get through to stage five, you are now a fully fledged citizen of the world!
* Thyroid problems can be quite common amongst Expats – particularly those coming from the UK - as Germany has a very low level of natural Iodine (it was scraped clean during the ice-age). This can lead to Thyroid problems, usually over-active (causing a goitre) or under active (weight loss, depression, tiredness). Ask your doctor to check out your thyroid levels next time you go for a check up.