Sunday, March 2, 2014

I don't speak Danish. I do suffer from culture shock.

I am Emmie and I suffer from culture shock.

Culture shock is often joked about, but is in fact a serious phenomenon and a long-winded process, and thus definitely a force to be reckoned with when moving abroad. Depending on personality and circumstances, some people might find it easier to adjust to another culture than others. In its milder forms, it can even go by virtually unnoticed. Its effects can be severe, and in some cases they are even are responsible for expat assignments being terminated prematurely. It might be possible to prepare yourself for this phenomenon, but it sneaked up at me. Unexpectedly.

Whereas every expat will experience some form of culture shock, not everyone goes through all the well-known stages. Culture shock is a rather nerve-wrecking phenomenon, a sense of anxiety, nervousness and alienation caused by being exposed to an alien environment and culture. Positive and negative feelings often take turns and make expats feel like they are on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Those who receive the least support on a professional and personal basis are usually, but not all-ways, hit the hardest.

During the first phase, The WOW Phase, I still experienced my time abroad the way a tourist would: I explored the Copenhagen area with enthusiasm. The enthusiasm about going abroad was still prevalent at this point: At last I lived in Europe where my ancestors came from! However, after a few weeks I was in for a rude awakening.

The second phase is plainly called: The Rejection Phase.
. . . when I moved to the fourth studio in three weeks,
. . . when the Danske Bank system aborted my application week after week,
. . . when my allocated GP ignored me with the compassion of a Gestapo official, 

. . . when I spent Christmas, New Year, my birthday and another few celebrations alone,
. . . when I lost my key on a sub-zero Friday afternoon,
. . . when my internet and mobile phone connections were more off-line that on-line,
. . . when I received Danish voice-mails,
. . . when I moved once more,
I began to recognize how significantly Denmark differs from South Africa. 

I missed the open friendliness and hospitality of the South Africans, and their humour. I missed to be greeted and smiled at – just randomly, just because you exists in somebody’s environment.

"I don't understand Danish"

I thought that, in Europe, I could get by with English, but here it really doesn't help me. 

Even at work, where the lecturers teach in English, they communicate in Danish. Seminars, meetings, e-mails, notices, circulars, papers and newsletters are all in Danish, and only Danish.

I don’t understand them. I feel so helpless around them. It is really frustrating.

"I don't understand Danish"

And with rejection comes alienation. Loneliness, homesickness and isolation are unpleasant and extremely uncomfortable. Facebook, Skype, WhatsUp, and the internet are like blessed support – when my electronics are on-line.

I might have entered The Recovery Phase: I am regaining a sense of appreciation. And am learning to understand the different way of life. I am slowly learning to deal with everyday challenges. I’m learning how to address matters that are important to me, but not to the locals.

I still struggle sometimes, but I’m starting to see the beauty of living in Copenhagen: a city that is constantly awarded for achievements and successes.

Some days I am even in The Adaptation Phase. I begin to understand the similarities and differences between South Africa and the new culture I am confronted with. I begin to accept and appreciate those very differences and the aspects which are unique to the culture of Denmark. I am gaining a new sense of confidence, tolerance and flexibility. Sometimes, I even begin to feel at home in Denmark.