Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Culture Shock 101 (Duh)

As a new Foreign Service spouse I expected to be mostly adjusted to post six-seven months into my tour. As a clinical social worker, I should have known better. There is no chart; no timeline that you can fit yourself into perfectly. Knowing generally what to expect in a foreign country and educating oneself about adapting to change can help, but it won't necessarily make the process easier.

Before arriving at post I bought the book Culture Shock! and attended Tagalog classes at FSI, and from these resources felt somewhat prepared for what I would find in the Philippines. In my first few months I remember referencing what I had learned, but around December apparently forgot everything. It is only very recently that I have been able to shake off my bewildered frustration enough to be able to see what is happening to me--so this is culture shock! (Duh.)

Newcomers to the US Embassy are told that English-speaking Westerners get themselves in trouble because because Philippine social interaction is familiar on a superficial level. Even armed with this warning, it's easy to assume that you are able to communicate when you are both speaking English. ASSume nothing.

Even those of us with the best intentions can be overwhelmed by the emotional burden of living in a culture that is deeply different from one's own, and one of the reasons I joined the Foreign Service was for the learning experiences. Seven months later, I'm hitting the books--again, and because I have a point of reference, am learning much more from my reading. Expat survival guides such as Culture Shock! can be helpful in normalizing one's expat experience, but cannot help one avoid culture shock. 

My personal guidelines for the rest of my tour in Manila:

1) Be indirectly clear, and clearly indirect. Do not expect to "talk it out."
2) There is no queue.
3) There is no privacy.
4) "Yes" = maybe, sometimes, I don't know, I don't care, I have no idea what you just said, and sometimes ... yes!
5) My expectations are appropriate for life on the other side of the planet. (Duh.) Let the little things go.


  1. I read this earlier and didn't have time to comment. This is such a great blog post in so many ways. Thanks for writing it. It resonated with more than one person.

    You have been included in the Weekly State Department Round Up here:

    If you have a problem with any of the links or photos used, please let me know.

  2. got to this blog from somewhere.. just want to add to your list - number 6 - There is no personal space. I'm Filipino but still that is my pet peeve!