Corona Diary: Culture Shock and Lockdown Blues

While going for my walk sometime this week – alone, of course! No need to call 911 (or 110, as we would in Germany) – I was contemplating how the people I currently (virtually) interact with seem to adjust to the new situation(s) and living conditions at their own pace. It was when the ITB trade show in Berlin was cancelled at the end of February, that the (new) “reality” first hit me; helping international companies do business in Germany, international travel in general and trade fairs in particular, are vital for my business to work!

Overall, I am doing fine; there is nothing to complain about. I have food and shelter, meaningful work to do – both paid for and volunteer, and there is a social network that I can rely on. As long as it’s still possible, going for a one-hour walk is my first priority; or maybe second, after brushing my teeth.

Still, I feel somewhat emotionally exhausted. And that made me think of how my knowledge of the phenomenon called “culture shock” – that I experienced in India in 2001 and the theory of which I studied in my Master’s programme sometime around 2012 – helps me reflect upon the situation and, hopefully, come through it without major (mental) “damage”.

Culture shock is an experience a person may have when one moves to a cultural environment which is different from one’s own; in the textbooks, you often find the following four distinct phases that people typically (often) go through: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation. Not everybody is able or willing to adapt; some might end up hating their (new) environment forever.

Basically, the “shock” describes the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply transitioning to another type of life. One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign environment.

Essentially, people often become exhausted because they cannot operate in their “default” mode. Take crossing the road, for example. Do you wait for the pedestrian light to turn green (as I probably would in Germany)? Or do you go the “local” way and battle your way through oncoming traffic – with cars coming from all directions and honking and overtaking each other (not what you might be used to!), while gesturing (desperately) to them so they see you and don’t run you over? I (finally) went local in India and brought that back to Germany with me; a bit of a dangerous proposition crossing German roads the Indian way…

In the picture below, I describe the phases I went through during my stay in India from mid-September 2001 to mid-March 2002. At least, that is how I remember the process. What I forgot to highlight in the picture is starting my intership with Tata McGraw-Hill beginning of October:

Culture Shock India
My very personal culture shock experience.

And, these are the lessons I learned during my very personal culture shock experience in India and that I remind myself of during the current (ongoing) lockdown:

Stay away from alcohol (I developed a taste for whiskey), eat properly (so I don’t have to lose some 15 pounds again!), accept that things might take more time than you are used to (even grocery shopping can be a challenge), accept that your proven way of doing things might not work anymore (as in above example things like crossing the street), learn to appreciate how others may be (successfully) handling the situation (even if it might initially seem alien or nonsensical), and treat yourself to something that is familiar or triggers positive thoughts. For me, that’s music – back in 2001, it was a Beethoven CD that I played repeatedly; today, it’s currently Haindling, my favourite Bollywood film soundtracks (like from Fanaa or Ghajini), and some jazz music that Spotify knows I like.

What also kept my spirits high during my culture shock experience was writing a newsletter. I spent hours and hours in my neighbourhood’s cybercafé – regular cuts in electricity included.

Snapshot of the mentioned newsletter
In this “newsletter” I talk about my flat. This edition I sent after 6 weeks in India – it had been high time to buy a new toothbrush (hence the email subject). I felt super exhausted and missed my privacy – every 30 minutes s.b. had been knocking on my door on my birthday just a few days ago…

My Indian boss and the family who had taken care of arranging for my internship were on the distribution list. Obviously, I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, or come across as unappreciative; therefore, I put my sometimes frustrating experiences in a way that I soon realised appeared very humorous (motto: always look on the brighter side of life). The list of subscribers grew rapidly, since some of my friends read my newsletter to their families or colleagues….

Anyway, these are my initial thoughts on how a knowledge of “culture shock” might be helpful in handling the current (exceptional) situation. I trust they are helpful for some of you.

Keep in touch and take good care!