MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Jet-lag and culture shock

b2ap3_thumbnail_Lauren-1.JPGI think I'm finally recovering from my jet-lag! (Knock on wood.) Now that I've discovered white noise tracks that I can play on my iPod when I go to sleep (to drown out the street noise below!), I'm sleeping a lot better. Today was a holiday, so I slept in and took a nap. I'll have to relate my laundry adventure another time; suffice to say that the little portable washing machine here was not as intuitive as I initially assumed! I'm headed for another early night, which will be nice, since tomorrow at work should be a lot more intense than Monday! (Fortunately, it's a four-day weekend thanks to Eid and the King's birthday. Lots of time to look around Casa and catch up on sleep!)

The culture shock is a little bit harder to deal with. I feel quite timid a lot of the time, which is not how I normally am; it's like I've suddenly become extremely shy. Partially, I think I don't want to offend anyone; I'm the newcomer, but it's hard to know what's acceptable. The other part is probably that being a foreigner attracts a lot of attention, and it can be super jarring to have someone yell after you on the street. One guy yelled, "Ça va?" (equivalent to "How are you?", or, in this context, "How you doin'?") after me for a full minute. It's definitely something I've encountered elsewhere, but because here it seems discriminate (that is, because I'm a foreigner, rather than just someone walking by a construction site in NYC), I think I'm finding it more jarring.

It's not just that everything is different; it's that, in this context, I'm different. What I thought was pretty decent French is appallingly insufficient, which has made me - even with English speakers - almost a mute. (My accent is bad, and theirs is indecipherable to me - not a good combination!) I don't know how to be polite; I don't know how to do anything, almost. Sometimes I've even felt nervous about leaving the house, which is so not me, and not reflective of the place I'm in, either - Casablanca is not a dangerous city. But between the language barrier, the stress of moving, jet lag, and adjusting to a new culture, I've felt like everything is out of control.

So here's the truth: My French will improve, and my culture shock will get better. Everyone's does. From reading that MEDA sent me to my own research, it's just a necessary phase. I remember going through parts of it when I moved to Baltimore from Calgary, so it's no surprise that I'm feeling it moving from the East Coast to North Africa! The intensity has surprised me, but after a few weeks I'm slowly starting to get my bearings. (Hopefully they'll forgive me at work for doing my best impression of a silent data analyst... I'll stop stuttering eventually.)

Here's what I've found the most helpful for combating culture shock:

1. Reach out. Reach out to your family, reach out to your friends. Write letters, Skype, send texts, Facebook - whatever. Some of the websites caution against relying too much on your 'old life' for support, but when I really need to feel grounded, my friends are the ones who provide that. (Love you guys!)

2. Don't hole up. It might be enticing to hide under the covers, but it only delays the inevitable. You will need food, water, diet Coke (if you're an addict like me), etc. Even if it's just for ten minutes, get out of your own space. Say hello to the shopkeepers. Keep your eyes up (unless you are on an uneven sidewalk - in which case, do not do what I did and sprain your ankle!).

3. Don't force it. You will have good days, like I had today, where you get into your project at work and talk to someone you love from home and feel great about the next six months. And you will also have bad days, like I had yesterday, where everything seems impossible. (The things you admit to on the internet... in my defense, I totally felt better afterward!)

It's normal. From what I can tell, everyone experiences different levels of this, and nobody is immune from culture shock. It manifests differently for different people - I am prone to worrying, so obviously mine is manifesting in anxiety right now - but it's something that most people experience in different ways.

4. One day at a time. Instead of thinking about how bad you're going to feel for the next six months, focus on getting to the end of one single day. Not only does it prevent self-fulfilling prophecies - I'm miserable because I knew I was going to be miserable! - but it narrows your focus, which makes everything that seems huge and impossible seem smaller.

5. Perspective is important. Six months is nothing. I spent six months transitioning out of my last job! It's not that I want to dismiss this as being 'all in your head', but to some extent, if you're physically safe and your basic needs are provided for, then that knowledge can help to get you out of feeling insecure.

6. Read, read, read. Read everything you can about the culture you're in. A lot of websites suggest doing this before you leave - and that's a great idea - but doing so when you're there can also be really helpful.

7. Go easy on yourself. This is one I struggle with - I really felt like I was "failing" to adjust here, rather than going through the process of adjusting. Give yourself some room to make mistakes or just plain feel homesick, instead of viewing that as some kind of zero-sum loss. Let every day be as clean a slate as possible

I know I'm still going to have 'bad' days, where I'm homesick and lonely. That's totally normal - even when you just move to a new city, let alone a new country! But I also know that this is an awesome opportunity, and even though it's been a little rough, it will be completely worth it. Everything you learn about yourself in this kind of situation is valuable, including that you can get through it!

Overall, I'm still excited to be here, but I am feeling a little bit anxious about some things. Given what I know about myself, it's only to be expected. The worst part - which I didn't expect - was how homesick I'd feel. I guess I thought, since I've lived alone and jumped around a fair amount, I was kind of over missing "the comforts of home". Not so much! What's funny is that I think I miss the feeling of being okay; being able to call my Dad if I need to (versus now, when the call would be expensive and on an 8-hour time difference), or reach out to my friends. It's not that I lack personal safety, comfort, or security at all.

I know it's normal to feel lonely and homesick sometimes. As well, since I came during Ramadan, the pace of life will change again next week, and things will be open during the day (and hopefully not so loud through the night!). I'll make friends here, and settle into a routine with work, which I'm also really looking forward to. So I'll leave this entry (I promise not all of them will be so negative!) with a quote:

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty... I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

That from Teddy Roosevelt - who might not be my favorite president, but he had a few things to say.

Happy New Year!
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