When you go to live abroad, you generally sit through lots of presentations on the Stages of Culture Shock. The presenters tell you a story that goes like this: when you arrive in the host country you'll be really excited and everything will seem wonderful. Then things will start getting stressful, and you'll find the host culture strange and frustrating. Eventually, though, you'll adapt to the new culture and feel at ease in it, and even become bicultural. The presentation will probably include a graphic much like this one:
The presumption is that the end result of living in another country is having warm fuzzy feelings about that culture.
(The irony seems lost on the presenters of such information that this very story -- "the individual struggles, overcomes, and lives happily ever after" -- is a quintessentially Western narrative. I wonder how people from other cultures characterize their crosscultural experiences?)
For me, the Adjustment phase came with the realization that my own expectations were culturally bound, and that it was therefore both unfair and unhelpful to judge my host culture by my own culture's standards. Of course, I would have said I believed this statement before I moved to Qatar, but in reality it took several months for me to really grok its implications. Adjustment is when I stopped feeling irritated when people cut in front of me in line at QTel, because I understood that they were just following their own culture's standards of etiquette instead of mine. It's when I realized that Westerners dislike the abaya because we see our own level of dressed-ness as "normal" and anything more than that as "oppressive," which is silly given that lots of people in the world cover less of their bodies than we do, and would see us as similarly oppressed.
It's a very cool thing, reaching Adjustment stage. Everything becomes relativized, and weird things about your host culture start making more sense and stop bugging you. And more interestingly, you start re-evaluating your own culture, because its "common sense" no longer seems self-evident.
I think I'm beginning to feel that there's a post-adjustment phase, though. Sometimes I jokingly call it the Bitter Expat phase, although really I think most of the bitter expats I've met never reached Adjustment. But I do think that Adaptation is not the end of the story. "It's all relative" is a realization you must make in order to understand a new culture, but in the end it's not a good ending point for one's understanding of cultural variations. (I've linked to Bagish's "Confessions of a Former Cultural Relativist"
before, but it's relevant here.)
I feel like I've reached a point where I realize that, though my initial judgments about Qatar may have been off-base because they were unthinkingly based on my own culturally bound preconceptions, that doesn't mean I can never make a judgment about an aspect of Qatari culture. I am more willing now to say that the way unskilled laborers are treated in Qatar is an abomination, for example, and that Qataris' propensity for treating maids like children is simply unacceptable by any reasonable standard of decency. I am more willing to say that shari'ah is not a good basis for jurisprudence in the 21st century. Of course the U.S. is not a shining model either, in terms of either immigrant labor relations or a functional legal system. And maybe that's the key: it seems more justifiable to judge all cultures against the same standard (whatever one's personal standard is, as long as it is well thought out, as long as one makes it explicit) than to judge the host culture against one's own culture, as one tends to do on first arrival. Whatever it is, at some point I stopped feeling that being an outsider disqualifies me from evaluating parts of my host culture. It worked for de Toqueville, after all.
This whole train of thought, incidentally, grew out of a silly conversation about Land Cruisers this morning; I realized that my feelings about Land Cruisers is a good barometer of my stages of culture shock.
|Honeymoon: ||Gosh, look how many Land Cruisers there are in Qatar! And they're all white! How cute!|
|Anxiety: ||Why do they keep flashing their lights at me? Should I change langes or ignore them? Argh!!|
|Rejection: ||What is WRONG with these drivers? Why are they so RUDE all the time?|
|Adjustment: ||The fact that it's rude in MY culture to tailgate someone doesn't mean Qatari drivers are being rude.|
|Post-Adjustment: ||OK, they're not being rude, but it's a stupid way to drive, and it illustrates an underlying selfcenteredness that seems really destructive.|