Experiencing culture shock; or the realities of the transition cycle
It was a different era when my wife and I first took the plunge and headed overseas to experience something new, different, and exotic. Those of you who are from a younger generation of international educators may not recognize the challenges some of us once lived with. At the time, there was no Internet, so we couldn’t connect with family and friends in an instant. The only phone was the one on the wall, working infrequently, and costing about $300 for a 10-minute call – meaning we only called home, briefly, once per month. Mail was just as challenging. Once a letter was sent, it would take two weeks, at a minimum, before a reply was received. We really were setting off for the unknown, knowing it was unlikely we would see home for another two years.
I will never forget our first introduction to the country that was to be our home for the next two years. Romania was in the early stages of recovery from the revolution that had broken them free of the yoke of the dictatorship of Ceausescu. Our plane bounced along a concrete runway uneven with cracks and divots. After skidding to a halt, we climbed down onto the runway, watching as our luggage was handed down from the luggage compartment, opened, and rummaged through at gunpoint by young soldiers. A bit scary? Yes. But, somehow, exciting after the orderliness we were used to at home in Minnesota. It was like we had been released into another world you only saw in suspense movies.
We picked up our luggage and moved toward the bullet pocked building that had once stood as the international terminal before finding itself a logistical focal point in the fighting of the revolution. A crowd of people all dressed in gray spread back from a line established by the soldiers. For a brief second I experienced a pang of dread as I realized we had no way to contact our new school, and no idea how to get there from the airport. Then, suddenly, amidst the entire gray, a figure in a Hawaiian shirt and cowboy hat, a lone high-rise on the horizon, began to wave and yell our names. It was our new school director there to welcome us. We experienced a sense of relief, as well as a return to the excitement of being in this new and strange environment.
In the following weeks, that sense of excitement continued to dominate as we experienced many firsts. There was the first time we met our colleagues. The first time we waited in a line for gas. The first time we made a shopping list to buy groceries, went out for much of the day shopping, and came home with only a few items – none of which had been on the list. We couldn’t find anything on the list! However, to set our minds at ease, we had found one store where every shelf was packed with cans of peas. At least we wouldn’t starve!
As school began, we found ourselves in awe of the vast number of nationalities of the children in our classrooms. Both my wife and I spoke English, and nothing else. We were amazed to find five year olds who could switch back and forth between two, three, or more languages. The community seemed to welcome us with open arms, inviting us to dinners, social events at different embassies, and recreational events on the weekends. We felt we were a part of something important, something meaningful, and felt we fit in somewhere more than we had ever felt anywhere before. We also began to explore the city of Bucharest, and the surrounding countryside. Much of it had been untouched since the period just after the Second World War. It was a land time forgot, and we were drinking it all in. I truly believed life could not get any better.
Then, something happened, and the world seemed to crumble down around us. It is hard to pin point exactly what happened. To be honest, I don’t think there really was any one specific event. Life just seemed to change. Everything slowed down. The social events seemed to come to a stop. Work seemed to take on new challenges. There was a grayness that swept over the city as summer moved into fall. Very quickly, the excitement and wonder we had been experiencing slipped away, and we found ourselves feeling a bit alone and scared. More often than not, our lives were following a simple pattern of getting up each morning in darkness, going to school, teaching, coming home just before dark, trying to find some food, preparing the food, eating, preparing for classes, and going to bed. It was monotonous, and somehow made worse by the loneliness we were suddenly feeling in these unfamiliar surroundings. The thought of two years in this place began to feel unbearable, and made worse every time we looked around at our colleagues who seemed so content with life and the status quo. I began to question the decision we had made to come here, and regretted the loss of everything we had given up back in the States. It was at one point during this time I went into my wife’s classroom during a break students were having and broke down in tears. I just didn’t think I could continue. We needed to figure out a way to escape this mistake we had made.
My wife and I were lucky. We had each other to talk to at this point. We talked ourselves through it. We knew we couldn’t go back. Part of it was financial. I had taken a leave from my position back home, and had nothing to return to at the immediate moment. We couldn’t afford not to work. It was more than that though. We felt a sense of commitment to follow through on what we said we would do. Plus, our pride kept us from returning home to our friends and family who had believed us to be foolish for going on this grand adventure to begin with. We knew we had to stick with it. So, we pushed on. We set routines for ourselves that forced us to get out of our apartment, we reached out to people in our neighborhood so we started to feel connected to others – even if it was just someone we said hi to each afternoon or drank a glass of wine with at a garage café. It created a sense of belonging. We started to plan some things to look forward to – holiday trips, small dinners in our home, and team sporting activities. Slowly, we began to feel better, like we fit in, like we were home.
Winter came, and with it a new set of emotions. That Christmas was the first we didn’t spend with one of our parents. It felt a bit strange, even awkward, but we filled the void by spending time with friends and going on a trip exploring the Romanian countryside. Then, unexpectedly, my wife’s brother flew over to be with us for our winter break. It was a whim decision, and we couldn’t have been happier. Sharing our new life with him made everything seem better and more meaningful. We felt so full of ourselves as we introduced him to the people we had come to know. I took him to a poker game at the home of someone from the embassy. We stayed in a giant villa in the mountains, and when it snowed, we went to an old mountain resort where we skied in fresh powder for literally pennies, and had the slope to ourselves. He was amazed by the life we were experiencing. Seeing it through his eyes, we were too, and were made aware of how lucky we were to be having this fantastic experience. It was something very few other people got to experience – another culture, another world, first hand, as a part of it rather than as tourists looking in. It really was something special.
Following the departure of my brother-in-law, our routine returned. It was a bit more upbeat as the familiar provided a certain level of comfort. There were also more meaningful connections with some people as we moved beyond the stage of initial acquaintance and began to spend time with those we had some sort of shared experiences with. That isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. As winter moved into spring, we experienced another emotional lull. The monotony of routine had returned. Winter in Romania only added to the challenge as we began to feel a bit stir crazy at being stuck inside our bleak apartment night after night, especially as we experienced power failures and a loss of heat. The minimal food options began to wear as well. One night we went to a restaurant. It was the first Asian restaurant to open in the city. The menu was impressive, with several pages of options. Upon inquiry though, most things were not available. Those that were all consisted of pork, the only difference being the flavor of the sauce. It was symbolic of the challenges that seemed to be slowly wearing us down that winter.
We never hit bottom in winter like we had in the fall. As I reflect upon it, I think we made it through because of some of the routines and connections we had. Though they contributed to the monotony, they also provided a sense of familiarity. For example, I had developed a habit of stopping by a garage café each afternoon for a glass of homemade wine. Though the wine threatened to turn my stomach into an inferno, the friendship I developed with the owner became something I looked forward to day after day. He became my connection to Romanian culture, introducing me to other Romanians, and taking me on some amazing trips into the countryside. It was a friendship that would become one of my most memorable overseas experiences.
Slowly, our first year overseas came to a close. With it came exciting events in our lives. My wife became pregnant with our first child, and both of our parents joined us at different times as we spent the summer traveling through Europe in an old, beat up VW van – yes, I felt as though we were reliving my romanticized vision of the ‘60’s. With the end of summer, we returned to Bucharest for our second year. It was different this time around. We knew the ropes. We were suddenly showing the new folks around. It was comfortable and we fit in. That second year was fantastic; in fact, it evolved into what has now been a quarter of a century of overseas education.
I can now look back on our first year in Romania and recognize our experience as a common first year transition. In fact, we have moved approximately every five years or so, and we find we have a similar experience the first year in every place we go to. True, it isn’t as intense as that first year was, largely because we know what to expect, but the experience is essentially the same. When I was in Qatar, I made friends with David Burton of Burton Consultancy (http://www.burtonconsultancy.com/). He specializes in helping organizations deal with transitions and cultural competencies. He described it to me as a common transition cycle. He sees it often. People come into an organization and are in a honeymoon phase. The world is wonderful as they experience a period of discovery and exhilaration. They then move into reality where the challenges become real, and they reminisce about everything they left behind. This is the hardest phase. If they stick with it, they move into a period of stability, with a couple more dips along the way that decreases in intensity as they develop a level of comfort. It is a challenging process, made more daunting when it is realized something similar will be experienced with every move. The trade off though is the wonderful cultural experiences and adventures we get to have along the way and the bonds we form with friends from around the globe that last a lifetime. I would not trade any of it.
At this point, I need to return to my first paragraph. There, I spoke of the challenges my wife and I were confronted with when we went overseas without the current technological tools those presently going overseas have available to them. It could be perceived I was saying those going overseas now have it easier than we had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, separation is separation. The emotions that come with it are hard, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what we have access to. However, I sometimes wonder if those in the current era don’t have it more difficult. Yes, they can connect back home anytime they want with a flick of a switch. There is some comfort in that. At the same time, the process of separation becomes longer; more drawn out. When we left, boom, that was it! We were on our own, trying to figure it out. These days, you never quite let home go, so you don’t make the full transition as quickly as we did. To top it off, you also have those who questioned your decision to go overseas constantly there to jump on any hesitancy you voice. It can’t be easy, and I feel for those making the move now as much as I felt for those of us who made the move in an earlier era. Let’s face it, we are all pioneers, and we all face the challenges of change and transition. There is comfort in knowing we are not alone though. Others have experienced the same. And, as the saying goes, this too shall pass.