Before I move now to a discussion of my own experience of culture shock, I should mention that there may also be another reason for the neglect of culture shock within anthropology-one which is not at all malicious. As time passes, we tend to forget the negative aspects of our past experiences and highlight the good ones. Even now, I remember being upset and anxious in Kenya, but do not quite remember why. When I am having a difficult or stressful day, I find myself pining for our quiet house in Kenya. Even episodes that were terrifying at the time are transformed into hilarious anecdotes upon arrival home. Let me turn now to this experience, which I am already reworking in my memory.
The feelings that accompany culture shock can fundamentally impede fieldwork. Firstly, depression and anxiety affect one's ability to perform even the simplest tasks. Basic chores become insurmountable, let alone the effort of conducting interviews. This can also place a strain on personal relationships, especially those with informants. Secondly, it is quite common for frustration and anger to arise towards the society one is studying, thus affecting the way anthropological knowledge is produced. When the negative aspects of daily life are amplified through the emotions of culture shock, a feeling that one's own society is superior or more logical can easily manifest itself.
Culture shock is about being out of place in a certain place and time. Oberg distinguishes four stages of culture shock-honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment-which, although useful, are somewhat artificial. Firstly, the progression of culture shock is not necessarily linear. One may experience multiple stages at one time or may 'revert' to an earlier stage during a time of crisis or other activity. Also, each individual reacts differently and some may not progress to the final stage before returning home. Nonetheless, I assert that Oberg's model-barring a number of things-is on the whole convincing.
In this essay I have to admit I will not be discussing how the world is going to be hit by some huge culture shock, but how Culture and Identity relate to situations in my life.
Culture shock is not necessarily an acute illness. The 'shock' refers to the rapidity of the physical movement, but the emotions and feedback emotions may occur over a relatively long period of time. There are myriad symptoms and signs of culture shock, including general unease with new situations, irrational fears, difficulty with sleeping, anxiety and depression, homesickness, preoccupation with health, and feeling sick or nauseous. Simply stated, any sort of mental or physical distress experienced in a foreign location could be a symptom of culture shock. Oberg (1960) creates an exhaustive symptoms list, including excessive hand washing, excessive concern over water and food safety, fear of physical contact with 'natives', a feeling of helplessness and dependence on long-term residents of one's own nationality, anger over delays and otherwise minor frustrations, excessive fear of being robbed or injured, concern over minor pains and cuts and abrasions. Finally, he describes that
Let me turn now to a brief discussion of how first-time fieldworkers might negotiate the experiences of culture shock. The root of culture shock is the loss of meaning that originates in the inability to share symbols, i.e. to communicate and produce meaning. There are ways in which one can prevent and deal with the experience in a practical way, through both passive and active learning. Passive learning is a starting point. The most obvious first step is to do the background reading on the community. It is also helpful to talk with people who have been 'out there' before to pick up on nuances not found in the literature.
After a period of several years, it will be impossible to convince him that he is in culture shock and that he has failed to properly understand the Latins.
Then, since life likes to keep things interesting, we experience culture shock when we go back to our country of origin, since what used to shock us in the foreign country has become our new normal.
Finally, the overall contributor to our dis-ease was our own relationship. My co-worker and I did not initially get on well. It was not that we actively disliked each other, but just that we were two people working with each other, rather than friends. Our culture shock was mediated through our relationship and our relationship was mediated through our culture shock. That is, the anxiety and depression from culture shock was preventing us from acting 'like ourselves', thus hindering the relationship. I spent hours fretting over what could be done and I felt inadequate as a charity worker; the one person I did not get on with was the one person I wanted to have as a friend.
Sometimes culture shock can lead to life-changing, soul-searching revelations, but it’s usually the ordinary things (like a first encounter with a squat toilet) that cause such surprise.
Culture shock! That’s what we experience when we leave our comfortable and familiar environments and spend time in foreign surroundings, immersed in different ways of thinking and doing things (which, for the record, are not usually or , but ). These experiences can make us laugh or feel like a slap in the face. Listen to the noise. It’s the sound of paradigms shifting.
Indeed, like Oberg's 'cocktail circuit', meeting up with other charity workers on the weekends became a coping mechanism as our frustrations and anger with Kisii increased. This is one of the least constructive periods for the production of ethnographic knowledge. Malinowski's diary presents a clear example of how personal feelings affect the production of ethnographic knowledge. In the introduction, Firth writes that 'few, perhaps those as highly strung as Malinowksi, have cursed the people they were studying as heartily as he did' (Malinowski 1967:xiv). In the rural Kenyan context, delays and otherwise minor setbacks are a part of daily life. It rains nearly every afternoon and most roads are un-tarmacked; at times it is impossible to get anywhere. In our frustrated phase, the Kisiis also seemed to be late for everything and nothing was ever on time. We would arrange to meet our head teacher in town at 9a.m. and she would arrive around noon, completely unapologetic. Furthermore, she was consistently amused at our frustrations with time, which exacerbated the problems. This is probably the point at which I started saying things like, 'there's a reason why we colonised them'. Clearly, I did not mean this, but culture shock mediated ethnographic interpretations.
Although background research is expected of all respectable anthropologists, we still experience culture shock in the field. It is here that we can begin the active learning. I use Furnham and Bochner's (1986) notion of 'culture learning' as a starting point: the best coping method is to learn behaviours appropriate to given situations. Oberg's (1960) first suggestion is to learn the language and meet one's neighbours through religious or community activities. This might seem sophomoric to anthropologists, but the reality is that when overcome with irrational fears and anxieties, it is hard to leave the house. The trick is to allow adjustment time. It is not necessary to conduct interviews on the first day. One should spend time making one's house and village 'familiar'. For me, our house became a 'safe place'. We made it feel homely and I enjoyed being there. Similarly, once we realised that everyone for at least a 5 kilometre radius knew our names, we were much less scared. Village life was wonderful after making friends and developing a sense of belonging. Furthermore, when we started doing sports with the children, not only did we sleep better, but we had also made more friends.