How to Deal With Culture Shock – My Experience in the Kingdom of Tonga

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Culture shock/Noun
the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. (Google definition)
Are you about to move to a new city/ country or have you moved.
The reason why we feel culture shock is because we are surrounded by people who act in ways that we don’t expect. As humans, creatures of habit, it can be shocking, frustrating, confusing and exhausting!
How can you prepare yourself for an unfamiliar culture?
Firstly it’s interesting to understand you and your own cultural beliefs. Every part of your culture originates in a thought. These thoughts influence our relationships with others, the way we communicate, the way we behave and what we make everything mean.
I want to offer you an idea, that once you understand what beliefs you hold, you can use that to your advantage. We think that our culture and many of our core beliefs are set in stone, but nothing could be further from the truth. You get to decide what you want to believe and what you want to make living in this new cultural environment mean. Also trying to change the people around you is impossible and exhausting – we all do it but it doesn’t have to be that way.
When I was a young whippersnapper l lived in the Kingdom of Tonga. I volunteered in an Australian government youth program, working in the Tongan National Cultural Centre. I’ll be honest with you, I was supposed to live there for 12 months but due to some ahem misunderstandings I ended up leaving after 6 months.
Tongans are very culturally different to Australians. Looking back there were so many times that I felt culture shock.
I remember buying some food to share with the fellow staff, white bread and jam (don’t judge me!). And when we were finished, I was planning to pop the jam in the fridge for the next day – but the staff took the jam jar and proceeded to share it, eating it ALL. There was not a drop of jam left. I was sitting there feeling bewildered and annoyed. Looking back it only makes me laugh but at the time, these kinds of moments seemed to happen regularly.
So how could I have handled it differently? I could have started by looking at the situation with neutral eyes. The group ate a jar of jam that I had bought. And then if we investigate my thoughts, which were, that’s weird and gross to eat that much jam, normally people would have smeared just a small layer on a piece of bread, taken a little each and then given the jam back to me – the jam was really mine! Can you see all of my expectations? I can the look at the situation with compassion and see that the other staff were hungry, that eating jam straight from the jar was something they thought was fun and delicious, that they thought it was a gift. And from that place I can decide what I want to do. I could have asked them to please keep some jam to share tomorrow, I could have asked them to buy some more jam, I could decide that I wanted to feel generous and keep giving them jam. The options are endless, but rather than becoming a victim of the situation, investigating and deciding what I want to think, empowers me to feel better and take action from that place.
It’s interesting also to look deeper into cultural theory to see some of these common cultural differences. This story clearly illustrates the contrast between a collective and individualist mindset. I thought I owned the jam and my Tongan friends thought we all did!
If you want to know more about cultural theory. I am going to write a series of blog posts on this topic. If you are interested in getting all my blog posts, send me your email details on my contact page and I will put you on my list to receive my Fallible Friday tools and tips which will include a link to my weekly blogpost.
Image by Andre Guerra

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