A Word on Culture Shock


Culture shock.  Culture fatigue.  I heard about it so many times at orientation, I couldn’t count the number of times it was mentioned.  They explained the roller coaster of emotions you’ll have throughout the year after you move to another country.  Some people will go through this earlier and other will go through this later.  This chart was ingrained into our brains at every orientation we went to:

Culture ShockI never really thought about culture shock, even after the million times people talked about it, but it hit me.  I experienced it.  Last night, I broke down when I was video chatting with Mark.  I didn’t even realize all these emotions were building up inside me over the past month, waiting to explode.  Then it happened… I’m so stressed out.  I kept saying that over and over again.  I don’t think I’ve cried this hard in a long time, but it was at this point in time when I realized, yeah I’m stressed out from my new environment. 

So what happened?  For me, it wasn’t a huge event that triggered this, but it was built over the past month.  I had a little experience living in another country, since I studied abroad.  I also knew some aspects of Japanese life from watching dramas, talking to conversation partners, and reading about Japan.  I’m also part Japanese, so I’ve learned about cultural points from family members.  When I got here, it wasn’t so much, OMG I’M IN A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WORLD AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT kind of thing.

What happened to me was the fact I can’t understand or communicate with people.  One year of Japanese is barely getting me anywhere.  I can only answer and understand super simple conversations, but obviously, people don’t talk like they’re five years old.  I’ve been getting frustrated because I can’t answer questions when they’re directed toward me and I always have to turn to the other JET to help me out.  When I study, sometimes I get discouraged because there is so much I have to learn and it feels like I’m not retaining anything I study.  I know becoming conversational isn’t going to happen overnight so I need to keep pushing through and keep practicing and studying.  I just really hope that my co-workers know that I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to be able to talk to them and understand that they’re saying and that I’m working hard.

Everyday, during lunch, we sit together and I pretty much just sit there and eat my lunch quietly.  I try to understand and engage with what they’re saying, but I can only understand about 1/32 of what they’re saying.  There are times when they ask me questions, but I can only answer back with really short sentences.  Sometimes I feel so lonely even though I’m surrounded by people.  With this, each day my little frustrations have been building up, which led to my break down.

Now, what can I do?  I know that I can survive.  I know that I’m able to live comfortably here and get myself out of miscommunications.  I just need to take a deep breathe and keep being patient, because learning the language is going to take some time.  It may not even happen in one year and I need to realize that and keep working hard.  Sometimes I lose sight of what my goals are, when I start over thinking things.  I need to stay healthy, go out exploring, and always remember my goals and why I decided to come here.

This is an amazing, once in a lifetime experience, and I’m grateful for all the opportunities that I’m having and will have here.  I’ve experienced so many things in the past month and my year here is only getting started.  But I’m also excited for the moment when Mark and I will be able to experience this together.  I’m working hard for him and he’s my motivation to keep going and think positively about everything.  Part of my battle is not being able to see Mark on a daily basis; not being able to hug him, hear his laugh, or talk about random things.  I need to stay strong for the both of us.

Everyone goes through some variation of culture shock and I kept thinking to myself, “You got this.  You’re gonna love it the entire time you’re there.”  A little cocky on my part, because truthfully, it’s impossible to always be happy with where you’re living no matter if it’s the home you’ve always lived in or a new one.  I’ve accepted my faults and I’m now open to growing and becoming stronger and stronger each day.  I need to realize the little things that stress me out every day and not let it build up over time.  I love my co-workers.  They’re extremely nice and welcoming and I’m so glad that I’m living here and working with them.  I know that they are happy to help me out and teach me about Japanese life.  I need to take that energy and put it into my studies.

Here’s a great post I found about the different stages of culture shock and how to overcome low points: The Complete Guide to Culture Shock

Have you ever experienced culture shock?  When was the moment it finally hit you?  What did you do about it? 



  1. Erika

    Oh Mallory!!!

    I have definitely experienced culture shock before and it wasn’t pretty! I think my most severe case was in Austria, my first time abroad. I think it had to do with not knowing the language as well and spending hours and hours of my day listening to stuff I just couldn’t wrap my head around. I forgot about how exhausting it is to transition into hearing a language all the time. Or how frustrating it is to not be able to express yourself. You feel like less than adult or person sometimes. You’re just that foreign girl. I totally get this and the frustration.

    I’m so glad that you’re trying to remain grateful even in this time of challenge for you. And that you’re remembering to be patient — that your hard work will pay off eventually. I remember the first time I was ever able to understand a conversation in German — I felt so accomplished!

    But yeah, this is tough! Especially being away from your boyfriend. Maybe you need to go in full immersion mode? Only English! Google translate your favorite blogs into Japanese. Listen to Japanese music. Force yourself to think in Japanese. Start translating your blog posts into Japanese yourself — looking up the vocab and everything. You’ll start realizing the patterns — which words you use a lot and that’ll help you to better communicate with your peers, for sure. Start reading your favorite book, but in Japanese. I did this with Twilight in German (some years after I studied abroad) and a little with Harry Potter, too. Anytime you don’t know a word, look it up. It takes forever but soon you’ll start to catch on with it. If that’s too complicated of a book, start off with something simple. But it might help to do the things you normally do, but in Japanese. And then try speaking in Japanese with Mark. Do flash cards or try your best to only speak Japanese with each other and communicate that way.

    Even if it doesn’t feel like it, you are learning and growing and getting better with each day that passes. Keep putting in the effort and it will pay off and you will be so glad for it!

    Thanks for sharing this! I know culture shock is so tough. It’s exciting to be in a new place but then when you are alone and still trying to make friends and can’t translate your personality, all of a sudden, it’s demoralizing. But chin up! It’s a part of the amazingness of it all! You’re a brave, motivated woman, Mallory! :)))

    • Mallory

      This is like the best comment ever! :) It’s good to know that someone out there had a similar experience. I mean, there’s probably tons of other people out there who feel the same way even at this very second, but I know one of them! :)

      Your complete Japanese immersion plan sounds sooo intimidating, but awesome at the same time. It would be such a hard thing for me to do, but it’ll definitely have it’s benefits. The only thing is that I’m super sad that I probably won’t be able to read any time soon! I can’t read Kanji and most of Japanese is written in Kanji, not hiragana or katakana. I don’t know how much you know about the Japanese language, but basically there are three alphabets: two of them have a distinct number of characters and I’ve memorized them all. Kanji… there’s like who knows how many. I think for someone to read the newspaper, you have to know at least 2,000 Kanji (or was it 1,000?). Either way that’s A LOT of characters. I’m going to start rememorizing the ones I learned in college and go from there. I got a library card, so one of these days I’m going to go and check out some children’s books for me to read. It’ll probably be a lot easier for me to start there. I do watch dramas so I can listen and read along with the subtitles! And I need to find more Japanese songs.

      I’m pretty sure one day I’ll look back on this and be like, “Wow, I really got through some rough patches, but had the most amazing time ever.” And seriously, this is such a great experience. Thank so much for your kind comment Erika! :)

      • Erika

        Man, Japanese sounds SOOOOO intense!!! All of those characters?!?!? 2000 CHARACTERS??? (Or 1000!!) Ay yi yi!!!

        And I never was able to accomplish the complete immersion, but I do know that other people I studied abroad with became way more fluent when they did that. I think it’s just finding a balance, though. But this is the tough part, trying to adjust and learn enough so that you can communicate. But once you finally are able to, it will feel SO GOOD!

        And you’re right — it’s so good to have this documented, because you may forget how hard it was when you’ve mastered Japanese and can read Kanji like a boss! :)

      • Mallory

        I looked it up, it’s 2,000 ahh!!!

        Complete immersion might be a little difficult since it’s my job to speak English haha, but I’m going to try as much as possible! Hopefully I can find a conversation partner who won’t mind having really random conversations with me. I made the step in looking for a Kanji workbook so I can start learning them!

  2. Crystal Turpin

    Let’s hold hands and be friends forever, because I know exactly how you feel!! I had to leave my husband to come BACK from being overseas and I am all over that culture shock map. I’m American, but I went really native while living in Korea and now my own country frustrates me, haha.

    I think most of it is due to the fact that I had to leave my man behind.

    However, when I first got to Korea, I felt like you. I used to eat all quiet like being like…WHAT-ARE-WE-YELLING-ABOUT?! Because Koreans are very expressive about everything and so I wasn’t sure if we were about to stage a rebellion over the food or if we were celebrating last night’s soccer match. Just keep your head up and keep soldiering on because you are right. You are there to get out and explore and it’s good not to lose sight of WHY you went there in the first place. Life isn’t always sweet, but it is what we make of it. I’m having to smile and take my own advice right now with my move to Alabama because let me tell you, sister, I am already like WHAT AM I DOING HERE?!

    But, I know that the reason I came here is worth it. I even wrote it on my bathroom mirror in lipstick to remind myself…and then I remember that the handyman was coming over to fix a light so I washed it off so he didn’t think I was a serial killer writing in blood. Anyways, you can do it and I’m right there with ya! How much longer are you in Japan?

    • Mallory

      Ahh this comment made me smile! The fact that we’re going through the same things. Yes! Lets hold hands and be friends for forever :)

      It’s times like when I went bowling with my coworkers or went traveling over the weekend, that make me excited all over again. I miss my boyfriend all the time, but when I keep myself busy, it definitely helps me keep my mind off of how much I miss him and it makes it slightly easier to go on each day since that’s one of the hardest things each day. I need to make some kind of inspiration wall or something. It’ll also make my apartment prettier haha!

      I’m here in Japan until next July, but I would like to stay longer if possible. I feel like a year isn’t long enough to do everything I want to do. My boyfriend is applying for different jobs here so he can come and join me and teach. So if he lives here too, then we’ll be able to travel and be happy kitties together haha.

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