A Reflection on Cultural Shock and Nostalgia

© Deúniti, colectivo creativo

© Deúniti, colectivo creativo

Living in Armenia in the first few months were unusual. Although Armenian is my native language, I wasn’t very familiar with the Eastern Armenian dialect. I shared the same ethnicity of the country’s population, yet I felt I was different. I didn’t know what I was going through at the time, until a little later I came across the term, cultural shock.

Cultural shock, as the term suggests, is the unpleasant feeling we get when we find ourselves in a foreign culture. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, who was the first to use the term, defined it as the “anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.” Tourists, sojourners (those who temporarily stay in an unknown culture), immigrants and refugees are among the different travelers who experience this anxiety that Oberg describes. Of course, the degree of cultural shock varies from one traveler to another. The anxiety that a refugee feels would be much stronger than a tourist’s, since he or she was most likely compelled to leave their country of origin.

Cultural shock has a twin sibling called Nostalgia. When travelers become aware of their anxiety, they start yearning for the past. Nostalgia, then, steps in as a means of escapism from the undesired reality. Travelers would find themselves spending a lot of time reminiscing on old memories, which increases their dissatisfaction with the present. However, it is important to mention that nostalgia can be quite illusory.  As novelist Marcel Proust puts it: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”  When I first started going to school in Armenia, I started to think very fondly of my school in Syria. Even my own thoughts seemed surprising to me, as in reality, I had always complained about my old school.

Based on my description, so far, cultural shock seems like a very negative phenomenon. However, there’s a positive side to it that we often neglect. The social difficulties that travelers experience don’t last forever. They would soon be able to easily articulate in the foreign language or dialect, and will soon get accustomed to the different manners or values shared in the new environment. This way, the anxiety that the traveler experiences for a certain period of time eventually dissolves and turns into something positive. Shortly after, the traveler’s intercultural understanding increases and he or she becomes self-efficient.

For some travelers, culture shock and nostalgia would not be hinders at all. From their first contact with the unknown culture, their great interest in exploring it would drive away all kinds of negative thoughts and feelings. Therefore, culture shock is a very individualistic experience, for some a nightmare, for others a blessing.

I’ve come to the conclusion that dealing with culture shock and nostalgia gets easier and more interesting as we indulge in various cultures. After living in Armenia for about three years, my family and I settled in Lebanon, where I experienced a cultural shock similar to the former. This time, I encountered nostalgia over Armenia, which was very ironic. However, I was able to recover from the distress much faster, since I was already familiar with its mechanism. Instead of seeing it as a difficulty, meeting new people became an interesting opportunity to make friends; speaking the language of the new environment transformed from negative self-consciousness to positive self-esteem.

Although experiencing culture shock and nostalgia can be a stressful phase to deal with, it is a unique opportunity for us to appreciate and learn more about other cultures and ourselves. After all, the more we know, the wider our perspective on life would be.

Written by Hovsep Markarian, a current regional intern at the WYA Middle East office in Lebanon.