5 Lessons Learned from Overcoming Culture Shock

Please visit my previous posts on defining culture shock and how to overcome it.  After going through all 3 stages of the cultural adjustment curve, I have learned a few lessons along this colorful roller coaster ride.

I will have negative feelings

As a general rule, I am a positive person.  I would not be developing my own expat/transition coaching company if I wasn’t.  My optimistic outlook on life is such a defining feature of my identity, that whenever I do have negative feelings, I consider myself a failure. After all, I am supposed to be the Pura Vida champion!  There is no room for anger, disgust, sadness, hostility, disapproval, frustration, or impatience in my world.

That is a bunch of bullsh!t.  Anyone thrown into a new environment will experience negative feelings.  It is a normal part of the cultural adjustment curve, which is why some genius was able to identify the process in the first place.  Don’t feel guility because you have negative feelings towards your host country.  The important thing is to have enough self-awareness to realize why you are feeling them and to take action to overcome them in a healthy manner.

I will not change the local culture

When we went to the Carrerra de Cintas fundraiser a few months ago, Kara asked to participate. The man in charge refused to let her on a horse, saying he did not want her to get hurt.  That would not have been a huge deal, except that there were children much younger than her participating.  The difference?  They were boys.  Kara was so upset by the double standard that she burst into tears out of anger and frustration.  I took this as a teaching opportunity to tell her that the fundraiser was not about her/us, it was about helping a family in need.  I was also brutally frank with her when I told her that this was not going to be the first time she was passed up for an opportunity because of her gender and that this doesn’t only happen in Costa Rica.  Gender inequality is alive and well all over the world, including the USA.  Getting on a soap box about machismo would not have been appropriate at this event, where the focus was to help this family going through a health crisis.  I also knew that no matter what I did, I was not going to change the local culture, and all a diatribe would have achieved is given me a reputation as the crazy gringa.  By no means am I suggesting that as women we should just shrug our shoulders and accept gender diparaties.  No way!  We should fight for justice and equality, but not at a small horse race, fundraiser in Canitas.  There are a few things I would like to change about Tico culture (such as the paucity of details!) and life in Costa Rica (such as all the bugs!), but I have accepted that I cannot. I have chosen to focus on the good aspects of the culture and learned to navigate within the parts I don’t.  I have found that the good outweighs the bad.   As an expat, you will become much happier when you realize you cannot change the culture no matter how hard you try.  You have to make the choice to accept the idiosyncrasies of your new home or ship out.

I am not defined by ethnic euphamisms

I am the first-generation American-born daughter of Mexican immigrants.  I grew up speaking Spanish at home in a poor Mexican neighborhood in South Texas, and I did not meet a white person (other than a teacher) until I was in fifth grade.  In my former life, the term “gringa” meant “white girl”.  When I was living in the US, I never felt like a “gringa” or “white girl”.  While I have friends of all races and ethnicities, I always identified myself as Mexican.  I ate tacos.  I was a member of “Latinos for Obama”, and I even had the t-shirt to prove it.  I listened to Vicente Fernandez.  Though I was fairly assimiliated into upper-middle class, suburban American culture by the time I reached adulthood and even married a “gringo”,  I proudly wore my metaphysical “nopal en la frente”.  I was a fierce Latina, not a gringa. Until I moved to Costa Rica.  The first time a Tico called me a gringa, I was puzzled.  After living here for a while, the first time I referred to myself as a gringa, I shocked myself.  I still identify with my Mexican roots.  I still love tacos.  I still listen to Vicente Fernandez.  But in Costa Rica, “gringa” simply means that I am an English-speaking foreigner.  It does not define my character, soul, or even my ethnicity.  The term does not speak to my political inclinations, of which I have many.  I am still the same pro-choice, pro-Obama care, pro-comprehensive immigration reform, anti-gun, vegetarian, tree hugger Latina I have always been.  My “gringa-ness” in Costa Rica does not take any of that away from me.

I can live like this

I have learned to accept that sometimes running errands takes a long time because I have to get dollars from one bank to make a deposit into another.  I have learned that the post office is closed in the middle of the day sometimes for unclear reasons.  I have learned that punctuality is not a commonly practiced virtue here.  I have learned that paucity of details is the norm here because people have been doing some things for years, so they know what is going on even though to us new expats they may not make sense.  I have learned to not flush toilet paper down the toilet.  I have learned to be more patient and accepting.  When I feel frustrated, I take a deep breath and say “Pura Vida”!

Happiness is a choice

Despite the rain, bugs, homeless pets, bad roads, and unpredictable stocking of the grocery store (sometimes there will be only conditioner or shampoo, not both!), I have made the choice to be happy.  Complaining, blaming, and dwelling on the negative aspects of living fixes nothing.  Choosing to be positive, optimistic, and integrate into the community does help alleviate the symptoms of culture shock.  I am not suggesting that you simply need to snap your fingers and you will defeat the hostility stage of cultural adjustment.  Overcoming that phase takes work.  But I will say that identifying the root of  your negative feelings and taking steps to actively conquer culture shock will help you succeed as you seek to accomplish cultural integration.

What have you learned from going through culture shock or any clash of cultures situation?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

About Noemi Gamel

Noemi Gamel is a physician who prefers writing diverse children's fantasy stories instead of medical charts. She is a geeky nomad, too.
This entry was posted in A Lesson Worth Learning, Becoming an Expat, Cultural Adaptability/CultureShock and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 5 Lessons Learned from Overcoming Culture Shock

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Simplify Your Emotions | Pura Vida Familia

  2. Pingback: 5 Amazing Perks of Parenting in Costa Rica as an Expat | Pura Vida Familia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s