Culture Shock –Part 1
By Sola Olu
Who am I, where am I, how will I ever survive here? These are the questions that run through the mind of a typical immigrant like me when we first arrive in a foreign country. I was born and raised in Nigeria. I had worked for British Airways and visited the States several times on vacation before eventually moving here after I got married to my Illinois-based Nigerian husband. I quickly realized that vacationing and actually living in a new place were two totally different things.
When I was young, back home in Nigeria, relatives who were living abroad came to visit us. We would stare at them in wonder – they seemed different, almost strange. They acted strangely, they talked differently, and just seemed to stand out and not quite belong with us. Clearly, they had stayed too long abroad.
Wikipedia defines culture shock as “anxiety and feelings (of surprise or confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within a different and unknown culture such as one may encounter in a foreign country. It grows out of the difficulties in knowing what is appropriate and what is not.” According to Wikipedia, an immigrant goes through three to five major phases when adapting to a new country.
The Honeymoon Phase: Things are still new, everything looks and feels beautiful. You may spend the first few weeks in new country sleeping at home, watching tons of TV, trying new American cuisine, calling friends both here and back home, and going to parks, malls and other places of interest. During this phase, I loved the huge buildings in downtown Chicago, and I loved eating out in restaurants. When my husband would take me shopping and then out to eat, I would say to myself, “Wow, I like life in America!”
The Negotiation Phase: After some time, usually weeks, differences between the old and new culture begin to emerge. I remember going to a surprise party hosted by an American couple. The invitation said to come after 7:30 p.m. Coming straight from work, I was starving. But when the food was served, it was only chips and dip, and popcorn. At Nigerian parties we serve food – chicken, beef, fish, rice, potatoes, wings, yams, lots of variety and enough to take home. “Chips?” I whispered to my husband, “Where’s the rice and chicken?” (Rice is the staple food in Nigeria) A friend was kind enough to explain to me that dinner was typically around 5:30 to 6:30, anything after that may well be snacks. From then on I honored my mum’s advice to always eat before I go to any party. Any party.
I come from a “touchy-feely” nation; we give hugs and embraces to anyone we meet, be it the first time, the second time, or after several meetings. We sit in any open space we see anywhere. Here I had to learn to understand what was acceptable in the workplace and what wasn’t; I had to learn not to touch people when I spoke to them and to respect and give personal space.
When it comes to food, we invite people to eat—it’s rude not to when there are people around. Sometimes people take a bite, sometimes they don’t. And, some families or friends eat out of the same bowl. In America, I had to learn about the rules of “double dipping.” We had a potluck at work and there was a giant sign: “Do not double dip.” I asked a co-worker what that meant. I learned that I have to dip and then eat what I dipped. It was not acceptable to take a bite and then dip again with the same food. I had not known that, and was glad I asked!
Back in Nigeria if you don’t say good morning to someone or if you say good morning and the other person doesn’t respond, it is considered a great insult. Someone who doesn’t return your greeting is holding a grudge or doesn’t have any regard for you. When I first joined the American workforce, I was a telephone rep. We sat in rows on the customer service floor. This one young woman just stared straight ahead whenever I said good morning to her. I found it so disturbing, believing I had done something wrong. When I finally had the courage to approach her, she lifted her head with a bright smile and said, “Oh, I just haven’t had my coffee yet.” I was so relieved to hear it wasn’t personal.
At least I know I am not the only one with these experiences. I’ve heard plenty of stories from immigrant friends. One young woman tried to use a payphone and after speaking for about three minutes, she was caught off guard by an automated voice telling her to “insert a quarter.” She stood there in confusion trying to figure out which of the dimes, nickels, and other coins was a quarter. All she heard was “quarter... quarter... quarter...” until she finally sought help.
Another friend told of when she got her first paycheck. Hired for $8.50 an hour, she happily calculated what a large amount of money she was earning. When she saw the FICA, SSN, and federal and state taxes deducted from her paycheck, she ran to her manager to protest there had been a mistake. Needless to say it took a while to calm her down and explain that, although those taxes and deductions didn’t exist in her country, they are valid here in the U.S.
Adjustment Phase: When you become more fully adjusted, you’re comfortable and actually enjoy your environment. You are able to keep parts of your culture, while also embracing the new culture. In fact, it’s no longer new to you– you look forward to the holidays, barbeques, road trips, vacations, game nights, football season, basketball season, 4th of July and all things American—and you gladly embrace it all.
Reverse Culture Shock (a.k.a., re-entry shock or own culture shock): Returning to one's home culture after growing accustomed to a new one can produce the same effects as described above. This can be more surprising and difficult to deal with than the original culture shock. I’ve been back to Nigeria three times since coming here 12 years ago. Things were worse there than I remembered – electricity was sparse and we had to rely mostly on generators, we had to buy bottled water throughout our two-week stay, gasoline was scarce (even though Nigeria is an oil-producing nation), and cars had to line up for hours to refill their tanks.
On one trip for my brother’s wedding, we had a lot of guests at my sister’s house. There was no electricity, no generator, only candlelight. There was a big bucket of water, and everyone was dipping cups in to get a rink. I was mortified and screamed that they were going to get germs etc., but everyone just laughed at me.
Everything was just different. I had to struggle to contain myself and not say the wrong things. I could not wait to leave. At the airport, the day I left, I looked around and thought to myself: I have become that different relative; I don’t quite fit in anymore. I have stayed too long abroad.
When I look back at how long it took me to fully adjust to American life, I wonder what it will take to readjust to Africa: to the heat, to the rough life, to the battered healthcare system. I do miss a lot of things about my home, like having huge friend and family support nearby, the family raising our children with us, the fresh and organic food, beautiful weddings, parties, the clothes. While I try to imbue some of the culture in my children—kneeling down to greet their elders, showing respect, doing chores—I know my kids will not know their home, their true culture.
As for me, if I had to go back and live there I would—but not in the foreseeable future.
Sola Olu is a Nigerian-born writer who now lives in Illinois. She is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Summer Called Angel: A Story of Hope on the Journey through Prematurity, which will be launched later this month. (Stay tuned for more details!)