Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why Culture is Exhausting

I called the new little sandwich shop on Base. I wanted to order 3 chicken doners and 3 beef doners. They had two choices in the doner category. A roll. Or a sandwich. I wanted the one that was like a "wrap." Would that be the sandwich or would that be the roll? I could see a roll being interpreted as wrap. But I could also see roll being interpreted as a bun like we have in America.

This was sort of important. I really wanted to order the right thing. Unfortunately, I cared a lot, otherwise I could have avoided a majority of this conversation.

I do not know how to ask the difference between these two items in Turkish. The woman I spoke with spoke very little English. I speak very little Turkish. And I was on Base. On Base, you assume the Turk you speak with will speak good English. When they don't, you can be taken off-guard.

Here, was the conversation we had. I am the speaker in bold.

"I'd like to order six doners."


"Can you tell me the difference between a roll and a wrap?"

"A wrap. Okay."

"No, could you tell me how they are different?"

"Different. Okay."

"No, umm, could you tell the difference between a wrap and a roll."

"Order a roll. Okay."

"Inglizce bilen var mi?" (Is there anyone there who speaks English?)

"I'm sorry I don't speak English."

"Yes. I know. Inglizce bilen var mi?"

"Phone number?"

"But I didn't place my order yet."

"Right. Phone number?"

"Umm. Okay. 676 ..."

"676 ..." (This is the only preface on our Base so this part is easy.)



"No. 5429."


"No. Dort-Besh ..."


"No. Dort-Besh-Iki-Dokus."

"Okay. Yes. Okay."

"But I haven't ordered. I wanted to order 6 doners."

"Yes." And at this point, I realize we are sort of on the same page. She says, "Yes. I have friend call you in five minutes."

"Someone who speaks English?"


"Oh. Okay. That'd be wonderful!"



I had a little brunch for Angelica's birthday the other day and invited a few friends. Our friend Tina was there. She used to live in Turkey many years ago, and we found ourselves in a great conversation about "culture shock."

I'm big on the stages of grief. And no surprise that there are stage of "culture shock" as well. The stages can vary from source to source but they go something like this:

  • Honeymoon phase -- The differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light, wonderful and new. Time is filled with observations and new discoveries.
  • Negotiation phase -- Usually at about the 3 month mark, differences between the old and new cultures become apparent and may create anxiety. Feelings of frustration and anger may emerge as the individual experiences unfavorable events like language barriers, public hygiene differences, traffic safety, food accessibility/cleanliness/quality etc. Circadian rhythm effects coupled with exposure to new bacteria in food and water can cause physical issues. Language barrier becomes a real obstacle in creating new relationships. Small differences like body language, faux pas, conversation tone, linguistic nuances and customs are all a factor.
  • Adjustment phase -- This stage is usually around the 6-12 month mark. One begins to grow accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. Visitor begins to know what to expect in most siutations and the host country no longer feels all that new. Things become more "normal" and the individual develops problem-solving skills for dealing with the new culture, accepting differences with a positive attitude.
  • Mastery phase -- Here, individuals are able to participate fully and comfortably in the host culture. Mastery does not mean total conversion; people often keep many traits from their earlier culture, such as accents and languages.

I found this to be incredibly accurate. I felt like I spent the first months here thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to experience a new culture. I entered the Negotiation Stage during my hospitalization and surgery for my appendicitis. This was at about the six month mark for me. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to eat the things I was comfortable with and see my family. For me, this stage lasted about one month. As I started feeling better, I felt like I moved in the Adjustment Stage. I have learned how to negotiate the culture, know what is coming, and understand what to expect.

I have not, however, entered the Mastery Stage. I think I have a lot to learn before I am there. And maybe I won't even get there before we leave. There are still things that cause me to do a double-take. Just one example. In Turkey, individuals do not give the "body language" for the word "no" as we do in the U.S. Their "no" is actually a "tsk" sound. They also throw their head backwards instead of from side-to-side. It may not seem like a big deal, but I find the "tsk" sound to be a disaproving sound -- not a "no" sound. In addition, the head being throw backwards is more of a disaproving movement as well. This can really throw you off if you are not prepared for it. And even though I know this fact, every time it happens, I find myself taking about 30 seconds, trying to interpret the meaning behind what they did.

Turkey toilets. I still am not sure. (Rana, can you help?) Are you supposed to throw used toilet paper down the drain or in the garbage can provided. I'm just not sure. Still haven't figured that one out yet.

Kids. People kiss my kids. A lot. All the time. They pinch their cheeks. They rub their heads. They pick them up. They hug them. They squeeze them. Grown men do this. Groups of grown men do this. In America, if a strange man picked up my child, I might call the police.

I'm learning. I feel like I am doing a good job. I have really embraced the culture here. I think learning the language has really helped me with that. However, culture shock is still a factor. I think it is a bigger factor when you leave the "Western World." While the change from America to Europe is huge, I think the move to the Asia side of the world is even greater.

I am confident that I will get all this down ... just about when it is time to leave.

I'd love to hear from readers on this one? Have you experienced culture shock -- either within regions of the USA or leaving the country?


Tina said...

Hey Wendi,
Yep, that list is very accurate!
My culture shock happened in Russia. It's not Asia, but it's not Europe either (even though it's lumped into Europe). It can be an all consuming thing! Once I moved to Czech Republic I didn't have any culture shock. Life there was much easier and I've had none in Spain (although I've had what I call language shock, where hardly anyone speaks English and you really need Spanish to get around (so you've got culture AND language shock! =P).
I'm not sure if I've moved to mastery. Maybe I have in some ways, but after over 11 years away from the US, I still get homesick, I still have moments of language/culture shock and I still have moments of wanting to fall into a pool on the floor because I miss my family or my favorite restaurant! But I love our host culture of where we are now and feels more like home than anywhere else I've lived.
I think you are doing a great job acclimating! You are doing the best things you can do, learning the language and embracing the culture as much as you can.
You are not alone! And it sounds like you've made some good friends on base that you can relate to and share in the struggles. THAT helps a lot!! Blessings!

Faith said...

Ok, well not at all to the extent that you have because I've lived in the USA almost my entire life (Guam when i was a kid, some culture shock there). Anyway, when I moved from Michigan to Arizona, I remember going to the grocery store and crying. Even the grocery stores down here aren't the same as home and I felt so out of place and lost! I definitely had to grieve and accept this new place, and that took a long time for me. There is a good reason I always said I wouldn't marry someone in the military - I don't adjust to change well:). Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience.

Jake said...

This was great to read Wendi. Just to comment on the stages of culture stress. You folks at Incirlik certainly have your own special set of challenges since you're in the "so close to turkey but so far away" situation for most of your week. I totally get the stages of culture shock, but I don't know if "Mastery" is even attainable for people who are fully immersed in the host culture in a two year period. I'd suggest a fourth stage in between adjustment and mastery which would be something like "Content engagement". At this stage, the person has lost the "everything is awesome" goggles of the honeymoon phase long ago, and has had enough experiences to see the dark underbelly of the host culture and know that there are some things that really suck about the place they currently live. The person at this stage learns to maximize, enjoy and engage in the aspects of life abroad that they enjoy, and live with the difficult things that can't be avoided; all the while acknowledging that life wasn't perfect back home either.

I see a lot of people at that stage who haven't totally mastered their new home. I think that's where I've spent most of my past 6 years have been spent.

That's just my two cents.

Keep engaging with the culture you're doing such a great job. Remember that the cards are stacked against you living on the base. You've already experienced 100 times more of TUrkey than many people who've been here every will.

(btw, I always flush TP.)