The world-renowned Oxford Dictionary defines “culture shock” as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”.
Whenever I meet someone new, they never fail to ask if I enjoy living in Frankfurt. So I thought it would be appropriate to pen down my experience of living abroad and the emotional journey I put myself through each time based on the four stages of culture shock.
Stage 1: Honeymoon
Life is filled with excitement, new possibilities, and this whole adventure in a new country is going to be thrilling. Everyday is a brand new day packed with plenty of positive vibes. There will always be a new place to check out, hundreds or even thousands of photos to take and lovely cafes to sip coffee at. The new city will be very refreshing and you suddenly feel energised. You’ve never felt more alive! As you stroll down the busy streets, you marvel at the existence of bicycle lanes and inhale the sweet smell of freshly baked bread from nearby bakeries. This is wonderful! You walk into the supermarket to find a litre of milk costs only €0.59 which converts to merely $1 Singapore Dollar. I can finally live off milk, my favourite beverage. This is THE PERFECT place to be in.
I’ve experienced the honeymoon stage in Tokyo, Oxford and Frankfurt. It usually lasts between 2-6 months. At this stage, the city is flawless. I will not hesitate to bark at anyone who dares criticise my new home.
Tokyo gave me the feeling of what a small apartment felt like – just like the ones I saw on Japanese dramas while I was growing up. It was like a shoebox but perfect in every aspect. It was fast paced and I loved it. I loved the fashion, make up, karaoke and onigiri (rice balls). Oh please, even canned coffee was a novelty!
Oxford inspired me to excel. Walking down the High Street surrounded by astonishingly beautiful architecture, it is no wonder that the poet, Matthew Arnold, coined the term “cities of dreaming spires” to describe the city. Punting down the river seemed like a romantic and strangely, intellectual thing to do.
Frankfurt is as international as a German city can get without the hustle and bustle you get in London. It is smacked in the middle of Europe which grants me access to major cities in Europe. These three cities WERE perfect.
Stage 2: Hostility
After some exposure to the new culture, you start to spot differences to what you’re used to. Flaws of the system surface much to your annoyance. Like an old grumpy woman who hisses at anything and everything that enters her garden, you complain about how things are done in your once flawless host country. You judge the behaviour and attitudes of locals and condemn them for being different and uncultured. You withdraw from activities which involves mixing around with the locals because you cannot tolerate another second with them. In your opinion, the locals are a terrible, unfriendly bunch of twats.
My honeymoon period lasted forever in Tokyo before I started to hate the packed like sardines trains in the morning. I blamed the Japanese for not making it easier to make friends. I formed stereotypes of them based on the knowledge I obtained from reading sociological articles without using my best judgment to critically evaluate what I read. I hated it the most when my Japanese teacher told me I should “be more Japanese”. What was that supposed to mean? I thought we had moved on from the era when they thought they were a superior race? I swore never to work for a Japanese company as I didn’t like bowing. Ironically, my first job was with a Japanese company and I ABSOLUTELY LOVE everyone there.
I detested some of my classmates who sniggered at others behind their backs but appeared to be friendly. The ones I got along with were either not British or had non-British origins. I was skeptical of the Brits and never thought they were sincere because they were too polite for my liking. As I watched more BBC Breakfast, I became more aware of what a fraction of the population thought of policies in the UK which I then stupidly assumed represented what majority of the Brits felt was right for them. Anyway, I stopped watching it after they interviewed a real estate agent who said “Not everyone needs to get on the property ladder” and that pissed Daniel and I off big time. If I ever meet that obnoxious man, I would tell him to sell all his properties and rent for the rest of his life. Oh yah, we all earn enough to throw money down the drain to fund your rental property market, dude (obviously, I had another term in mind). I tried all means to never fall ill in Britain after I got turned away by a GP and never got an appointment with one even after waiting for two weeks. It made me EXTREMELY scared and I cried countless times over it. But of course, I now know it’s NOT the norm since my in-laws don’t have this problem.
Post-honeymoon, I came to the realisation that there is NO service here. It all happened when I rang up the company that manages our apartment block to tell them that the water supply has been switched off without notice. The lady was plain rude. She refused to admit her mistake and when I asked for an explanation, she said “I’m not obliged to speak to you in English” and slammed the phone down on me. We got frustrated at people who jumped queues and it didn’t help when we couldn’t express ourselves in German. Despite taking pride in calling itself the heart of European banks, Germany knows NOTHING about credit cards. Who still charges €30 a year for a pre-paid credit card? And why pre-paid? Pre-paid credit card is an oxymoron, if you haven’t realised.
Stage 3: Humour
There’s only how much moaning one can do before others slap you awake to face reality. You realise that to survive, you need to adjust and cope with your new environment. You will probably try to read up and learn about the country and its people. You may not necessarily like it, but you start to understand and accept people’s attitudes and behaviour. You get accustomed to how things are done in your host country and you get used to the routine.
Unlike in the UK or Germany, if you buy a game from a huge store in Japan and realise that you don’t like it after trying it for a day at home, don’t even dare dream of getting your money back. We tried explaining our situation in Japanese for more than an hour only to get very apologetic looks and 90 degrees bows from staff. And as though they can’t accept the fact that a white man is speaking to them in Japanese, they only made eye contact with me which pissed Daniel off even more. I was more than happy to practise speaking Japanese. That’s just the way the Japanese system is. That’s how “limited” their consumer laws are. You could either scream at the top of your lungs till you burst a major artery or resign to your fate and learn from experience.
It was a pain to not know what the Brits really think since everything is “lovely”. I can’t force everyone to be honest with me especially when they aren’t family members. One thing for sure, the Brits have a great sense of humour which usually involves sarcasm. I figured that they love to “keep a stiff upper lip”. That’s my way of describing the ones I don’t really know. They aren’t insincere. Just too polite.
It’s silly to pay for a pre-paid credit card but I need it. So every time I go to the bank or Post Office and someone asks me if I’m interested in signing up for a credit card, I mock their banking system. They are Germans so, they can handle my forthrightness without taking offence. Shops are all closed on Sundays and this used to be a pain but now I tell people this – “God needs a break too!” There is no point screaming and shouting for better service in Germany because you just won’t get it. They are pragmatic people. If Plan A fails, continue with Plan B. Life goes on.
Stage 4: Home
You enjoy the newly found culture and you’re able to function like a human being once again. There will be times when you realise that you prefer certain cultural traits to your own culture. You integrate into your host country and adopt some of their behaviour. You’ve found yourself a new home.
I learnt to not say “No” directly because the Japanese don’t usually do that. What’s funny is I now tend to bow to drivers who give way to me when I’m crossing the road. Before every meal, I say “itadakimasu” which is similar to saying grace. Being squashed in a train wasn’t a bad thing after all as it meant I wouldn’t fall even if I wasn’t holding on to anything. I wished that people in Singapore would queue to get on the trains just like the Japanese. It finally felt like home but by that time, it was time for me to return to Singapore.
Apart from picking up British slang here and there, I’ve learnt to queue and say thank you to bus drivers before I alight. A colleague commented that I was like an angel (which is funny enough, I know) until she heard me speak. It wasn’t because I swore at work (it’s important to be professional!), but to her, I was speaking my mind so freely unlike others and she found that hilarious. It didn’t matter to me that the Brits were more reserved (unless it involves Unions and protests!). I was comfortable being myself. Some people liked it, some people don’t. I can’t please everyone. Based on my GP (or lack of) experience, I learnt to self-medicate even though in Singapore I would go to the GP for a common cold and cough. I learnt to be independent. I’ve come to love British home cooked food and anyone who criticises it haven’t tasted proper British food.
I would like to think I do feel at home in Frankfurt after 18 months. I like the food here even though I still cannot stand the smell of beer. It’s so relaxing on Sundays because I CANNOT run any errands even if I wanted to. I appreciate that shops are closed and it’s truly a family day. I don’t complain anymore. If I don’t get good service in a shop, I walk out and shop elsewhere. The once crude sounding German language is more pleasing to the ears now as I learn more about it. I recognise the importance of speaking the language to communicate with the locals and not stay within my expat bubble. Just by speaking the language, my neighbours who don’t speak any English seem more friendly towards me now.
Culture shocked still?
If you’ve recently moved to a new city and feel lost, don’t worry too much about it. It can be a frightening experience for some. Not everyone goes through the honeymoon stage, I suppose. But what I want to emphasise is this – no matter where we live in, there will be certain aspects of the city that we like and not like. As much as possible, I try to avoid stereotypical statements about the locals. I did a lot of that in Tokyo as a student who didn’t know any better. It was shameful especially when i was a Japanese Studies major. When I moved to Oxford, making stereotypical statements was more like a joke (the Humour stage) and I knew they weren’t true reflections of the Brits. I do think expats in Germany need to cut the Germans some slack. Often, the Germans are described as “unfriendly” and having “no sense of humour”. Usually, these are the expats who I find haven’t put in a single bit of real effort to understand their host country and make German friends. To be integrated, to make the place feel like home, I reckon one needs to put in some effort too.
Enjoy your arrival in the new city, be prepared for differences but know that your own culture isn’t superior to another, laugh it off and simply, feel at home.
- Culture Shock (onwingsofadove.wordpress.com)
- Beat culture shock! (Definition and stages) (languagesalive.wordpress.com)