Immigrating: Culture Shocked...eh?

By Consuelo Solar

Most newcomers who have been to a settlement agency have heard the concept of “culture shock” during assessment sessions, job search workshops, or ESL classes. The term was coined in the 50’s by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, who identified five stages of this emotional process undergone by any traveler in a foreign land:

  • Honeymoon: Everything is exciting and intriguing, simply because it is different. Any problems are accepted as part of the newness.
  • Rejection: Newcomers get the impression that they are being ignored or misunderstood, and they become aggressive towards the new culture, fixating on its problems.
  • Regression: Newcomers spend much of their time speaking their own language, and thinking about their home country and its qualities, forgetting their reasons for immigrating.
  • Recovery: Newcomers become more comfortable with the language and customs, are better adjusted, and ready to accept new habits and lifestyles.
  • Reverse Culture Shock: This occurs to those who return home after a long stay abroad, and find that they are no longer comfortable in their own land.

A common illustration of culture shock is the recent immigrant who has trouble speaking the language, finding their favourite foods, and handling below zero temperatures. However, according to Gladys Klestorny, settlement counselor at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services, this image may be over simplistic.

An  immigrant herself, Klestorny arrived in Canada in 1969 from Uruguay, and has been an ESL teacher and settlement worker for over 30 years. Through contact with numerous immigrants and refugees, she has learned that feelings of rejection can be caused by more fundamental factors than food and climate, specifically age, socioeconomic status, family situation, and/or professional background.

“We serve a whole range of clients from all continents, and we find that some internationally trained professionals experience frustration as a result of not being able to work in their fields, or finding many differences in the work culture, for example. That can affect the settlement process and generate anger towards their new country,” she  notes.

The rejection phase doesn’t necessarily end in clinical depression, but sometimes mood disorders can be triggered by such factors as family separation, isolation, and language barriers. “Many of our clients are stay-at-home moms, with small children, and no access to daycare, who don’t speak English and can’t take ESL classes, so they tend to stay in the house, feeling sad and frustrated. If we determine that one of them is at risk of becoming depressed we advise them to see one of the psychotherapists who works with us,” she explains.

Daniela García can easily relate to this. Even though she speaks perfect English, moves in a protected academic environment as an international student, and has no children to look after, she began to reject Canada shortly after her arrival from Mexico, four years ago.

“When I first got here I found everything to be perfectly organized and friendly, I was excited about my PhD program, I knew people in Toronto, and had no trouble communicating, but soon the program proved to be very demanding, and people became quite self-involved, and that really affected my mood,” she remembers.

Leaving her common-law partner behind made it more difficult. He joined her a year later and found a job; it seemed that things would finally improve. But then, he told her he was disappointed and felt undervalued. This time it hit her harder, and she took a huge step back in her integration journey.

“We felt that we had a glass ceiling, and would never be able to fulfill our professional aspirations because we weren’t Canadian. We began thinking it would be easier to go back home, and we started to forget why we came here in the first place,” she recalls.

García asked for help at a settlement agency, and they recommended peer support sessions with other newcomers, but she didn’t like that idea. “Meeting with other immigrants might help you realize that you are not alone on this and I’m glad there is that possibility, but it’s not for everyone. I didn’t come to Canada to hang out with immigrants who are depressed because they can’t find jobs or speak English; I’d rather try to meet people with more positive outlooks,” she says.

She found a therapist through the University Health Services, who helped her pull through the crisis, but throughout the process she also realized that she might never become fully adapted. “It comes and goes. There are moments  when I love it here, and then I question my decision of leaving everything behind. From time to time I think about what could’ve been if I had never left, or what would happen if I went back,” she admits.

Recently, she had the opportunity to find out. She stayed for three months in Mexico City doing research for her doctoral dissertation, and experienced a reverse culture shock. “Little by little, things about my country started to bother me, things that didn’t bother me before, or at least didn’t bother me as much, and that’s when I knew that my way of looking at people and places that I love is now influenced by my life in Canada,” she observes.

Gladys Klestorny has been in Canada for more than 40 years, and even though she still faces culture shock once in while, she is adapted to her life here. “Through the settlement process we change, we adapt, and sometimes it takes a long rejection phase to appreciate some of the positive things your new country has to offer,” she concludes.

Consuelo Solar

Consuelo is a journalist, screenwriter and story editor. She has worked as field producer for CNN, and reporter for The Miami Herald and other international media outlets. She currently works as a correspondent for Terra Networks and is involved in independent film projects.