Posted by: Teacher Peter | June 5, 2011

Culture Shock and The Journey

It has been a good journey, even when it hasn’t been an easy one. Almost a year ago, I arrived in Taiwan with my best friend and my wife (same person). I thought because I had done this before it would be the same journey and an easy one.

Twelve years ago, during the last year of the Tiger, I moved to Japan to teach English with the JET program. I was right out of college, my life was not coming together for me quickly enough, and my friend was doing it so I joined up too. Deciding to live in a foreign culture was probably the single most transformative decision of my life. I did not know so at the time.

My first night in Nanbu, Yamanashi, Japan, I cried. I was all alone in a small Japanese town of 7,000 people and I was the only foreigner for 50 kilometers. What had I gotten myself into? A whole new world. Within my first months, I appeared on a Japanese game show, met lots of other foreigners from Canada, England, Australia, and other English speaking locales and, of course, got a huge dose of Japanese culture. After 1 year, I was conversational in Japanese. Going into my second year, even more so.

It was not always a pleasant journey but a transformative one. Culture shock is a necessary part of any undertaking in a foreign land. You will have ups and downs. Below are some links to help you find what stage you are in. Understand that no two people experience a foreign culture the same. Also, the maps and links below are guidelines not a “script”. There is seldom much predictable about human emotion.

(Above image from:

Also, from the same website:

Outcomes of culture shock

Of course, not everyone passes through the phases fluently, adopting Dutch culture in the adjustment phase. In fact, there are 3 different outcomes that you can have.

  1. Rejectors – Some people find it impossible to accept Dutch culture and integrate. They isolate themselves from the Dutch environment, which they find hostile. Usually, they stay in groups with people of their own nationality and see return to their own culture as the only way out. However, this group also has the greatest problems re-integrating back home after return. This group usually consists of about 60% of all people who move abroad.
  2. Adopters – If you integrate fully and adopt everything from the Dutch culture, while losing your own culture, you belong to this group. Usually, this group remains in Holland forever. About 10% of people who move abroad behaves like this.
  3. Cosmopolitans – Some people manage to adapt the aspects of Dutch culture they see as positive, while keeping some of their own and creating their unique blend. They have no major problems returning home or relocating elsewhere. About 30% of people who move abroad belong to this group.

Coping with culture shock

If you find yourself experiencing a culture shock, then here are some tips that can help you deal with it. Don’t forget that if things get too bad for you, do not hesitate to contact a doctor!

  • Learn about Holland, its history and its culture. That way, you might understand why the Dutch behave the way they do. A good starting point is already this web site! See the section on Dutch and Western Culture.
  • Avoid offense: Don’t get offended too easily! Sometimes you may think that Dutch people are offensive to you, for example by not saying please, but keep in mind that in Holland it is very common not to do that, so that they are not trying to offend you. There are many more examples about this phenomenon. If you immediately get offended, it will not make the transition easier for yourself.
  • Try to be open-minded about the Dutch culture as well as its unfamiliar aspects.
  • Take a ‘time out’ from cultural exchange in order to reduce the ‘shock’ of adjustment.
  • Be patient, the act of immigrating is a process of adaptation to new situations. It is going to take time.
  • Don’t try too hard.
  • Study Dutch.”
Replace the word ‘dutch’ with ‘Taiwan’ or better yet, ‘host culture’ and you’ve got some pretty good general advice.

Now, 12 years later, I am back in Asia. I expected the journey to be the same. But it is not. As Heraclitus said, “It is impossible to step into the same river twice.”  A lot has changed: 1. Now I am older and more experienced. 2. I have had a 15 year teaching career. 3. I am married and do not make this journey alone. 4. I carry with me all the experiences of the past 12 years.

Some things are easier: Before I lived in Japan, I did not think I was good at languages. Having failed to make it into the Advanced Placement section of Spanish in my High School I assumed I simply “did not have what it takes” to learn a language. Living in Japan and learning a language through immersion reminded me that we are all hard-wired for learning languages. Babies don’t study flashcards or “apply themselves” to learning their first language, they just do. Now, granted those abilities decay, deteriorate, and transform as we get older. My only argument is that humans are meant to learn languages.

My advice is that while you are in Taiwan (or any immersion environment) make the most of it and try to learn a new language it is an exciting adventure. Also, try to learn a new culture. You will not only gain new perspective on the world but a greater understanding of yourself.

“Be happy and excited for this opportunity, and don’t expect things to be the same as your home country. Foreigners who follow this advice cope well with culture shock. When you survive culture shock, you’ll find that you have a fresh outlook on your own culture and its roots, and will gain new ways of understanding yourself.”–From English in Taiwan link above.

So while my journey in Taiwan has not been an easy one, it has been a good one. Any journey is a good one that gives you greater understanding. My first year in Taiwan has taught me a lot about my values, my strengths, my weaknesses, and my limitations. It has been yet another exciting adventure that I get to share with my wife.

My departing words to you, for this post is this:

When times get hard, fall back on your training. Go back to basics.

What training? When I lived in Japan, the first time, I had training. I was employed by Monbusho, the National Education system of Japan. They provided workshops in teaching, culture shock, and other helpful tools. After Japan, I discovered Zen Buddhism and Mindfulness. Some call it a religion or a philosophy. I just consider it Good Advice to pay attention to what’s going on. So whatever grounds you in happiness, calm, peace, and balance–fall back on that when times are hard. That could be religion, spirituality, the wise counsel of close friends or family.

Whatever it is, when hard times come (because they surely will) fall back on your training.

You still say you don’t know what grounds you in peace and balance?

This is your chance to learn. Welcome to the journey.–julie-jc-peters/

More stories from abroad:


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