How to Deal With Culture Shock
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Moving abroad is a big deal. Starting a new job is a big deal, especially when it’s an entirely new career. If you teach English as a foreign language abroad, you’ll have to deal with both of these issues simultaneously. This can lead to culture shock, which is a real thing, no matter what anyone tells you. I know this from experience.
My name is Kirsten, and I’ve been a TEFL teacher since 2003. I’m from South Africa but I’ve taught in Thailand, China, the UK, Spain, and Qatar, as well as South Africa. I’ve experienced culture shock a few times on my travels, and this is my story.
What causes culture shock?
When we look at the situation TEFL teachers find themselves in, there are a number of factors which we can see contributing to culture shock:
- You aren’t familiar with the country so you don’t know how to get anywhere, or even the best way to get around. Even simply outings like going to the supermarket can be challenging and tiring.
- You probably don’t speak the local language so communication with the local community is a problem.
- You’re starting a new job, which is stressful.
- If you’ve never taught before, you’ll have first-day nerves.
- It’ll take you some time to make friends so you can get lonely.
- You’re far from home so you will miss your friends and family.
When you put all of those things together it can add up to a very stressful situation. While you might expect to be excited and intrigued by your new life, you might not expect to feel homesick, despondent or even angry. But these are all common emotions when settling into a new life in a new country. This is culture shock.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock is the feeling a person may experience when they find themselves in a completely new, different environment to the one they are used to. Culture shock is a real phenomenon and many people who travel because of TEFL may find themselves experiencing culture shock to some degree.
There are a number of misconceptions about culture shock which you might have heard:
MYTH Everyone has the same experience of culture shock.
MYTH Culture shock is short-lived.
MYTH You only experience culture shock in a country that is very different to your own.
MYTH There is nothing you can do to counteract culture shock.
In actual fact, culture shock is different for all people. We go through similar stages of culture shock but how we react and respond to these stages depends on the individual and their circumstances. Culture shock can be short-lived but it is more likely to go on for months. Culture shock is something you are likely to experience in any country you move to, regardless of how similar or different the culture is to you. Luckily, there are ways we can deal with the different stages of culture shock so that we can mitigate the more challenging effects. The last thing we want you to do is to go back home because of culture shock!
What are the different culture shock stages?
The honeymoon stage
The first stage – commonly known as the honeymoon stage – is when you first arrive in a country. Everything is new and exciting, from your first taxi ride into town to the local cuisine you try for the first time that night. While your new lifestyle is perceived as different, any differences are seen in a positive light and are appreciated.
For myself, I experienced culture shock the worst during my first TEFL contract. As soon as I had finished my TEFL qualification in Cape Town, I jumped on a plane to Thailand. As I wandered around Bangkok, I fell totally in love with the sights and sounds of the city. I couldn’t eat enough Thai green curry; getting lost was a novelty; I enjoyed the freedom of re-inventing myself every time I met someone.
The frustration stage
Then the honeymoon stage ends, which it always does. Next comes the frustration stage. At this time the differences are no longer seen as fun and exciting, but are more frustrating and irritating. Language barriers, a different lifestyle, social customs and a lack of social connections all contribute to making you feel very lonely and homesick.
After a few months of giddy excitement and wide-eyed wonder, I woke up one day and found myself being annoyed with everything. There was always traffic; the heat was unbearable; I was always late because I got lost every time I tried to go somewhere. I had friends but they didn’t really know me. Nothing was easy. This went on for quite a while.
At this stage I really thought about coming back to South Africa. To a braai with my friends and a chat with my parents, and my local soapie on TV. But I didn’t leave. I stuck it out. This wasn’t because I am an amazingly adaptable person, but because I recognised my priorities and realised that travelling was important to me.
The adjustment stage
However, when this stage passes you will find you are more accustomed to your new circumstances – possibly even know how to speak the language – and you find your situation more normal. You will be open to finding new friends and experiencing even more new adventures, so you will enjoy your time much more. This is the adjustment stage.
I think what changed for me was learning to speak Thai. My Thai skills are not great by any means, but I could communicate with people more easily than when I first arrived. I got to know my way around my local area, I learned how to tell the taxi exactly where I wanted to go, and my body acclimatised to the heat. I missed home, sure, but I chatted to my friends and family as often as possible and I made sure to explore the beautiful beaches of Thailand whenever I had the chance – and those beaches definitely made the homesickness go away!
The acceptance stage
The final stage is a stage not everyone reaches. Sometimes you will find yourself in a place that you just can’t get used to. It will all feel too difficult and not worth the effort. Other times, you’ll find that after a while you feel like you’ve been living there your whole life and you don’t ever want to leave! This is the acceptance stage.
I ended up living in Thailand for two years before moving on to China and other countries. I didn’t come home for 10 years, and I will always remember those years fondly. Was it easy? No. Did I think about leaving my job? Many times. But I realised the problem wasn’t Thailand, it was me. If I went back home I would feel frustration in other ways, so why not be uncomfortable in a gorgeous foreign country rather than be uncomfortable at home?
How to deal with culture shock
The first thing is to recognise that culture shock is a valid process. If you’re feeling down or lonely or frustrated, don’t let that make you book the next available flight home. Give yourself some time to get comfortable. Having a positive attitude is a must. Be good to yourself and spoil yourself by having new experiences which wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. Try to learn at least a few words in the language, as this will help you feel more at home, and it will help you make new friends.
Keep in touch with family and friends back home, which is really easy to do these days. Find the shops which stock products from your country and treat yourself to something familiar every once in a while. If all else fails, Skype home and ask your mum to send you a parcel with all your favourite goodies from home!
Culture shock and TEFL
Having said all this, sometimes a TEFL job or a new country is not suited to you. If you find yourself in a country with a very different work ethic to what you are used to, you might struggle in your job. If you don’t enjoy the culture you are living in, you might never get used to it and will always find it challenging living there.
If you really feel like it’s not culture shock but something more, then leave. If you are working on a contract, read your contract and find out what restrictions are placed on you. Sometimes if you leave a contract you will be penalised financially. Schools can do this by requiring you to pay back any costs they may have covered, such as your flight, or withholding the amount from your last month’s salary.
This is the reason many schools will initially pay 50% of your flight costs and the other 50% only at the end of the contract. This is also why many schools offer an end-of-contract bonus.
But if you feel like you really need to leave – and your mental health is very important – the least you can do is give the school a month or, preferably, a term’s notice so they can find a replacement teacher. Remember that if you decide to teach English somewhere else, you may have to use this school as a reference for future job applications.
A final thought is for when you finally return home. There is another stage of culture shock, known as the re-integration stage. You might find, when you get home, that your friends are not the same as they were before. You would have changed and so would they, and maybe in different ways.
When I came back home, many of my friends had gotten married and had children, while I was still loving a very independent lifestyle. Some of my friends had also moved away. Others had worked their way up into very high positions in their jobs. The thing is, you change and adapt and move with the times, so you find your new normal – and life goes on…to the next adventure!
As a TEFL teacher of almost twenty years, I cannot recommend doing a TEFL qualification highly enough. TEFL can change your life in ways you can’t imagine. And the time and money is all worth it when you step off a plane into a classroom for the first time – trust me!
Let me know if you have any questions – I’d be happy to answer them!
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Where we use another organisation, we make sure that your personal information is protected and remains in our control.
- We also, in certain situations, share personal information with government bodies and law enforcement bodies. Where we do share personal information with these types of organisations we’ll make sure it’s protected, as far as it is reasonably possible.
We’ll use your personal information to send you direct marketing and to better identify products and services that interest you. We do that if you’re one of our customers or if you’ve been in touch with us another way (such as registering to attend an ELEARNING FUTURES LTD event).
This means we’ll:
- create a profile about you to better understand you as a customer and tailor the communications we send you (including our marketing messages);
- tell you about other products and services you might be interested in;
- try to identify products and services you’re interested in; and
We use the following for marketing and to identify the products and services you’re interested in.
- Your contact details. This includes your name, gender, address, phone number, date of birth and email address.
- Information from cookies and tags placed on your connected devices.
- Information from other organisations such as aggregated demographic data and publicly available sources like the electoral roll and business directories.
- Details of the products and services you’ve bought and how you use them.
We’ll send you information (about the products and services we provide) by phone, post, email, text message, online banner advertising. We also use the information we have about you to personalise these messages wherever we can as we believe it is important to make them relevant to you. We do this because we have a legitimate business interest in keeping you up to date with our products and services. We also check that you are happy for us to send you marketing messages before we do so. In each message we send, you also have the option to opt-out.
We’ll only market other organisations’ products and services if you have said it is OK for us to do so.
You can ask us to stop sending you marketing information or withdraw your permission at any time.
ELEARNING FUTURES LTD retains personal information in line with our corporate retention requirements. Your data will be stored within the European Economic Area (“the EEA”) (The EEA consists of all EU member states, plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein). However, in some circumstances, part or all of your data may be stored or transferred outside of the European Economic Area (“the EEA”). You are deemed to accept and agree to this by using our site and submitting information to us. If we do store or transfer data outside the EEA, we will take all reasonable steps to ensure that your data is treated as safely and securely as it would be within the EEA and under the GDPR. Such steps may include, but not be limited to, the use of legally binding contractual terms between us and any third parties we engage with, and the use of the EU-approved Model Contractual Arrangements. If we intend at any time to transfer any of your data outside the EEA, we will always obtain your consent beforehand.
Right to access personal information
- Under the law, any individual has a right to ask for a copy of the personal information held about them. This means that you can ask for the information that ELEARNING FUTURES LTD holds about you. This is known as the right of ‘subject access’.
- When making a request you will need to give us:
- a request in writing (by post or by email)
- We may need to ask you to provide:
- proof of your identity
- proof of your home address
- any information that we reasonably need to locate the information you have requested (for example details of the ELEARNING FUTURES LTD offices or staff that you have had contact with and when)
We will not start looking for your information until we receive all of the above. In order to submit your request, or for help making a request, please contact us.
Rights concerning the processing of your personal information
- Right to restrict processing of personal information
- In some situations, you have the right to require us to restrict the processing of your personal information. We may restrict your personal information by temporarily moving the information to another processing system, making the information unavailable to users, or temporarily removing published information from a website. We may also use technical methods to ensure the personal information is not subject to further processing and cannot be changed. When we have restricted processing of personal information, this will be clearly indicated on our systems.
- You can require us to restrict processing in the following circumstances:
- You are concerned that the information we hold about you is inaccurate. You can ask us to restrict the information until we can determine whether the information is accurate or inaccurate.
- We are processing your personal data unlawfully and you do not want us to delete the information but restrict it instead.
- We no longer need the information for the purposes for which we collected it, but they are needed by you for the establishment, exercise or defence of legal claims.
- You have objected to the processing (see below), and we need to decide whether the legitimate grounds we have to process the information override your legitimate interests.
Processing you think is unlawful
- If you tell us that you think we are processing your personal information unlawfully, but you do not want the information to be erased, you have the right to require us to restrict the processing of that information.
- We will ask you for an explanation about why you think the processing is unlawful, and may also ask that you provide evidence to support this view.
Processing of personal information you think is inaccurate
- You can tell us if you think the personal information we are processing about you is factually inaccurate. You can require us to restrict how we use your personal information until we can verify the accuracy of the information. We will ask you for an explanation about why you think the information is inaccurate, and may also ask that you provide some supporting evidence of the alleged inaccuracy.
- If we find that the personal information we are processing about you is inaccurate, we will take appropriate steps to correct the information.
Personal information is no longer needed by ELEARNING FUTURES LTD but needed by you in connection with a legal claim
- In most circumstances, we will securely delete or dispose of personal information when we no longer need it for our legitimate business purposes. Our approach to retention is outlined in our corporate retention schedules.
- However, if the personal information we no longer need would assist you in establishing, exercising or defending a legal claim, you can require us to keep the information for as long as necessary. We may ask you to provide an explanation and any available supporting evidence that a legal claim is ongoing or contemplated.
Right to erasure of personal data (“the right to be forgotten”)
In the following circumstances, you have the right to require that ELEARNING FUTURES LTD securely deletes or destroys your personal information:
- If the personal information we hold about you is no longer necessary for the purposes for which we originally collected it.
- The processing is based on consent – if you have previously given your consent to ELEARNING FUTURES LTD collecting and processing your personal information, and you notify us that you withdraw your consent. Please note: withdrawing your consent does not mean the processing of your personal data which occurred before the withdrawal was unlawful.
- We are processing your personal information for direct marketing purposes, and you want us to stop.
- If you think ELEARNING FUTURES LTD has processed your personal information unlawfully.
If you think any of the above situations apply, we may ask you for an explanation and further information to verify this.
Right to object to processing
You have the right to object to the ELEARNING FUTURES LTD processing your personal data in the following circumstances:
Personal information used for direct marketing
If we are using your personal information to send you direct marketing, you have the right to object at any time. If you exercise this right, we will stop processing your personal information for direct marketing purposes. However, we may keep your information on a “suppression list” to ensure your information is not added to any marketing lists at some point in the future.
Automated decision making and profiling
- ‘Profiling’ is the automated use of personal data held on a computer to analyse or predict things that have a legal effect, or other similarly significant effects, on the individual. Examples would include economic situation, health, personal preferences or interests and location. You have the right not to be subject to a solely automated decision (that is, a decision made electronically, with no human intervention), and this may include profiling (although there is no general right to object to profiling). If you are concerned the ELEARNING FUTURES LTD has made a solely automated decision about you, you can object.
- Please note, ELEARNING FUTURES LTD is allowed to carry out automated decisions with no human intervention where you have given your explicit consent to this processing (although you have the right to withdraw your consent).
- We are also permitted to make automated decisions with no human intervention in the following circumstances:
- The automated decision is necessary to enter into, or perform a contract, or complete a contract involving you and the ELEARNING FUTURES LTD.
- The automated decision is allowed under a law passed at the European Union level, or at the level of the European Union or EEA member state level (i.e., is allowed under national law). The law will provide safeguards to protect your rights and freedoms.
However, you still have a general right to object in both of the above circumstances, providing reasons why you think the processing is having a negative effect on you. If you do object, we will carefully consider your reasons, and decide whether to review the decision-making process in your specific case.
Right to data portability
- If you have provided your information to ELEARNING FUTURES LTD, you have the right to request and receive a copy of that information in a structured, commonly used and machine-readable format.
- You also have the right to ask us to send the information we hold about you to another organisation.
- There are some situations in which the right to data portability does not apply. For further information, please contact us.
Exercising your rights concerning the processing of your personal information
If you wish to exercise any of the above rights concerning the way in which we process your personal information, please contact:
Risk Management Team
ELEARNING FUTURES LTD,
21-22 Old Steine,
Email: [email protected]
Your right to complain to a national data protection regulator (data protection supervisory authority)
- If you think we have processed your personal information unfairly or unlawfully, or we have not complied with your rights under GDPR, you have the right to complain to a national data protection regulator.
- Complaints about how we process your personal information can be considered by the data protection regulator.