There are two kinds of culture shock.
The first is the kind you get when you are riding in your first taxi ride from the airport around India and force yourself to close your eyes as the driver dodges cars, cows, bicycles, and pedestrians in traffic.
The second kind is what happens six weeks later when you find yourself physically pushing someone out of the way who has cut the queue in front of you and yelling “What’s wrong with you?!”
To distinguish between the two, I’ll call the second a culture attack.
Culture shocks are actually a little bit fun. These are the experiences you tell your friends and family about when you go back home. It was like culture shock when everyone jammed into the train all at once! That was crazy! These are simple isolated experiences of cultural differences that leave an impression on us.
Culture attacks are hellish. They overtake your body and leave you feeling like the Incredible Hulk. You don’t tell people back home about these times. How do you tell your mother about the time when you got out your car and threatened to kill the motorcyclist who pulled out in front of you?
Culture shocks can happen on a daily basis. You see something strange and make a mental note of it.
Culture attacks usually happen when you experience several repeated culture shocks in a very short amount of time.
I had a culture attack very recently. I had been waiting on a much-needed invoice to clear from a company for two months. When I called up my contact there for the fifth time in a week, I was told it would definitely be cleared sometime next week (code for never). I was on my way to an old age home where I do not speak the language and am constantly overwhelmed at the destitution among these abandoned people. I was hungry and stopped into a major grocery store where they had all the aisles blocked with boxes for restocking (in the middle of the day). The clerk had no clue how to ring up my item. While leaving, I nearly hit a motorcyclist who merged into traffic without looking and had a city bus loudly honking at me the entire time.
When I reached home, I had to spend some time in an enclosed room and use some choice words that I don’t think my mother is aware that I know.
Truths about Culture Attacks
1.) They can happen at any time. If you go through a cultural training program, they are likely to warn you about culture shock and show you this nice little graph to explain how you will feel in your first two years.
This is cow feces. (And not the good kind used here). Nothing could be further from the truth than to say you will experience one singular low point in your experience in a new culture and then evolve into this blissful stage of “mastery”.
Culture attacks come at any time. Holidays, Birthdays, Tuesdays, midnight. They don’t care. You should be ready for them at any time and at any frequency.
2.) They are normal and unavoidable. If you stay in a place for long enough it is likely to happen. Perhaps there are some countries where this is not the case, but India is not one of them. No matter how patient, understanding, or culturally savvy you are, they will come for you.
3.) They are out-of-body experiences. You can most easily tell when you are having a culture attack because you will act inconsistently with your usual behaviors. If you are normally very calm, you might lash out at someone. If you are normally very friendly, you might become extremely sarcastic and bitter.
4.) The tipping point is usually a very small thing. This makes it hard for others to understand why you are “overreacting”. An outsider sees you start to throw a chair around the office because you are told that the meeting has been moved to 4pm instead of 3pm. Outsiders don’t see the chain of events that lead to your reaction.
5.) They subside. Your emotions do not go away, but the rage/panic slowly lessens over time. The issues are still there, but they become more manageable once you calm down.
What kinds of things cause culture shock and culture attacks in India?
Please note that the things on this list are not meant in any way to criticize India. They are simply to help those on the outside (and inside) recognize the kinds of things that contribute to culture shock and culture attacks.
- Head wobbles. Is that a yes or no? (Typically this question is answered with another head wobble.)
- Loudspeakers. Whether it is a political rally, or the local temple blaring music, it almost feels like they are trying to get people to be annoyed at them.
- Smells. There are lots of overwhelming smells in India: incense, garbage, urine, polluted rivers, spices, etc.
- Dirtiness. Trash on the streets, overflowing garbage bins, litter on the beaches, red stains from pan spitting, public urination – it can be overwhelming.
- Contrasts. You might get picked up from the airport in a BMW, drive through a slum with children banging on the windows to get you to buy some cheap toy, and then pull up to the most lavish hotel you have ever seen. Paradoxes rule in India. There is massive poverty and massive opulence.
- Heat. If you are here in the summer (anytime from April to October), you are likely to be struck by the oppressiveness of the heat.
- Crowds. Over a billion people crammed into a country sized for about 100 million. The idea of personal space is not accepted.
- Cows. Yes, they are here, and they do roam some streets freely, with no one seeming to notice.
- Hierarchy. You may notice overt power structures built into nearly every area of life.
- Too much attention. No one lets you open a door, carry your own bag, stand, or do all the things you are used to doing on your own. If you have reasonably attractive children, you will be bombarded with requests for pictures that will end up who knows where.
- Traffic. It is more or less anarchy on the roads. Horns blare constantly, and bikes dart in and out of traffic as if they are trying to get into an accident.
How do I Handle Culture Shock and Culture Attacks?
The best way to handle culture shock is to repeat the phrase, it’s not wrong, it’s just different. If you are simply noticing cultural differences, then you are in a safe place. Do your best to suspend your judgment about whether something is right or wrong and just let it be different for now.
This strategy is useless if you are having a culture attack. During a culture attack, your brain tells you that you have the right, nay, the obligation to point out to everyone around you (including all your friends online) just how dumb and mindless this culture is. [This doesn’t apply just to India, but any cross-cultural experience.] Your mind will focus on how superior your culture is and will easily justify any action you take next.
If you sense these thoughts taking over, get away from people. You need to find a safe place to go and let your emotions calm down. Most Indian residences and office buildings have a nice terrace that is perfect for these situations. You are not in control of your actions, and are likely to do something you will later regret. The event that tipped you into the culture attack is likely a small one, and one you can handle once you get your regular brain back.
For both shocks and attacks, you should never vent online or in any public forum. A personal blog or a Facebook account that is easily seen by others is not a private place to work through your negative emotions. Two American diplomats were expelled from India, and the negative things they wrote about India on their Facebook pages didn’t help their case at all.
Instead of venting online, find a friend/partner/spouse you can safely talk with. It is best if this person has lived in another country and can understand some of what you are going through.
However, don’t let these talks turn into “bashing India” sessions. That will only prime you for another negative encounter later on. My wife and I were fortunate that usually when one of us was having an “I hate it here” day, the other was in a better place.
The distinction between culture shock and a culture attack is a helpful one when you are experiencing a country as diverse and “shocking” as India. Keep these terms in mind, and you will be able to better identify what you are going through.
Photo Credit: C+H on Flickr