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Culture Shock is not something that people generally get on a holiday but as soon as your boss calls you into the office and says "Hi John, we value you so much we want you to head our Hong Kong operations !" you really need to start thinking about the implications and how you are going to avoid this condition. It is not so much as a life threatening disease, but it can lead to some very serious problems if you do not take a few precautions.
Culture shock is definitely a serious condition that needs to be watched, and checked upon. I personally have suffered from it on numerous occasions and yes sleep deprivation, mood swings, and depression are all in there.
Travelling to a new destination with unusual habits and traditions can be a very traumatic experience, a little research before you leave will help tremendously but the most important thing is to actually leave with an open mind. A lot of people fly off without any research and expect things to be done in exactly the same way and at the same speed as they were at home, well this just isn't going to happen, and it is very important to try to understand the culture religion and people of the country that you are travelling to.
The culture shock selection of books are a very good starting place, but one that you will not really understand fully until you are actually in the country mingling with the locals. One interesting point of this can be found in the book Culture Shock Thailand (check our book reviews here), Thai people are among the nicest people in the world but it is a very different world from let's say the UK. The book explains a good deal about Thai culture and traditions and it explains how Thais smile their way out of an embarrassing situation and look down on those that don't. The book then puts this into a couple of different examples, to try to ensure that the reader understands. One such example is that if you are walking down the street and someone throws dirty water over you from a doorway, you should smile at the person that did this, showing your forgiveness, this should help clear the air and the person will most likely go out of there way to help you clean up, imagine this happening in London ! Thais shy away from confrontation, and this is one of the many aspects that make them such a happy and kind nation.
If as an expatriate you are moving to a country with severe Culture Shock such as perhaps Cambodia, or Vietnam, then even more research would be needed. Nowadays you can do a lot more research than was ever possible with the growth of the internet. You can see pictures of pretty much every destination in the world and even read restaurant, hotel and bar reviews without having even left your office. It is also advisable to stay away from a lot of the other expats especially before you leave and for while after you arrive in the destination, a lot of expats can be very negative about a country, even though they continue to stay there and this is not something that you need when you have just travelled half way around the world. Instead leave with an open mind and make your own judgements about the place after you have started to understand it a little.
One of the biggest causes though of Culture Shock is language. It will make an enormous amount of difference to you if you learn a little or as much as possible of the local language before you leave. Take up classes and practice it as much as you can; if you are studying Thai, eat out at Thai restaurants and try to practice your Thai. This small step will make your life a lot simpler and will also give you immediate respect when you arrive in the foreign country, not to mention open many new doors. If you show an interest in the other persons language and culture they will show an interest in you.
If you are being relocated by your company try to find out a little about the living conditions in that country and the package that the company offers you. Will they supply you with hotel accommodation or will you be straight into an appartment or house ? Are you given a housing allowance and allowed to choose the accomodation yourself ? Will the company pay the deposits that the landlord requires etc. ? Will you have maids ? What about a car ? How many return trips will you have a year to your home country ? Will they be in economy or business class ? What about your family rights - the wife - the husband - the children ? How long is the posting for ? Will the company pay for repatriation due to illness, or unemployment ? Do they have limits to the amount of furniture that you can send over but most importantly bring back ? Will they cover these charges ? Do they have any restrictions as to how you send these things ? Do they offer you insurance that is suitable for the country that you are travelling to ?
So now that you have read up on the country, searched millions of web pages, have learnt a little of the language, and are happy with the package that the company is offering you, you are ready to leave.
When you arrive it is important to fit in, get a feel for the place, the smells, the sounds. I would suggest just walking for a day or two experiencing the mystique of the new land you have just discovered. After a while when you are feeling a little more at home join a club, and make friends socially outside of your regular work patterns, and try to meet and befriend as many locals a you can, so that you will really get a deeper understanding of where you and most probably appreciate the differences in culture a lot more.
Culture Shock basically comes from a lack of understanding and built up anxiety, and can be caused by the most minute things, building up. One time in Hong Kong a colleague seemed to be literally screaming at the waitress in Cantonese, I was very anxious and asked what was wrong, my colleague looked very confused as to why I was asking the question and she simply replied that she was ordering some water !
All in all every expat has had his or her bad days, and there are times you just want to get on a plane and fly back, however these days are minimal compared to the fun, and amazing discoveries that you will make. Once you are bitten by the spirit and feeling of adventure you are about to embark on, you will have more difficulty believe it or not, returning "home" than you imagined especially the longer you stay away.