Less Culture Shock, More Cultural Awakening.

cul·ture shock  

The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

A few months ago, when I was sitting at the beach house recovering from my operation. I received a call from G. The eldest little traveller had been invited to the birthday party of a Qatari girl and he needed to call the host to RSVP.

“Is it inappropriate for me to call her mother directly? Or should you do it?”

It was a genuine question that came from a place of cultural sensitivity. G enjoys working with many Qatari women, and has learnt over the past few years that there are cultural rules and a certain respect that has to be paid. As travellers we all discover through trial and error that we need to tread a little more carefully when it comes to learning what’s culturally appropriate.

As I began to answer him, I noticed a woman walking past our front window on her way to the beach. She was wearing a bikini, a pair of sandals and a big floppy hat. She had a towel draped over her shoulder and a book in her hand. I’d only been back in Australia for a week at that stage and felt an enormous urge to run outside and yell “Put some clothes on before you get arrested!” I hadn’t quite acclimatized.

G and I were living in two completely different worlds.

Read any travel blog or magazine, and Culture Shock is often discussed with a detrimental tone. The fear of the unknown, the struggle of living in a foreign world. What is often forgotten though, is the natural endorphins produced from a new landscape hitting the senses. The sunset here is breathtaking, the haze of the heat and the colour of the Gulf are all unique to this part of the world. Visually it’s a whole new story. If you’ve never seen a man in a Thobe you may find yourself fascinated by the intricacies of how a scarf is tied (Saudi versus Omani versus Qatari, they’re all different). Your eyes will trace the curves of the written language, while your ears listen to the sound of the call to prayer. If you haven’t seen any of this before, your senses will be alight.

For an expat, Culture Shock is often short lived. When you’re not just a traveller passing through, you can find yourself getting adjusted to the day to day very quickly, often through necessity. And with the departure of Culture Shock comes the arrival of a new phenomena – Cultural Awakening.  The day when you realize that you’ve stopped noticing the differences, that you’re no longer fascinated with the exterior, that bit was easy, it’s the interior stuff, the stuff behind closed doors that’s taking longer to understand. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

The trick is to keep asking questions, to not give up, keep learning.

It’s easy to live in an expat bubble, to listen to theories rather than search for answers. I’ve listened to rumours, the he said/she said ideology, added 2 + 2 and arrived at 5. And then realized that there’s actually no-one sitting at the table that really knows the answers.

Qatar, there’s so much more I have to learn about you.

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  1. This is one of the aspects of being an expat we love the most! Not only being different in a different place, but learning all we can about our new homes. It’s the constant observing, learning, understanding, accepting, participating (when/if possible) of your new home that is so fulfilling and challenging.
    I’ve realized that being an expat English speaker in the UK is more challenging that one would have thought too – the customs here are ever so subtle but they still exist.
    Our kids will benefit hugely from the experience of simply adapting, accepting and blending into a community.

  2. Hi Kristy… just kidding. Hi Kirsty, I love your blog and when I’ve missed a few entries I make myself a cup of tea/coffee and catch up. I found you on mamamia and have since left it and stick to your blog. Keep up the great entries and I will be waiting for your book 🙂

    This entry was lovely, I love your positive outlook.

  3. Agree with all of it – especially the part where the initial shock wears off and you realize how much you still have to learn. But I’m curious: was it OK for G to call, or did you do it?

  4. I was wondering the same thing as MsCaroline! Do tell.

    For me the curiosity about internal motivations and culture isn’t just about the local people, (and, frankly, meeting any has been a challenge here without school-aged children to be a bridge) but also my fellow expats who come from all over. I find it fascinating to learn what and how others think about all kinds of issues.

  5. ‘The trick is to keep asking questions’ – wherever you live, and whatever life throws at you. Curiosity is one of our greatest assets.

  6. It is indeed fascinating. For us, French with 4 kids all born in different countries, though “easy” expats (USA, Germany and UK), it’s been a great journey. And as aussiemama said, I could see it in our kids : when someone doesn’t understand them, most French kids living in France would tend to think s/he doesn’t understand the words (“is s/he dumb or what”). My kids on the other hand, switch to a different language, thinking without realising it, that maybe it’s the language, not the words, that are hard to understand…
    As for me, I enjoy learning about the history and trying to figure out how it ties in with the cultural differences…
    And that curiosity then extends to the rest of the world, even though I haven’t lived there.
    If we could all be curious rather than judgemental, the world would be a better place!

  7. The key thing is respect as you say. I think we went out of our way to try to understand the cultural differences and act accordingly in Tokyo because we had a genuine affection for the country and the people. There were frustrations and many times we couldn’t fathom the logic of a situation, but over time we came to appreciate the subtleties of social situations. If you have a curious nature and you are willing to explore and celebrate the differences I think it makes the expat experience so much more rewarding. I’d meet expats in Tokyo who had never eaten Japanese food or shopped in a local supermarket and I’d think what is the point? Now we are in Shanghai and we are on another learning curve and it’s so different to Tokyo in so many ways and I can’t wait to start to peel back the layers.

  8. The more I learn from the other cultures, the more I learn from my own.
    I’m so happy our kids learn it at their age, it safes them a lot of time finding aswers to questions I worked on for years…

  9. You know, one thing I truly love about reading your blog is your respect for cultural differences. As a Muslim, I sometimes find expat blogs uncomfortable when the Western women writing them immediately assume the women in the society where they live are absolute victims and if only they were enlightened. Of course, there are situations of oppression, but often these pitying blogs are written by women who have never even spoken to a Muslim women, have never even asked if that’s what they want. Or worse, they’ve spoken to one former Muslim, or read ‘Infidel’ and immediately assume the experience of one (which I am not denying can be awful) applies like a blanket to the 500,000,000 Muslim women in the world.
    Anyway, my point is you go out of your way to not assume and not judge without information, which I (and I am sure others) appreciate.

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