I asked one of my friends to visit me in my place of residence to have some cup of coffee. This friend of mine came also from Saudi Arabia, and went to the university to take graduate courses. After having dinner, I asked him if he was willing to share some of his problems with me. And as a compensation for his “task”, I offered my friend the chance to read my personal narrative. This is one of the course requirements in this subject.
My friend told me some of his problems. For one, he was having a little problem learning English. English for him was a very difficult subject; with clear rules on pronunciation and verb usage. He said: “English has the most number of words in all the written languages of the world; learning such would be a headache.” I agreed to the assertion of my friend. English is really a complicated language.
Not only that spelling and verb-subject agreement should be taken into account, but the whole situational use of, say, an English statement should be clearly presented (to the general audience). He added that he must take the bitter pill of learning English since this is required in the academic world. Communication today in almost any field; in the office, in the academe, took place with the assistance of the English language. The more pressing need to learn English comes from studying abroad. Almost all universities in many Western countries do not use Arabic as a means to transmit academic information. Hence, for him, learning English was an inevitable need. (I did not include his other problems in this report).
I then presented my personal narrative to him and asked him to read it. After sometime, my friend finished reading my personal narrative. He was almost speechless upon reading my personal narrative. My personal narrative detailed some of my experiences of culture shock. It was an almost daily account of my activities (although the entries were irregular). Included in my personal narrative were my experiences upon leaving the Sydney airport to studying in the university (I gave the details of some accounts in the problem-posing vignette section). Included also in the personal narratives were my personal feelings towards the events, the participants, and the general values or beliefs in question.
I asked my friend for his personal opinions of, or reactions to my personal narrative. He said that he also experienced events that could be classified as culture shock. Added to that, my friend stated that in the beginning, he was not very sure of the appropriate term for such experiences. Only upon reading my personal narrative did he know that they were part of a phenomenon called culture shock. He said that my personal narrative might give him some advice on how to handle culture shock. Here are some of the excerpts of the dialogue (translated from Arabic). The first part is a discussion of my experiences of culture shock.
Friend: So culture shock is the right term for such things. When I left the airport, I really did notice that people like to walk in the street which is not a common sight in our country. It was embarrassing in the first instance but in due time I found it to be a common practice here.
Omeir: I was also embarrassed but when I began to ask my classmates why people usually walk in the streets, I was somehow enlightened. In the case of Australia, for example, walking is simply an expression of either friendship or liberty. It is an expression of friendship when a person walks with another person; an expression of liberty when a person exercises his right to privacy. This was an uncommon sight in our country since most people have cars.
Friend: What about that instance when you saw that a female professor taught a predominantly male class? This is impossible in Saudi.
Omeir: I found it very interesting, although shocking at first glance. It was not very bad as you have said in our previous conversation. Female students in the university are educated as much as their male counterparts.
Friend: It seemed that you are beginning to understand the workings of Australian culture. I also understand some aspects of Australian culture like religion, dance, music, etc. This is part of my role as a graduate student studying abroad. In my opinion, they ought to be learned, not for self’s sake but for the sake of respect.
Omeir: That is true. Having a right attitude towards a foreign culture is a must when studying abroad. Understanding the dynamics of an alien culture, though horrifying or embarrassing in many instances, should be viewed with an unbiased eye. This is the primary and first rule of culture respect.
Friend: Personally, I am still bothered by cultural practices here in Australia. What is your personal reaction?
Omeir: After some time, through constant communication with the students of the university, I found those practices to be not embarrassing anymore. Although it is far from acceptance, that is, participation in the cultural activities itself, it gave me an avenue to view things from the perspective of those who are members of that particular culture. I remembered that in my undergraduate years, there was a term to describe this phenomenon. Well it’s unimportant.
The second set of excerpts is about the resolution phase of the problem (how we went about researching and responding to the problem through a thorough self-study). Here are some of the excerpts of the conversation.
Omeir: One of my subjects introduced to me a method for assessing my problems, in this case about culture shock. I was really surprised that personal experiences, guided with some research materials can really result to clear grounded knowledge.
Friend: How was that so?
Omeir: Well, experiences serve as the grounding point of all theoretical problems in a field of subject for example. In my case, when I analyzed many of my experiences, I found out that there are methods or techniques that can be used to reduce it. It was not only first hand knowledge, it was knowledge applied. Academic journals related to my inquiry were very useful.
Friend: You mean that those personal experiences were transformed into a problem. And that these problems were put in a table of inquiry. And that based from this inquiry, you were able to learn some methods to reduce that problem (culture shock).
Omeir: Precisely, I have learned that constant interaction with other people who came from different cultural settings is a plus in absorbing culture shock. Nonetheless, because interaction is mostly done in conversations, I am forced to learn some of the appropriate gestures and idioms to use. In such way, I am able to communicate and express my concerns to my foreign friends. I also researched some of the strategies for reducing culture shock. I intend to share it with some of my friends who are currently experiencing culture shock.
Friend: I have learned many things from this conversation. I will follow your advice with regard to managing culture shocks…
Reflective Response to the Dialogue
Note that in the first lines of the script, I established the fact that both my friend and I are located in the same cultural setting (Saudi Arabia). The experience which I described to my friend served as a stimulating factor to enable him to judge the validity of my experience; through his own personal experiences. The next dialogue was about the nature of Australian culture (or culture in general). This dialogue cleared some of the misconceptions of culture. Added to that, it was also implicitly stated that culture shock is a natural response of graduate students working abroad.
This usually helps the interviewee erase his earlier conceptions of Australian culture. Exposure and discussion shed light to some of the most puzzling things about Australian culture (it is natural for a foreigner to be puzzled to a foreign culture). The second part of the interview is the resolution phase of the problem. Here I shared some of the ways to reduce culture shock (culture shock management). I also introduced problem-posing vignette as a preliminary method in assessing personal experiences which can be theoretically substantial.
Based from the rigors of personal experiences, I was able to communicate to my friend the basic steps in problem or inquiry formation. Because problems in the academe are usually theoretical in nature (form), there is a tendency for personal experiences to be treated as personal biases. In this task, I was not only able to give some advice on how to manage culture shock (culture shock reduction) – this is a form of help to a friend who really want to reduce the effects of culture shock (as I had indicated in the question of the problem-posing vignette section), I was also able to give my friend a systematic method in analyzing problem-posing vignettes. Added to that, I was able to learn that problem-posing vignettes can be a useful tool in transforming personal experiences into theoretically sound propositions.
Bochner, S. (Ed.). 1981. The mediating person: Bridges between cultures. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.
Jacobs, Katrina. 2007. Culture Shock (Strategies for Managing Culture Shock). NY: MacMillan Publishing House.
Milton, Thomas J. 1997. Understanding Culture Shock. Virginia: Foreign Area Officer Association.