When I studied abroad in Tahiti, French Polynesia a couple of years ago, my professor gave us some instructions. We were to write a letter to ourselves to remind ourselves why we decided to take on such an adventure. I never opened it, but if I remember correctly, it went something like this:
Suck it up. You went on this trip to experience a new culture and learn something new. Go out there and do something. Bye.
My professor had us write this for the moment we felt sad, lonely, or homesick. Although we might not think we will need it, many of us will undergo a period of homesickness, heartache, or extreme stress and fatigue. According to psychology experts, anyone spending a long-term amount of time in a foreign country undergoes a process of cultural adaptation called “The Four Common Stages of Cultural Adjustment”. Often times, school directors or professors encourage self-reflection and even to go alone, not to have visitors as it interrupts the cultural immersion. For these reasons, I have always thought studying abroad is not about the study, but the experience, because alone, the experience causes such psychological and physical fatigue. In my opinion, placing more on a student can detract from their learning and personal cultural adaptation.
A breakdown of the “Cultural Adjustment Four Stages”
First, the honeymoon stage– Everything is new, wonderful, different, and welcoming. One is intrigued with the good, the bad, and the ugly. You could say one is high on life!
Second, culture shock– The novelty of the new culture begins to wear off and one begins to focus on the differences, primarily the negative differences. This could come off by searching for friends from one’s own country, homesickness, or prejudices and stereotypes surface.
Third, gradual adjustment, humor, and perspective- the culture begins to become more familiar. One begins to feel less isolated and comfortable. Periodic highs and lows take place. Cultural cues begin to become easier to read and one feels less annoyed at cultural oddities and rather, can laugh at them again. One can now enter a stage of deep learning and cultural acceptance.
Fourth, feeling at home, adaptation and biculturalism– the new culture is not new anymore, but rather, home. Aspects of the new home does not cause a negative shock like it once did. One appreciates aspects of both cultures.
I outline this because although each of these stages are standardized, each person reacts end endures them differently. Some spend more time in varying stages than others. Sometimes one recognizes them and sometimes, one does not.
I can say now that I have, in some ways, spent long enough in Tahiti, Djibouti, and now Reunion to potentially hit all of these stages. Depending on the length of time spent in locations and the culture, full cultural adaptation varies. Perhaps one hits the first couple of stages, but cultural adjustment can and does take a long time.
Cultural adaptation is not easy. It is taking all societal and civilization standards one has grown up with and throwing them in the garbage. For example: sometimes it is asking why stores are closed between 11 am and 2 pm every day to then be questioned why stores in the US are open from 10 am until 8 or 10 pm. Sometimes it is asking why you can only eat croissants during breakfast time, but realizing it might be odd to eat eggs for breakfast. Or finding frustration in an inability to cook a Thanksgiving dinner because ovens are difficult to find. Or finding frustration in not being able to find cranberry sauce. Or coffee pots. Or English books. Or why a bus cannot be on time to save its life. Or why sometimes you don’t have to pay for the bus and others, you do.
Although these items may seem simple, over time they build up and one feels like an invisible sumo wrestler is sitting on one’s chest, but one does not know why or where it came from nor can speak the proper language to ask it to get off. Only in time, will it move and you can breathe again.
I have watched as many of my friends spent time abroad in a variety of countries. In Germany, Japan, Spain, England, Argentina, Turkey, etc. Some missed their family very much, some stayed longer in the prospective countries, some openly discussed their aggressions, and others, appreciated their arrival home. Some locked themselves away during the night and some turned to exercise.
In Tahiti, I remember watching each of my American mates go through cultural adaptation at their own pace. Although I am often self-aware, I don’t particularly remember moving through each stage. I remember small stages, but for some reason in Tahiti, I moved quickly to the third and fourth stage easily, or maybe what I think was easy. Maybe I never left the euphoric stage. In Djibouti, I felt similarly. I made deep and enriching friendships that I imagine I will have for a long time.
But Reunion, it has been different. It’s been really different. I recognizably have felt the sumo wrestler on my chest for the past three months.
Which to be honest, was quite unexpected. Tahiti and Djibouti are considered developing countries. While Reunion, an overseas department of France, has everything the United States has (except cranberries and pumpkins) and more. I don’t have to carry around toilet paper like I did in Tahiti. I don’t have to drive like a mad man because people here follow road signs and do not chew a narcotic that they do in Djibouti. And yet, I have had issues.
This past summer, my friend Julia and I took a small vacation to Ethiopia from Djibouti. Our four days were both simultaneously amazing and awful. I saw some of the most beautiful mountains and scenery I have seen in my entire life, but the last day ended with me catching the worst gas I have ever had and then getting the worst irritable bowel syndrome I have ever had as our van traipsed down two hours of a gravel, Ethiopian road from the top of the mountain to the airport, and then to top it all off, I was pickpocket. Although that day was an unforgettable experience, if I could sum up my trip in a phrase it would be, “MacKenzie and Julia always did something wrong”.
We made a joke out of the fact that what seemed like everything we did, was wrong. But we did not know why or what it was, nor did we ever figure it out. To Ethiopians, it was justified because the white foreign women are different and can be excused as such. I always felt I was watched, judged, and partially avoided. I received many awkward glances and rude eye rolls. The feeling of knowing you did something rude is awful, but not knowing why or how to fix it is even worse. After my stomach pains and stolen phone, I was ecstatic to return to Djibouti- and our trip was only 4 days.
It was easy to write off Ethiopia as Ethiopia; I would consider it the most cultured location I have visited in the world. It is one of those worldly locations that has been able to keep its culture for thousands of years. Other African countries have their own culture, but colonization and globalization has incorporated aspects of other cultures and adapted unlike
But, the feeling of constantly doing something wrong has returned. For the past three months.
While working at Ti Coz, a restaurant and bar, it seemed every single thing I did, I would be yelled at. “MacKenzie, you are talking to the customers for too long.” “MacKenzie, you are not talking to the customers long enough.” “MacKenzie, you are not to talk to children.” “Don’t you know peanuts are only given out between the hours of 5 and 7?” “Why are you talking with your hands?” “Why are you speaking so loudly?” “You asked them how their food was twice? Why?”
I wrote off the bar and restaurant industry as just that. Perhaps an industry I lack knowledge in. I have spent the past four years studying Political Science, International Relations, Religion, and French… knowing how to fold a napkin was not in any of my syllabi.
But then it continued to happen. I continuously find I do something bizarre in all aspects of daily life: everything from relationship etiquette, bar etiquette, bus etiquette, texting etiquette, humor, eating hours, driving an automatic. You name it, I have done something wrong.
Emojis are weird. Always be direct. It’s okay if you text someone one day and pick up the same conversation two weeks later. Don’t push the “bus stop button”, clap. And clap for a stop exactly 15 seconds before otherwise the bus won’t stop. Don’t eat dinner at 7 pm, when you can eat dinner at 10 pm. How silly it is to assume dinner is at 6 pm, when one ate at 12 noon. If you wake up past 9 am, you are extremely lazy, but taking a nap between 11 am and 3 pm is normal. Never wear sandals to a discotheque, how inelegant. The air conditioner is only for evening between the hours of 12 midnight and 6 am. Etc. Why are you talking so loud? Why do you use your hands when you speak? You don’t know how to drive manual? Are you lazy?
Sometimes I can be written off as the odd American, but other times I am looked at as plain weird or rude.
I constantly feel I am on edge. Some people I feel close to and I find out I was only an acquaintance. Others I thought I was an acquaintance and I find out I am super close. For a while, I thought I didn’t have any friends and when I went to say goodbye to my friends at the coffee shop, the owner called me the infamous MacKenzie. It’s been a puzzle that seems to keep coming up with more pieces.
In retrospect, perhaps this is the first time I have not had any Americans to lean on and discuss these oddities. For the first time, I am actually on my own. I have to do everything in French, I have to move through the various cultural dimensions and layers of the island- the French aspect, the Creole, and the island living. Or perhaps, I am finally being challenged by living abroad longer than 3 months ( 6 months and counting). Or perhaps, lacking a constant daily mission is causing some inner stress.
But what has been odd for me is that although I have felt like an outsider, it seems everyone has accepted me as one of their own. Many have asked me to stay longer. To come back and hang out. Open up an English school. Open up a coffee shop. Or open up a ride-sharing business… I am always surprised. I often think, “Am I missing something? Do they really want me here? Are we friends?..” Is this really the French way of life? Or is it the easy-going mentality of Reunion Islanders?
I do not write this article to ask for any sort of pity, but to give full disclosure as to my experience on the island. Reunion has not necessarily been easy. Who knows if it is for the good or for the worse. But my personal struggle, although they may be small still matter in that anyone spending time abroad in a foreign country and culture’s struggles matter just the same.
I recently spent my first Thanksgiving abroad. I tried to cook a turkey in a toaster since Reunion apartments do not include ovens. I also tried to explain the purpose of family and friends on this day as people around the US are traveling home to people who live, at most, one hour away from their family members on this small island. Although it is not a religious holiday, it is ritualistic and traditional in many ways. Trying to explain the significance of the Macy’s Day Parade and Black Friday shopping was similar to explaining to a cat why I poop in the toilet. I don’t know how much they understood, but they tried and that’s all that matters.
But I was not the only one on this day. Nor am I the only foreigner spending a holiday in a foreign country. There are many people in the U.S. who celebrate their holidays amongst those who know nothing about them. Cultural adaptation is happening everywhere… and everywhere, people are recognizing small tensions between cultures and societies.
So, as my final week here in Reunion comes to close, I began to reflect on my past three months a little more closely. What do all of these oddities mean? Why have I not been able to “culturally adapt”? Or have I and I am only scrutinizing each of these oddities a little too closely?
All this time, I half wanted to leave, but then there are moments of attraction to the island. I live for the moments when I hiked to the top of the volcano, saw some amazing waterfalls, and laughed hysterically with some of the friends I made. But the other half, I literally wanted voted off the island. I felt I am leaving nothing behind. There I have left no mark. I can’t find a hole I dug nor do I know the depth of it.
Then I realized a couple of things wrong with my mentality:
- I have been stuck in the culture shock.
- Standards. Expectations. And resentment.
- I was silly for not writing and reading my letter- “MacKenzie- suck it up.”
- It’s okay. I’m okay. And the world will be okay.
When I left the United States, I told myself I was looking for humanity. I was looking for cultural oddities in a variety of cultures around the world. What I have failed to remind myself is that I don’t have to fit into those oddities or really, I don’t have to like them.
Recognizing differences is just as important, if not more, to finding similarities. Here on Reunion, I seemed to have found many of those small differences. A change in mentality, an attitude towards life. But recognizing is not the same as understanding. This whole time, I have been trying to understand the oddities of the island before adapting to them.
Which is the problem.
I can recognize the oddities. I don’t have to understand them. But I do have to deal with them and try and adapt to them… I have been stuck in Stage 2 and fighting tirelessly to stay there. What I have failed to do, embarrassingly, is accept them. I have recognized them, questioned them, felt them, but then failed to move forward.
I chose this life. I chose to go to Reunion Island and although it did not meet some of my standards, my expectations, or it was not exactly the vacation I was hoping for, I need to accept it the same. Rather than taking the differences in stride, and moving onward, I decided to continue to drain my time and energy to configure why or how their attitudes make sense. And try to find answers as to why they might be the way they are, but that in the end was the issue.
And I became cocky. I thought if I could handle Djibouti and Tahiti, that I could easily adjust to Reunion Island. But you know how the saying goes, Karma is a little female dog. And she comes back to haunt you. I should have written my letter to myself “MacKenzie- suck it up and deal with it. Continue persevering and explore. XOXO Yourself” Because every culture is different, I should never expect one to be easier than another. Nor should I standardize and prepare expectations, because if anything I have learned through traveling is to embrace the unexpected and forgo expectations because then they will be met…
I have learned a ton while living here. My French language has improved tremendously- one of the main reasons I came. And with it, my understanding of the culture and history behind it has caused me to have many strides. My interest in French colonized countries has made my experience a great one. I tried new foods, learned how to drive manual, hiked to the top of an active volcano, jumped off of a cliff, saw some of the most amazing waterfalls I have ever seen, and most importantly, was reminded of the easy going mentality I lack so frequently stateside. I’m okay. I will be okay. And although every day presents struggles worldwide, the world continues to turn and in the end, I know we will all be okay. So I take a deep breath in and remember what’s important- family, community, and personal well-being.
But most importantly, I have learned that cultures are all different. They smell, look, touch, listen, and taste differently. None can be standardized nor can they be compared side by side, and really they shouldn’t. Each should be welcomed with open arms and leave the expectations behind.
So, as I close my Reunion chapter, take my Euro change and prepare to trade it in for a new adventure, I write this letter to myself (and anyone needing that extra motivation for their gloomy Monday, or Tuesday, Wednesday, etc..)
It’s okay. You’re okay. The world will be okay.. Now suck it up and go out and find what you’re searching for.”