Cultural Adjustment

Cultural Adjustment

This was not the first time she was visiting her country. In the twenty two years she had been in the United States, she had made this trip several times. However, this was the first time she became so aware of her cultural identity and the cultural adjustment she had undergone. When, towards the end of the flight, she was given the Immigration Card to enter her country, she was puzzled to find herself struggling before the question: “What is your Citizenship?”

Culture refers to those values, beliefs, codes of behavior and ways of doing things which have been developed by people over a period of time. It is a historical and evolutionary process.
Acculturation or cultural assimilation is the process by which members of one ethnic group adapt to the cultural patterns of another ethnic group, occurring where cultural systems are significantly diverse.
Assimilation is the process by which a minority group is accepted and incorporated into the life of the majority ethnic group. Minority groups loose their original identity by discarding their distinct ethnic customs, values, norms, and language, becoming ethnically indistinguishable from the dominant majority group.
Ethnicity refers to the character, the spirit of a culture; it is related to the underlying sentiment among individuals based on a sense of commonality of origin, beliefs, values, customs or practices of a specific group of people.
Biculturalism is the combination of two cultures, or the internalization of two different sets of norms of behavior and value systems. It is the coexistence of two distinct cultures in a single person, in relatively equal proportions.
Culture shock refers to the alienation and confusion that may be experienced by someone encountering a different culture.

Moving to a new country is not easy. The cultural adjustment to the new place is a long process that involves several stages. During the first stage, the newcomer finds everything new and exciting; he might find that things are better here than back home. This is an exploratory stage, and there might be a feeling of fascination. During the second stage, the newness begins to wear off and reality sets in. The newcomer realizes things are not predictable any more; the values that stood in his country might no longer be valid here, and the mores are different. Not only does he need to learn the new values, he also needs to learn the new language; he feels “different,” there is a feeling of “not belonging.” The person’s self-esteem and self-confidence might suddenly drop. During the next stage, there seems to be an internal struggle; the newcomer’s desire to adjust to the new culture is so intense, he might temporarily become distant from his own values, he might refuse to speak his own language, and might avoid socializing with the people of his own culture. Even though the person might “look” like the majority people, his “accent” identifies him as an “outsider”. His self-esteem is still compromised. The last stage of the acculturation process is one of acceptance; things finally begin to fall in place. As the newcomer develops friendships, and his social network expands, he feels more accepted for who he is, including his differences, which make him unique and special. During this stage the individual holds on to his old customs, but as his social network is reconstructed, his routines, rituals and problem solving strategies are adjusted to new requirements. The needs to survive socially, physically and economically, might lead the immigrants to modify their beliefs and behavior, in order to improve their opportunity. However whenever possible, retention of the old takes place, even in the face of the adoption of the new. Self-esteem starts to improve, and the person is able to internalize the values and norms of the two cultures. The person is able to switch codes of behavior and values as he switches linguistic codes. Depending on the occasion, a person selects a particular identity in which to present himself to the world. Language follows the selected cultural or ethnic identity.

Newcomers sometimes feel vulnerable. Therefore they develop coping mechanisms and behaviors for survival until they achieve a degree of cultural, linguistic and psychological balance. While there might still be cultural conflict, there is also cultural borrowing, cultural change and cultural survival strategies. The “culture” of a newcomer is no longer the sum of the two cultures (his old culture and the new one), but a dynamic net where the different components are in a constant state of movement. Culture becomes a process of arranging and rearranging experiences, and selecting appropriate behaviors that provide congruence to the person.

What can help a person become culturally adjusted to a new country?
– have faith that things will eventually fall in place
– allow some time for new situations to turn into habits
– remember that it is “normal” to feel conflict of emotions and thoughts during transition periods.
– remember that “we are all human beings” and focus more on the similarities of the local people, rather than on the differences they have with you
– be flexible; do not judge the local customs
– have an open and positive attitude when talking to and listening to the local people
– don’t dwell; move on to the positive aspects and challenges that all change brings.
– don’t be afraid to make mistakes when you speak the new language; you will make them anyway, and for a very long time. People will understand you despite of your mistakes or your accent.
– be open about your own ethnic background; be proud of your own culture and think how you can make a difference in this new country.
– try to socialize with both local people and other newcomers.
– remember to laugh and do not get upset, when someone raises their voice, just because you have an accent, as they assume you will be better able to understand them if they yell…..
– trust your “gut feeling”; it moved to the new country with you
– don’t forget to follow your purpose in life, wherever you are.
– If you feel that you are “stuck” in the acculturation process, and are unable to move forward, seek help.

After thinking for a while, she felt she was lucky enough to be able to check two countries as the answer to this question. All the challenges she had gone through had been worthwhile; she felt very fortunate to have such a “rich” cultural net.

Doris Omdahl, LMHC, RPT-S is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered Play Therapist who provides counseling to children and is a registered play therapist, as well as specializing in working with individuals of all ages with eating disorders, as well individuals with a history of sexual trauma.