Monday, January 21st, 2019

Reverse culture shock: Students on campus adjust to change

Meaghan Gonsior

Posted on May 02, 2016 in Community
By USM Free Press

Meaghan Gonsior

By Meaghan Gonsior, Free Press Staff

It bothers me that I really don’t have the history with the other Americans,” USM graduate Shagahayegh Sabeti remarked. “When you grow up with people, you go through this whole process. People start talking about things that I have no idea about, so I couldn’t really contribute to it.”

Teenage life comes with challenges in general, but Sabeti had the added complication of dealing with culture shock. Sabeti’s family left their home in Iran when she was sixteen because of the persecution they faced as Bahá’í believers.

“Now I’ve been here seven years, and I know stuff that has been happening,” she explained.

“You leave your country never knowing what is really going to happen to you. All these stresses and emotions were really difficult.”

Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg first coined the term culture shock in 1960, describing it as a state “precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.” Oberg further explained that “cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms, are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept.”

When a person is transported from one culture to another, they may experience different levels of culture shock, from mild disorientation to severe depression and anxiety.

“I thought I knew English, but as soon as I came here and [our caseworker] started talking, I was like, ‘gosh, I have no idea what he is telling me right now!’” Sabeti recalled with a laugh.

“I had a really hard time in high school. I was honor roll, but I didn’t have very many friends. I was very reserved and shy,” Sabeti continued. “And Iran was so important to me. I felt some sort of betrayal, for my other friends and family.”

“Everything changed when I came to USM. I came to USM and everyone was educated, very understanding, and welcoming. It was way more welcoming than I expected. I might not have even been so accepting to refugees in Iran. Maybe it’s because this country is built on refugees.”

Sabeti’s cousin, Behshad Sabeti, moved to the U.S. with his family several years prior, at the age of 12. For him, the most difficult aspect of starting over in a new country was the financial strain it put on his family, forcing his father to work extended hours.

“I barely saw [my dad] for a few years. That was the hardest part. In the beginning you have to work really, really hard,” Behshad explained.

Lydia Tsadik moved to Maine from Ethiopia in the eighth grade. Despite having to learn English on top of her other studies, she excelled at Cape Elizabeth High School. She made the honor roll on multiple occasions, and is now studying marketing at USM.

“It seems like you have to work really hard to survive here. You just keep working and working,” Tsadik noted of American culture. “Back home, I feel like people are more relaxed. On holidays everything is closed, and you don’t work on Sundays.”

Where a person is traveling to and from often impacts the experience of culture shock. Navid Rohani was born in Brunswick, Maine to parents who had emigrated from Iran. When he travelled to Israel for a nine day Bahá’í pilgrimage, he experienced an increased sense of anxiety surrounding his interactions with the Israeli and Palestinian cultures.

“Israel was a little scary. You have to be conscious of the differences in the two different cultures living in such close proximity to each other,” Rohani explained. The tensions between the Palestinian and Israeli cultures created a unique experience for Rohani, who noted the need to use correct greetings for each culture.

Even if a person is speaking the same language as others, intent can often be lost in communication styles. Dilara Isik, an exchange student from the Netherlands, discovered firsthand that cultures interact differently.

“Dutch people are very polite, but very direct and straightforward in their speech,” Isik explained. “[Americans] might think that I’m coming off as rude, even though I’m trying to be polite. If I’m tired I just say, ‘I’m going to bed,’ I don’t dance around the subject. That’s just what Dutch people do.”

A similar experience that often follows a sojourner home, especially following an extended absence, is reverse culture shock. This phenomenon is similar to culture shock in that it is a reaction to a changed environment. It is a unique experience in that what once was familiar and normal now feels altered or even foreign. Anthony Hancock, a native New Zealander, spent three years living in Israel before returning home for a visit.

“I think you definitely realize how remote New Zealand is to the rest of the world. [In Israel] I really got this idea of all the issues and conflicts,” Hancock reflected. “It all seemed so far away. Almost like well, we don’t worry about those problems so much.”

Being submerged in a new culture creates unique challenges and can be disorienting at first. As in these students’ experiences, however, it also offers a unique opportunity to learn, reflect and expand one’s perspective. When a person remains in their comfort zone surrounded by the familiar, there is often little motivation to examine personal habits, values or beliefs. Travelling can foster understanding and growth. Being aware of the anxiety or depression that may accompany travel helps to prepare a person for a successful experience, whether they are a refugee fleeing their country, a pilgrim practicing their faith or an exchange student eager to meet the world.


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