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Learning to use Chopsticks takes patience, and so does adjusting to a new culture, author says

Many from other countrie are surprised at the political marches that occur regularly in Ecuador. My opinion: We need to learn more about this active and successful process!

A COUPLE OF NEW FRIENDS are not making it here in Cuenca, Ecuador—at least so far. I like them and find they are interesting and fun. But I don’t think they’ve lived much in other cultures. I gauge this on their reactions to their new surroundings In their eyes, nothing seems to be going right since they have arrive.


Nobody said it was easy!
The electricity was off when “John and Karen” got to their new apartment late at night from the Guayaquil airport. Instead of going to bed and trying to solve it in the morning (after the person on duty couldn’t fix it) they went to an expensive hotel. When they returned the next day and learned the power switch in the basement was off, and just needed to be flipped on, they got mad and decided the apartment owner should pay for their night at the Ritz.
That reaction might work in the U.S. but it doesn’t work here. Things are not so sophisticated. This is a developing country and the trains don’t always run on time!
A trip to the grocery again made them angry when they were asked for a passport. “People were following me,” my friend stated, as he wondered why he had to show credentials to buy a loaf of bread.
“That’s just how it is done here,” I explained. “I don’t make the rules.”
And neither do any visitors. When we travel outside of our country and culture, we must accept that the values, social norms, and traditions in the U.S. may be very different from beliefs about “how things should be” in the country where we grew up.
As I sit here typing, I am personally angry over a small occurrence of health insurance fraud on a policy that I signed up for here. But I have to ask myself, how well did I check out the company? The broker? Did I let myself get Gringo’ed?
Further, I can’t get the public Internet company to commit to come to my apartment and install a new system. I am working from my bedroom where I can intercept reception from next door—while I am trying to market a new book, using twitter and facebook! What a pain.
I am not used to doing some of the footwork required to live here, and I realize this. I am not used to non-customer-driven-non-service! Becoming angry, however, just doesn’t work in this culture. Patience is sometimes rewarded. There also are some legal remedies to invoke, if necessary (but sometimes with unexpected consequence). Often, I forget my own advice when difficulties arise.
But if I am thinking straight, I find it works best to cut the losses and start over when up against a difficult hurdle, such as the problems with health insurance or Internet that I’ve encountered. It is at times like this I miss my home country.
When individuals move to another culture, they naturally carry their own background and life experiences with them, and these shape how they react and adjust to their new environment. For example, some will find a new culture (how people do things) easy to adjust to, while others may struggle significantly (like my two friends). “Culture shock” is a common experience that describes the feelings of confusion, stress and disorientation that occur when entering an unfamiliar culture. Of course, not everyone has the same reactions to cultural adjustment and may experience the symptoms of culture shock in varying degrees, and at different times.
Professionals who study this adjustment period say that common reactions include:
  • extreme homesickness
  • avoiding social situations
  • physical complaints and sleep difficulties
  • inability to concentrate
  • becoming angry over minor irritations
  • significant nervousness or exhaustion
Here are some things to know that might help
  • Everything is relative to culture.
    For example people from different cultures may see how Americans behave as different and as “bad”. For some, the American communication style may seem too loud or direct. Take a lesson, and try to avoid labeling what others do as “good” or “bad” according to the culture you are from. Remember that there may be parts of a culture you dislike, but these are part of a broader social system, and make more sense inside that system.
  • Be curious and open-minded.
    Adjusting to a new culture does not mean that you have to change your own beliefs or values, but it is important to respect those of other people. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, try to think of it as a new adventure. See this experience as a new game, and be curious about the way things are perceived and done in this new place.
  • Use your observation skills.
    Since you will run into new ways of doing things (rules and norms), observing how others behave can help you understand what is expected of you. It’s like watching someone use chopsticks before trying it out for for yourself! Pay close attention to both the verbal and nonverbal communication of others to get a better picture of what is going on.
  • Ask questions 
    Ask for help when you need it. This is not a sign of weakness. In Cuenca, the moment a person asks for help in speaking Spanish, nearly every Cuencano reaches out in support. Understanding others and making yourself understood in a new language requires lots of rephrasing, repeating and clarification. It may be helpful to ask questions like “I believe you are saying… Is that correct?” Talk slowly and use hand gestures. In Latino culture, I find myself adding apologies more frequently. “Excuse me. Will you please speak more slowly?” (Disculpe. Por favor. Hable mas despacio.)
  • It’s ok to experience anxiety 
    Learning to function in a new environment is not easy. It is natural to feel anxious or frustrated sometimes. The key is to remind yourself that these feelings are normal and are likely to be situational and temporary.
  • Know it’s okay to make mistakes
    Anyone will make mistakes while exploring a new environment. Look for the humor and be ready to laugh, while keeping in mind that others will probably make mistakes, too. If someone makes an absurd statement about your culture, it may be due to a lack of information. Use this as an opportunity to share information with others about yourself and your culture.
  • Take care of your physical and mental health
    Be mindful about keeping a healthy diet and getting enough exercise and rest. Try to find an activity that you enjoy and make it part of your routine. Being physically active can help reduce your stress level, but if this doesn’t work seek help. Look for an AA, in you’re having alcohol problems for instance, or for depression and other problems seek a therapist who knows your culture (if talking to a friend does not help).
  • Be patient – don’t try to understand everything immediately
    It takes time to adjust to a new and different culture. Be patient with this experience and do not be overly critical of yourself or the people around you.
I hope my new friends start to adjust. And I hope to hell that the Internet company comes through and that the Insurance company pays its bills! Meanwhile, I have some good ideas for a backup!