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Culture Shock

All refugees and newcomers suffer from some degree of “culture shock” when they arrive in the United States and confront a completely new and different culture.

Culture shock is the name given to the many uncomfortable emotions and reactions that people experience when they move into a new culture that is very different from their own. Culture shock is caused by the disorientation of being in a new culture. It is a reaction to being in a situation – especially over a prolonged period of time – where all the normal, natural, and automatic ways of responding no longer fit. It is a result of being cut off from the cultural cues that you have depended on in the past.

Culture shock is also a reaction to encountering new and different ways of doing, organizing, perceiving, or valuing things which challenge and threaten our basic belief that our way of doing things is “right.”

Culture Shock Occurs Gradually

When first encountering a new culture, people are often aware of the many obvious differences. They notice the new foods and cooking smells, the unusual clothing styles, or the different ways of greeting one another. They often enjoy the differences and find them attractive or quaint.

After a while, people look past the differences and focus on how much other people are really the same. They are excited to learn that they can communicate with someone who is different from themselves. They discover that people in the new culture also love their children and families, want to help and support them, and enjoy a good laugh.

Eventually, however, the differences themselves loom larger and larger and can become overwhelming. Newcomers realize that the people in the new culture are very different from them in how they think, what they value, or how they relate to one another. They begin to question whether they can really understand one another. It is at this stage that culture shock sets in.

A person experiencing culture shock begins to feel helpless and anxious. Although some experience almost no difficulty, common reactions include moodiness, irritability, insomnia or oversleeping, withdrawal, bitterness, exaggerated cleanliness, homesickness, or depression.

Eventually, the new culture becomes more and more understandable and comfortable. The newcomer begins to sort out the similarities and differences between the new culture and his own. As the newcomer begins to feel less helpless and anxious and more in control, the reactions of culture shock gradually fade.

Confronting your comfort zone as a volunteer

Although you will probably not experience the intense emotions most refugees experience, don’t be surprised if you also suffer some culture shock through working with them as a volunteer. This is because you will be traveling outside your comfort zone.

Your comfort zone is the protective space of familiar activities, environments, and people that surround you. You feel confident and comfortable in that zone because you know and understand how to function in that setting. In fact, you are so comfortable in your comfort zone that you are probably not even aware of it until something pushes you outside of it.

As a World Relief volunteer, you will experience awkward moments. You may travel to areas of the city where you have never been, try new foods which look and smell different, or wait uncomfortably through long pauses in conversation. On a deeper level, you may feel that your personal space is infringed upon, be uncertain about how to interpret comments or criticisms from refugees, or feel out of place in your refugee friend’s home.

These experiences outside your comfort zone can be frustrating. They may create feelings of anxiety, nervousness, insecurity, or ambiguity. With time, as you and your refugee friend get to know one another better and become more familiar with your cultural perspectives, the feelings of discomfort and frustrations will lessen.

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