Culture shock and thermal underwear

Culture shock and thermal underwear

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Expatica reader Anna Cigolini describes her experiences coming to terms with her culture shock as an Australian living in Germany and wonders how people can tell she is foreign from her sneeze.

Culture shock is like thermal underwear. It was something my Mum bought into and ranted on about before I went to any cold and distant country (which, being Australian, meant pretty much everywhere). It was something I shrugged off as totally uncool, that she snuck into my backpack or ear just as I was leaving. And something that I pulled out when I found myself shivering under several blankets and not wanting, for whatever reason, to get out of bed.

Australian Anna Cigolini tries to come to terms with living in Germany

As an 18 year old, traveling through the Indian sub-continent, shivering with fever and having access only to traditional Nepalese medicine, my desire for thermals manifested as strongly as my culture shock. I wore both of them without regard for how unsexy they seemed. In my mid-twenties, and living in Germany, the 'C' word, together with the 'S' word is something I've had problems admitting to.

A smooth transition?

Australian culture is, everyone reassures me, largely European. So, I really didn't need 'Ein Handbuch fuer Deutschland' ( to tell me that 'Bakeries sell bread, bread rolls and sweet pastries.' I figured the transition should be pretty smooth.

Yet, as often as I've dragged my jaw behind me, drooling with awe at the beauty, culture and history of the place I live, I've found myself confused. It's as though I disappeared into a foreign film, and no matter how hard I bang on the inside of the TV screen, I can't break back out to the normalcy of my living room. But there's no denial here! This is simply not culture shock. I would never wear anything as dowdy as that…

Rationalising behaviour

So, I decided to prove my cultural competence, not to myself, of course, but to my fiancée, who, bearing that irksome German quality of excessive honesty, keeps trying to rationalize (ugh – another Deutsche trait) my recent behavior. I've tried saying that it's 'cultural', but that excuse only stretched as far as Vegemite on toast.

I chose the most reliable research method, and ran a web-search. After learning from Wikipedia that 'Culture Shock is a SpongeBob SquarePants episode from season 1', I realized, also thanks to Wiki, that the 'C'-'S' phrase involves 'anxiety' due to 'contact with an entirely different social environment' as well as 'difficulty in knowing what is appropriate'. This already strikes me as entirely inapplicable. I've quickly learned that making jokes about all potatoes being alike, or trying to argue that noodles should have their very own noun, separate to pasta, will lead to a solemn lecture for the benefit of the ignorant Ausländer…

A giveaway sneeze

Carbohydrates aside, I quickly recognized that I had a particular role to play, a new identity based solely on my Australian-ness. One particular lesson I attended was held at the Postamt, where a woman queuing behind me identified my sneeze as un-German, and followed her 'Bless you' with 'Where do you come from?'

A word of advice, "Stardust", "Monkeys" and "My mother's tummy" are not culturally appropriate responses to this question. Rather, the respondent is required to state the name of their country, then answer a range of questions involving everything from the county's immigration policy to beer. This is where the strange imported creature is supposed to perform exotic tricks…

Missing knowledge

I'm really wishing I'd learnt to somersault before I'd gotten on that plane because I'm from a suburban Austral-Italian family. What do I know about crocodiles? Having lived in Sydney, I've called home to ask about road trains, bushfires and beach riots so I can seem like a true-blue, dinky-di Aussie. How can I explain that I've never tasted kangaroo, but miss good sushi? And no, I haven't been bitten by a spider, but I did once see a really, really big cockroach.

In case you're wondering, this diatribe is not a symptom of the 'C'-'S' phrase… When warns against 'Loss of identity… inadequacy or insecurity', they're referring to something else. Not my two-dimensionality.

Probably just an allergy

Watching CNN in hope of hearing an Australian accent isn't 'Identifying with the old culture', and investing in a collection of '80s Australian pub music isn't 'idealizing the old country'. What's described as 'Preoccupation with health' wasn't exemplified by my buying out the Reformhaus. My inability to sleep isn't 'insomnia'. And, crying over the Keffir I've spilled because "I can't do anything" isn't a "lack of confidence". I don't have anything even vaguely like culture shock. It's probably just an allergy. I'm sure I bought a vitamin for that…

I suppose this denial is based on a belief that I would otherwise be exposed as a fraud and have to scuttle back to Sydney to hide under some red-necked rock. But I figured, while talking to German friends who had similar experiences while visiting Australia and the US, that it's pretty normal… So, if the locals sometimes wear thermals, it can't be so bad…

Five stages

And, even better, there's an end… Kalvero Oberg identified five stages of culture shock. So after a time, my insane ranting will peter out… Right?

The first, 'honeymoon', phase was demonstrated by my crying with happiness at the Chagall exhibition in a local bank. Honeymoon, hysteria - it's all the same…

Then, there's a 'rejection phase'. I've caught myself strutting back from the Postamt muttering about 'bloody Germans'. I hope this is as bad as it gets. Loathing the groom, wedding guests, and the very ground upon which the ceremony is conducted doesn't make for a fun wedding…

Jogging in the snow

Next, comes the 'conformist phase'! I've already tried to induce this by driving on the right side of the road and going jogging in the snow.

And then comes 'assimilation', where I get to start wearing socks with Birkenstocks and prefer areas of German life to Australian… It'll be a tough call between warm rain and bushfires….

The fifth and final phase is 'reintegration'. This one's saved for when and if we go back.

By which stage, I'll have probably found myself some seriously cool thermals, and gotten so over the 'C'-'S' thing that I'll be sitting in Australia crying to Volksmusik.

8 February 2006

Copyright Expatica 2006


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1 Comment To This Article

  • Nick posted:

    on 24th September 2008, 14:32:34 - Reply

    nice, im going on german exchange, its gonna be great, hopefully i will ejoy it as much as you did