I can’t remember the time I first realized that the world outside of China consisted of people who were not Chinese Asian. I was about five years old and really confused. I truly just did not understand what was going on. No-one had ever thought to tell me that in America, people looked different than me, and not in the sense that people in China looked different than me; people really… really looked different than me. I had just moved from China to the United States where I learned my first lesson in Kindergarten about race. What I had gotten out of that lesson was that there are black people and there are white people. So for the next three years… I thought I was white. I was so invested into the belief that I was white that I dressed up as Hannah Montana for Halloween.
The term “Culture Shock” was first coined by Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, defining the term as anxiety as an instinct resulting from an individual’s displacement from his or her cultural familiarity symbols. Just like any event of trauma, often would we deny it: the first stage of culture shock is an optimist fascination with the foreign culture. Being around newness creates a sense of interest as it results in a release of dopamine in the brain (Dutton). In turn, this love turns to hate in the second stage: as challenges arise, migrants form a sense of nationalism, romanticizing where they were originally from and blaming the newfound challenges and changes to the foreign culture.
As humans, we perceive what we are native to as “normal;” thus we are far more likely to dehumanize other cultures we are newly exposed to. This stage entails a toll in mental well being to some extent. It could be as harmless as everyday inconveniences. It could be as severe as suicide and hateful character development, which leads us to the third stage of adjustment (Gilmour). Not always does culture shock have detrimental externalities, sometimes migrants embrace their state of culture shock to broaden their horizons.
In a state of culture shock, our brains are trying to fit into a society to maintain regain stability while being aware of the individual standing out. It’s easier to avoid difficult opportunities, stay in our comfort zone and convince ourselves the new is not better as we have “lost a motivation and misplace our inspiration” (Gilmour). This phenomena isn’t just true for international experiences, a March 2008 prospective observation study found that 56% of United States voters with a high school diploma and 30% with a college degree find immigrants to be personally threatening. For many Americans, the notion of White, Anglo-Saxton Protestant is used to describe what “American is” (Massingdale 9). The fact that different people are populating the country terrifies them: first Irish, then Chinese and now refugees.
Someone once called Obama someone “I don’t trust [because] he’s an Arab.” To which a senator responded “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man,” as if “Arab” and “decent” are mutually exclusive. There was a strong sentiment throughout Obama’s campaign, that ‘he doesn’t see America the way we do,” as if Obama is not as American (Massingdale 11). This is called race culture shock, concerning racial groups in one’s own country (Furham 15). Many white Americans are experiencing race culture shocks their home country is ever-evolving into something that makes them insecure. They project this stress from culture shock onto marginalized groups with comments like “I resent speaking Spanish in my country” and Obama sounds “just too much like Osama” (Massingdale 20). The ignorance caused by the second stage of culture shock is anti-intellectualism, the “rejection of critical thinking or, conversely, the glorification of the emotional and irrational” (Niose). This causes the tribalism leading to hate and intolerance as some White, Anglo-Saxton Protestant Americans tend to believe they were the ones who invented freedom and thus have a superior culture than all the other cultures.
Psychologists also suggest that humans were not always scared of the new, but since cultural diversity is not found everywhere, it is theorized that cultural out-group bias is an evolutionary trait. According to a 2000 Hard study, individuals of different ethnicities had different emotional responses in the amygdala to racial in-group and out-group people. People are generally more trusting with those who look more like themselves. After all, Charles Darwin posed the rhetorical question in The Origin how would altruism, or helping others who are not related to you help you be “the fittest” (Dutton). According to biological and social psychology, genetic makeup of an individual accounts for 60% of his or her personality. Rushton’s Genetic Similarity Theory even argues that since people evolved to recognize genetic in-group and out- group, “survival of the fittest” turns to nationalism (Dutton). So unless we do something to stop it, prejudice will continue to take and take from us.
So how do we fix anti-intellectual race culture shock and use that shock from culture shock to achieve culture comfort? The first step is “wondering while wandering:” optimize and osmosisize with the magic of that unknown experience in the first phase of culture shock. Become more familiar with the newness by observing, appreciating, and understanding its beauty. Embrace the space of the foreignness so that newness decreases and comfort increases. Talk to people; humanize the strangeness (Gilmour). Understand that your way is not the only correct way. Challenge your benchmark of normalcy as normalcy is not a static concept. The burden of shock is merely just an illusion.