The Origins of “Culture Shock,” Part 1

While planning my previous post, “Reverse Culture Shock: Repatriating Back to Post-COVID ‘Normal’ in the Church,” I figured somewhere near the beginning I’d include a definition of culture shock, preferably from as far back as I could find one. Pretty quickly I came to the words of the Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, spoken in 1954 to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. Now these cues which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.

Now when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed.

(Kalervo Oberg, “Culture Shock,” presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954, at CiteSeerx, republished in a slightly edited version as “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” Practical Anthropology, vol. 7, issue 4, 1960, 177-182)

His is a well-known, often lauded description, and many cite Oberg as the originator of the term culture shock. But not blindly trusting the combined wisdom of the many, I wanted to see for myself it that were true. It didn’t take me long to find evidence to the contrary, and my search led me to Cora Du Bois’ earlier (1951) explanation of the term, which I used for my post. It comes from a talk that she gave, referenced by Oberg, as being “part of a panel discussion at the first Midwest regional meeting of the Institute of International Education in Chicago, November 28, 1951.” Here is some of what Du Bois had to say:

Please do not consider me too irrelevant if I begin talking about an occupational disease among anthropologists. Some twenty years ago I remember first chatting with colleagues about the peculiar emotional status we anthropologists developed when we were working in the field with strange people cut off from our familiar daily surroundings. We all wanted to do field work. We loved it—but we realized that things happened to us when we did. We began calling this peculiar syndrome “culture shock.”

. . . .

We anthropologists flattered ourselves when we thought culture shock was an occupational disease. It is a malady that seems to affect most transplanted people.

The genesis of the malady is really very simple. It is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues. . . . All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. These cues are acquired in the course of growing up and are as much part of our cultural heritage as the language we speak. They have become so habitual that they have been forgotten as part of our conscious cultural equipment.

Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result. (22)

(Cora Du Bois, “Culture Shock,” To Strengthen World Freedom, Institute of International Education Special Publications Series, No. 1, New York, 1951, 22-24 [a reprint can be found in Guidelines for Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Training, Part III, Supplementary Readings, Center for Research and Education, Peace Corps, Estes Park, March 1970])

While Du Bois’ presentation preceded Oberg’s, she doesn’t claim to have coined the term herself. Rather, she points to someone else as its creator, but we’ll circle back to that later. First, let’s go back to the 1920s.

In 1929, Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio wrote about immigrants from Mexico adjusting to life in the US, using the term cultural shock.:

The civilization of the larger part of the immigrants is originally of native or mixed type and consequently different in form and background from that of the American people, all of which, together with the climatic differences between both countries, make the cultural shock sharp and the biological adaptation for the newly arrived Mexican painful. From this situation a selection results; some individuals go back to Mexico not to return to the United States while others gradually become adjusted to the new environment. (468-469)

(Manuel Gamio, “Observations on Mexican Immigration into the United States,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 2, No. 8, August 1929, 63-69)

H. Ian Hogbin, the next year, uses the same words in his discussion of decreasing populations among South Pacific tribes brought on by the arrival of Europeans.

I think we may now conclude that the causes of an increase in the death-rate are, firstly, the introduction of new disease purely and simply, and secondly the break-up of the old culture. This latter has undermined the mental balance of the native and makes him die more quickly from both his own and the new diseases. That is why epidemic diseases have a lasting effect. European society had received no shock at the time bubonic plague was ravaging it, and so it soon recovered. Ongtong Java had been dealt a heavy blow already when influenza reached it, and therefore society there did not recover. (57)

And as he considers that the deaths of the older men leave no one to pass on traditional ceremonies, he writes,

If these ceremonies, or the useful ones, had remained, they might have roused the members of society and in their hours of leisure given them something to occupy their minds, instead of letting them face and acquiesce in despair. That, I think, explains why epidemics in societies which have sustained no cultural shock have no appreciable effect in the long run. All the customs have still a function and so are kept up. The prospect of extinction never occurs to people, because they are too occupied, or possibly too stupid even to think about it unless it is obvious. Therefore they do not become extinct. (64)

(H. Ian Hogbin, “The Problem of Depopulation in Melanesia as Applied to Ongtong Java (Solomon Islands),” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 39, March, 1930, 43-66)

And in her 1938 overview of Charles S. Johnson’s “The Present Status and Trends of the Negro Family” (Social Forces, vol. 16, no. 2, 1937), Myrtle R. Phillips talks about “cultural shocks”:

Crime, delinquency, illegitimacy, and the changing fertility rate of Negro families characterize the cultural shocks involved in the cultural expansion of these Negro families. (197)

(Myrtle R. Phillips, “Abstracts and Digests,” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 7, April 1938)

Eventually, cultural shock was largely replaced by culture shock, though sporadic usage of the former has continued, as demonstrated in several references in this post.

It was two years later, in 1931, that sociologist and Episcopal minister Niles Carpenter used culture-shock in his book The Sociology of City Life. It appears in the context of the “shock effect” of people moving to American cities, either as migrants from rural areas in the US or as immigrants from other countries. He postulates that “the heavy incidence of mental disease” among this second group comes from the “general culture-shock” of relocating to a new country and “the special sort of culture-shock involved in the initial acquaintance with the city and it’s ways of life.” (335)

While I can’t say definitively that Carpenter coined the term culture shock (with our without the hyphen), there seems to be evidence to support that conclusion: First of all, from what I have found, this is the earliest occurrence of the exact phrase in print. Also, when Carpenter first uses the term in his book, it’s in the context of “a process that might be termed culture-shock.” Carpenter often uses this passive-voice construction (“might be termed,” “may be remarked,” “may be said,” and “might be said”) to introduce ideas in The Sociology of City Life, and in this case it is followed by “That is to say . . .” with an explanation of the phrase. Also, as shown below, Carpenter lays out the groundwork for culture shock by pointing out its similarities to the “shell-shock” experienced during wartime.

Here are several passages from Carpenter:

One authority, moreover, asserts, “Many of the neuroses of the inhabitants of big cities may be regarded as analogous to the shell-shock that followed deafening bombardments during the war. . . .” (208)

The shock-effect of the city may be carried into the second or even the third generation of migrants. Many conditioning influences are imbedded in traditional folkways. Others are passed on from one generation to another, by conscious precept or by imitation, particularly when the migrating group is also an immigrant group, as is often the case in the cities of the United States. That is to say, there may be reverberations for two or more generations of the shock-effect attendant upon country-to-city migration. (218)

[T]he rural migrant to the city together with his children is undergoing a process that might be termed culture-shock. That is to say, he is transferred suddenly from one sort of culture to another one, and the experience imposes a serious strain upon him, especially as regards the habituations in thought and attitude which he has derived from his rural heritage. This process of culture-shock is well recognized in the case of the immigrant. In its most marked manifestation, it involves personality disorganization, and even mental breakdown. A less spectacular and more common reaction is a sort of interlude of confusion, in which Old-World folkways are dropped while New-World ones are assimilated incompletely, if at all. This process is to be observed in connection with the immigrants family life, his intellectual life, his economic life, and his religious life. The immigrant and more particularly his son or daughter cease to be Germans or Poles, or Italians, without yet becoming in any vital sense Americans. (272)

The urban resident must be, in other words, somewhat more readily inclined to respond to inducements towards crime than the rural-dweller. One of those influences is suggested by the material that has been presented. It is that of culture-shock. (316)

In this connection, it may be remarked that the war neuroses (commonly called shell-shock), seem to be somewhat analogous to the type of shock-effect involved in the transition from a rural to an urban environment. The change was more complete, and the new environment was infinitely more trying. Nevertheless, the general process of sudden change from relative certainty and security to a life of intense mobility, insecurity, and the stress would seem to be essentially similar. Certain of those who gave way would probably have done so in any circumstances, but in a large number of cases it seems that no breakdown would have occurred if the individuals affected had been able to continue in their accustomed round of activities. Moreover, it is noteworthy that, according to Conklin, an essential feature of the war neurosis is the contrast between the mental patterns of the sufferer’s previous way of living and his present situation: “The man is left with only his old reactions, totally unsuited to the demands made up him.

May this shock-effect be continued for more than the migrant generation? Schlapp and Smith believe that it can be continued at least into the second generation, through embryonic and fœtal injuries following upon maternal glandular disturbances. And where ideational conflicts are involved, as in contrasting notions of parental authority, familial solidarity, sexual behavior, religious belief, and the like, such personality-disintegrating influences might be continued for two or three generations, before there would take place what might be termed compete psychic urbanization. (337)

(NIles Carpenter, The Sociology of City Life, Longmans, 1931)

The next year, H. Reynard included culture-shock (without quotation marks or italics) in her review of The Sociology of City Life, and social scientist Walter Greenwood Beach quoted Carpenter in his book Social Aims in a Changing World, writing,

In the conflict of ways it is no wonder that there is a “culture-shock”1 followed by a possible increase of crime or other indications of social maladjustment. (153)

The reference number in this excerpt points to The Sociology of City Life.

(H. Reynard, “The Sociology of City Life, by Niles Carpenter,” The Economic Journal, vol. 42, June 1932, 301-302; Walter Greenwood Beach, Social Aims in a Changing World, Stanford University Press, 1932)

In 1935, a team of sociologists and educators, made up of Mabel Agnes Elliott, Charles Omega Wright, Dorothy Grauerholz Wright, and Francis Ellsworth Merrill, published the high-school textbook Our Dynamic Society, which included explanations for the terms migration and disorganization, culture conflict, the marginal man, and culture shock:

Culture Shock. Such a drastic change in folkways, mores, and traditions may result in what is termed “culture shock.” The immigrant’s former security is exchanged for bewilderment and change. Crises appear which bring difficult new decisions. The shock may follow a severing of old family ties, the loss of old associates, or the facing of a new complex life in a strange city. As a result of culture shock, the immigrant may become highly disorganized and display his disorganization in conduct that runs counter to social values. He may desert his family, drown his disappointment in liquor, or commit suicide. Such disorganization results from his failure to redefine the situation in satisfactory terms. (100)

The authors describe “the marginal man” as one “who appears at the border-line where two cultures meet,” using a term coined/popularized by sociologist Robert E. Park in “Human Migration and the Marginal Man (American Journal of Sociology, vol. 33, May, 1928). They write that this person

may be said to pass through three states of disorganization. (1) The preliminary stage is that of early contact with a new group, during which he is unaware of his marginal problems. (2) The crisis stage appears when he is painfully conscious of his strangeness and his difficult situation. (3) The third stage is that of either adjustment or disorganization. If he meets the crisis in a satisfactory fashion, he becomes adjusted. If he fails, he becomes a disorganized man. (101)

Later in the book, the authors use the term cultural shock when discussing high rates of suicide among immigrants.

(Mabel Agnes Elliott, Charles Omega Wright, Dorothy Grauerholz Wright, and Francis Ellsworth Merrill, Our Dynamic Society, Harper, 1935)

Now, we’ll jump forward to Cora Du Bois, and back to the passage above, where she says, “Some twenty years ago, I remember first chatting with colleagues about the peculiar emotional state we anthropologists developed when we were working in the field.” As the quotation comes from 1951, “some twenty years ago” would put the conversations circa 1931, the same year as Carpenter’s usage of culture-shock.

In Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, anthropologist Peggy Golde writes that in “private communication,” Du Bois “credits” culture shock to Ruth Benedict, who was Du Bois’ anthropology teacher at Barnard College. Golde states that “by 1940, [the term] was so well accepted by social scientists that it needed no citation.” (11)

(Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, 1970)

Golde’s 1940 reference is to John B. Holt, of the United States Department of Agriculture:

Regarding the possible connection between the rapid rate of urbanization and social maladjustment in the Southeast, Odum observes, “The South, more than the other regions, fitted by habit and tradition to a life closely attuned to natural processes, finds rapid shift to artificial industrialism beyond its power for quick absorption and effective adaptation.” The administrator of a farm program in Kentucky is reported to have said, “The physical ‘bends’ of deep-sea divers exposed too rapidly to lighter atmospheric pressure is nothing compared to the psychological or spiritual bends produced in our mountain communities when subjected too rapidly to urban standards and ways of doing thing.”

All these citations suggest the “culture shock” arising from the precipitation of a rural person or group into an urban situation characterized by a loosening of mores from a strict social control, a liberation of the individual from his group, an increasing impersonalism as against the personal character of the rural environment, an increasing mobility as contrasted with the old stability and isolation, and on top of these changes, a blasting disruption of personal and occupational habits and status. (744)

(John B. Holt, “Holiness Religion: Cultural Shock and Social Reorganization,” American Sociological Review, vol. 5, No. 5, October 1940, 740-747)

Other instances of culture shock in the 1940s include

It is probable that the middle class attitude of sacrifice of family (though not of marriage itself) in order to climb the economic ladder may characterize the college students’ culture more than that of the university students. Some such “culture shock” explanation would seem at least tenable in the light of the religious compulsions, almost certainly more impelling in the college than in the university group, that would presumably operate in the direction of more offspring. (514)

(Wayne C. Neely, “Family Attitudes of Denominational College and University Students, 1929 and 1936,” American Sociological Review, vol. 5, No. 4, August 1940, 512-522)

The concept is most strikingly illustrated by the position of the foreigner who is bridging the Old World culture and the New in the necessary process of assimilation that every foreigner meets. Each individual in this position experiences a certain amount of culture shock. . . . (121)

(Paul Henry Landis, Adolescence and Youth: The Process of Maturing, McGraw-Hill, 1945)

The white man’s alcohol and the seizure of native lands also contributed to the population decline; and along with all these specific causes there was the general disorganization of native life and customs under the impact of foreign civilization. Bewildered, diseased, abused, exploited, the Pacific peoples in many instances seemed almost to lose the will to live. They were the victims of what might be called extreme culture shock. (29)

(Raymond Kennedy, The Islands and Peoples of the South Seas and Their Cultures, American Philosophical Society, 1945)

Individual personality disorganization also usually results, until a new institutional unity has been established by all, usually requiring a period of several generations. The individual’s life organization is bound up most intimately with the social organization which conditioned him and of which he has been a part. The rural-urban, interregional, or international migrant is transferred from one sort of culture and social organization to which he has had life-long adjustment to another one which is radically different. This new environment by virtue of the presence of himself and other in-wanderers usually is even more complex and confused. Immigrants and their children, country-to-city migrants, even those who have moved from one social level to another, encounter such new and unfamiliar experiences that the change is almost certain to produce great disturbance. This has been well called “culture shock” by Carpenter and others. (286)

(Joyce Oramel Hertzler, Social Institutions, University of Nebraska Press, 1946)

It is recognized that the approaching similarity of rural and urban experience, especially in areas where consolidated schools have developed and where farm youths have considerable contact with town and city, has undoubtedly had an important influence in reducing culture shock of those who go to the city.  (220)

(Paul Henry Landis, Rural Life in Process, McGraw-Hill, 1948)

It is interesting to note that leading up to 1951, the writings about culture shock applied largely to immigrants and others facing a transition to the often perilous culture of urban America, or to those in their own countries overwhelmed by the negative influences brought by Western outsiders, and discussions of culture shock in these circumstances included its long-term effects on society, including such issues as suicide rates, crime, alcoholism, declining populations, and even fetal development. It was into this context that Du Bois made her presentation in Chicago, not only shifting the focus to international students and to anthropologists working overseas but, in so doing, kickstarting a widespread application of the concept to the larger expat community. It also marked a change in tone, with what she characterizes as her “semi-facetious remarks” about the topic.

So, to sum up, did culture shock originate with Oberg—in 1954 or 1960? No. What I have found leads me to join others who credit Carpenter with creating the phrase, but I also realize that Oberg will probably continue to get a large share of the attention, as many trace our current usage of culture shock back to him. And he does deserve credit for helping bring the term into the common vocabulary of expats and international travelers and for exploring and promoting the idea that culture shock has a series of stages leading to adjustment.

I do think, though, that there’s more to be discovered about Oberg’s influence on the culture-shock discussion—or maybe I should say there’s more to be discovered about Du Bois’ influence on Oberg. Let’s take a look at that in Part 2.

33 Clickbait Headlines for Expats—Number 12 Will Make You Gasp [—at A Life Overseas]

Giorgi - Shocked

Normally, clickbait headlines are created simply to grab clicks—and clicks and clicks and more clicks. But you can’t click on the titles below, since there aren’t any stories linked to them. Instead, if being an expat is in your past, present, or future, the stories are up to you, to write or live out yourselves.

So here’s to the new year . . . and all the stories ahead!

  1. They had no idea why all the nationals were staring at them
  2. She said the same thing to her neighbor every morning for a month—until her language teacher explained to her what it meant
  3. Only 1 in 1000 people can identify these countries by their shapes—can you?
  4. He thought his carryon would fit in the overhead bin, then this happened
  5. 5 things visa officers don’t want you to know

See the rest of the list at A Life Overseas

[photo: “Giorgi – Shocked,” by japrea, used under a Creative Commons licesnse]

Of Big Macs, KFCs, and Tall Lattes: A Full Menu of Global Indexes

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I’ve always wondered about the “heat index” and “chill factor,” ways to say, “We know how hot or cold it is, but here’s how it feels.” Obviously there are scientific factors figured into the calculations, but it makes me think we could also have a “Great Grandma Gordon Index”: “I’m telling you, it’s at least 125 degrees in the shade!” or a “Guy Who Lives Down the Block Index: “It’s so cold I can’t feel my left foot!”

When you travel, you see how much weather standards aren’t standardized around the world, either. For people in hot climates, the winter parkas might come out when the temperature dips below 60°F, or for those where cold is routine, when they register the same temp, it’s time to put on shorts.

But keeping track of relative weather norms isn’t the only concern when going abroad. There’s also that finances thing. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend while spending time in another city—in terms that make sense. So you might be thinking “How much does, for instance, a Big Mac cost there?”

Well, funny you should ask.

One of the most well-known economic indexes has the answer. Taking its name from the classic McDonald’s sandwich, the Big Mac Index was developed in 1986 by The Economist “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”

“Burgernomics,” says The Economist “was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible.” But the Big Mac Index has gotten a lot of weighty attention, garnering coverage in textbooks and academic studies. In fact, the index is taken seriously enough that a New York Times article postulated in 2011 that Argentina was artificially keeping its Big Mac prices down to influence its place on the scale. And Computerworld reported this year that the malware Fatboy, a ransomware-as-a-service (software that locks up a computer and demands payment to decrypt its data) uses the Big Mac Index to determine how much ransom needs to be paid for a particular location.

The Big Mac Index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity. I’m not an economist, so it’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds on economic theories. But rather than use it as a rigorous currency-valuation metric, I see it more as a quick-and-dirty cost-of-living index.

If you have a hunger for that type of thing, too, I’m glad to tell you there’s much more on the menu than just the Big Mac. Here’s a list to whet your appetite:

The Tall Latte Index
Also called the Starbuck’s index, this is another iteration from The Economist, comparing prices from the coffee chain.

The KFC Index
Because McDonald’s has restaurants in only three African countries, the Big Mac Index doesn’t work very well on that continent. Therefore, Sagaci Research developed an index based on KFCs, which are present in nearly 20 nations in Africa. The metric is based on the price of an Original Recipe 15-piece bucket.

The Mini Mac Index
Invented by Benn Steil and Emma Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, it compares the global prices of iPad Minis.

McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access
Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders writes that

no country with a McDonald’s has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonald’s and INGOs.

The Coca-Cola Index
This analysis branches out a bit more, showing the relationship of Coke consumption with quality-of-life factors. Using UN figures, The Economist (those guys sure are busy), shows that countries’ higher rates of Coca-Cola drinking correlate with higher wealth, health, and political freedom. Have a Coke and a smile?

The Happy Planet Index
Speaking of smiles, the New Economics Foundation publishes this global ranking of “how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.” (I really wanted to find a “Happy Meal Index,” but so far, it hasn’t been created yet.)

And while we’re on the topic of quality of life, we have

The Better Life Index
from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Legatum Prosperity Index

The Human Development Index and The Gender Development Index
from the United Nations Development Programme, and

The Where-to-Be-Born Index
from the Economist Intelligence Unit

And finally, if you’re looking for some straight-up cost-of-living indexes, take a look at

Expatistan’s Cost of Living Index and

Numbeo Indexes
The Numbeo site describes itself as “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.” Not only does it have an overall cost-of-living index, it also includes indexes that compare property prices, crime, health care, pollution, traffic, quality of life, and travel costs.


(D.H. and R.L.W, “The Big Mac Index,” The Economist, July 13, 2017; Daniel Politi, “Argentina’s Big Mac Attack,” Latitude, The New York Times, November 24, 2011; Darlene Storm, “Local Cost of a Big Mac Decides Ransom Amount for Fatboy Ransomware,” Computerworld, May 8, 2017; Jonathan Whittall, “The McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access,” MSF Analysis, February 7, 2014)


[photo: “NRT: McDonald’s Menu,” by jpellgen, used under a Creative Commons license]

It Won’t Be the Same without You: Join The Expat Survey 2013

2444717300_abb533fa6d_mThe logo for The Expat Survey 2013 is a hummingbird, “because just like human beings each one has its own migratory flight pattern.”

If you’re an expatriate, the Expat Survey wants to hear about your migrations, as well as your “remarkable diversity of habitats.”

The survey is made up of three parts, each rolled out separately, with the final section going live tomorrow (update: the third section went live November 27). All portions of the survey will remain available online until December 31.

The three sections are

  • Migration & Lifestyle
    “[H]ave you found it easy to integrate, what do you like or dislike about your adopted home, has life changed considerably and how do you stay in touch with family, friends and the outside world?”
  • Retail & Finance
    “Whether you are working or not, what are your important considerations when it comes to personal or household expenditure, banking and investments; and what information resources do you now tend to turn to when making these decisions and future fiscal planning?”
  • Travel & Health
    “Has your move to a warmer or colder climate changed your perspective of the world and the places and people you choose to visit; and what modes of transport do you use to get there? Do you enjoy a better diet and benefit from improved health and if you have had cause to call upon your local medical services were they sufficient?”

Besides having their voices heard, expats who fill out all three portions of the survey will be entered into a drawing for £1,000.

An independent London organization, i-World Research Limited, is conducting The Expat Survey, and it’s being promoted by 10 “collaborative partners.” One of those partners, Max Media International, calls the survey “the largest and most extensive independent global research programme ever conducted on those residing outside of their country of origin.”

To take part, go to The Expat Survey 2013.

(“Expatriate Specialism Agency Joins Expat Survey 2013,” Max Media International, July 10, 2013)

[photo: “Rufous Hummingbird—All fired up to impress the ladies!,” by Rick Leche, used under a Creative Commons license]

Regrets and Remembrances: A Prayer for Those Who Leave Home

With one plane ride the whole world as TCKs have known it can die. Every important place they’ve been, every tree climbed, pet owned, and virtually every close friend they’ve made are gone with the closing of the airplane door.
—David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids

5420666395_e086b79cf9_mThis closing door doesn’t just happen to Third Culture Kids. It’s also the experience of immigrants who leave behind many what-could-have-beens in their old country. Cross-cultural workers feel the door close when they leave their work and return “home.” (What other job requires you to leave the country once you’re no longer on the payroll?) International students close the door with the hopes that new opportunities will open many more. And refugees often see the door slammed and locked by soldiers carrying guns.

5420666545_cd2c078381_mBut while the door is closed, the mind is still open to thoughts about what was left behind. Some thoughts are joyous and life giving. Some are hurtful and life stealing. And often they come intricately, painfully intertwined, called up by a scent, a word, a sound, a flavor, a feeling or a dream. Bittersweet.

For those who find themselves on the other side of a closed door, I offer this prayer, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.”

God, grant me the confidence to let go of the regrets that I should not hold on to,
The ability to hold on to the memories I should not let go of,
And the wisdom to separate the one from the other. Amen.

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[illustrations: (upper) “Joined” and (lower) “Cupped“) by Pete Hobden, used under a Creative Commons license]

Roundball Diplomacy in Iran: A Documentary

Here’s another entry in the category of basketball diplomacy*. When director Till Schauder found Kevin Sheppard, a point guard from the US Virgin Islands, playing professionally in the Iranian Super League, he made him the focus of his documentary, The Iran Job. The film follows Sheppard’s season with his team, A.S. Shiraz, and his spirited interactions with the Iranian people. In particular, Sheppard forms a relationship with three women—who bravely face the cameras, remove their head coverings, and share their views about the current culture in Iran. Shauder writes:

Iran is often portrayed as a terrorist nation, a nuclear threat, and a charter member of the Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. But behind the headlines—and the aggressive rhetoric of Iran’s hard-line leaders—lies one of the most fascinating nations, as sensuous as it can be challenging, with a life-loving people. This film focuses on Iran’s people, rather than its government, and I hope it can challenge perceptions of Iran by providing an authentic perspective that may be crucial when choices are made between war and peace. It is probably safe to say that getting Iran “right” is as impossible as getting any culture “right.” Nonetheless, for their people and for ours, it should be a high priority. . . . More than a fish-out-of-water sports documentary this film focuses on social issues including women’s rights, political freedom and religious conflict, through the lens of a black American basketball player.

The Iran Job is being screened in selected US theaters, and DVDs are available at Kickstarter.

*For more examples of basketball diplomats, see my other posts on Stephon MarburyYao Ming, and Jeremy Lin.

[photo of a basketball goal in Varamin, Iran: “Retired hoop!” by Blake Amin Tabrizi, used under a Creative Commons license]

Departures and Repatriations: Crossing the Great Divide

“Never die in Taiwan.”

That’s what the poor man at the American Institute in Taiwan said. AIT serves as a de facto US embassy in Taiwan, and I was there taking care of some routine matters. Others, like the student I met who had been so excited about navigating the city in a taxi by himself that he left his backpack and passport in the cab, had more pressing issues.

The man who turned away from the window in despair, who told us all, “Never die in Taiwan,” had just presented documentation concerning his recently deceased wife. He needed to prove that she had died to show that he wasn’t trying to remove his children from the country against her wishes. This was his second or third visit, and the person behind the window was sending him back for translated copies—from Chinese to English, or from English to Chinese—or for some other paperwork that seemed impossible to obtain. The man looked so defeated. The death of a loved one overseas must truly be a distressing experience, in so many ways. I can only imagine how hard it is.

Recently I was jumping around the Web and looked up repats just to see what was out there on the repatriation process, say, for returning cross-cultural workers. One of the top sites listed was repats.com. That seemed like just what I was looking for, but the text underneath wasn’t what I expected:

Funeral Repatriations – Rapatriements funéraire – Funeraire repatriëring

So repats.com is a funeral site. That means, I thought, that repatriation must refer to sending a person’s spirit back “home,” to heaven. What an interesting use of the word. But as it turns out (as most of you probably already knew), for funeral operators, repatriation means returning the deceased’s remains to the country of origin.

Obviously, there is a lot to take care of in this kind of repatriation process: There are laws to follow, the paperwork, the physical aspect of transporting the body, the expense, the disruption of normal day-to-day life overseas, the stress and grief, and the coordination of cultural and religious customs. Avalon Repatriation Services, located in the United Kingdom, gives the following overview of some of the varied practices around the world:

  • In France for example, a body must be embalmed and placed in a wooden coffin 24 hours after death.
  • In Islamic countries, it is the widely-held belief that the deceased should be buried before sundown or within 24 hours, without embalming.
  • In the United States, embalming is common practice. In many countries—when embalming does take place—it is a qualified embalmer’s job, whereas in some countries, for example Portugal and Spain, it is against the law for anyone but a qualified doctor to undertake this procedure.
  • Those of Jewish faith believe that the body should be returned to the earth it came from and are therefore against cremation.
  • Hindus cremate their dead, believing that the burning of a dead body signifies the release of the spirit and that the flames represent Brahma, the creator.

My misunderstanding the meaning of repatriation reminds me of the Japanese film Departures, winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells the story of an unemployed cellist, Daigo, who answers a newspaper ad titled “Departures.” He thinks he’s applying for a travel-agency job but instead ends up taking a job as a nokanshi, someone who ceremonially prepares bodies for burial. Daigo learns the trade from Sasaki, his boss, who becomes his mentor. And Daigo learns also to overcome opposition from his family and friends and to face his own fears, finding deep meaning in his new vocation.

This is a great film. It’s been one of my family’s favorites ever since my son brought home a copy. Just listening to the theme song in the trailer reminds me of the deep emotions that are explored in the story. I think it’s about time I watched it again.

(“Catering for Different Religions,” Avalon Repatriation Services)

[photo: “Go West,” by halfrain, used under a Creative Commons license]

Live and Learn Abroad to Boost Creativity

You’ve been overseas and you’re back in the US looking for work. Not many job descriptions say that the “ideal candidate will have lived outside the US.” So what transferable qualities or skills have your experiences developed in you? How about adaptability, flexibility, resilience, and empathy?

Here’s something else you can add to your qualifications, and there’s research to back up the claim: creativity.

Finding the Relationship between Creativity and Living Cross-Culturally

A few years ago, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky conducted a series of experiments that demonstrate the link between living abroad and creativity.

  1. In the first, the pair showed that the more time a subject had spent living (though not traveling) abroad, the more likely it was for him to solve a particular puzzle. But the cause-effect relationship wasn’t clear. What if it’s simply because creative people choose more often to live abroad?
  2. The second experiment verified the results, this time using built-in controls for personality factors that are linked to creativity in order to isolate the effects of living abroad.
  3. The third study had subjects who had previously lived abroad think and write about their experiences. They were then tested, showing a temporary increase in creativity.
  4. Study number four looked at adaption to a new culture as the main driver of increased creativity. It showed that the more a person adapted, immersing herself in a culture, the higher the creativity.
  5. And, finally, the fifth study followed up by showing that subjects with past living-abroad experience who then imagined and wrote about adapting to a foreign culture exhibited higher levels of creativity in a subsequent exercise.

(William Maddux and Adam Galinsky, “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship between Living Abroad and Creativity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 2009)

Wanting to Live Abroad Isn’t the Same

As described in a recent article in Pacific Standard, researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville, further validated the idea that studying abroad increases creativity, rather than vice versa. The study, by Christine Lee, David Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm, looked at three groups of students: those who had studied abroad, those who were planning to study abroad, and those who had not nor were planning to study abroad. The first group scored higher than the other two in levels of creative thinking, suggesting that it’s the actual experience of living overseas, rather than a personality type that is inclined to do so.

(Tom Jacobs, “To Boost Creativity, Study Abroad,” Pacific Standard, August 6, 2012; Christine Lee, David Therriault, and Tracy Linderholm, abstract of “On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, July 2012)

Diversification and Flexibility

In the abstract to their research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from the Netherlands and California note that “past research has linked creativity to unusual and unexpected experiences, such as early parental loss or living abroad.” Their experiments suggest that it is the “diversifying” aspect of these experiences that brings about great “cognitive flexibility.”

(Simone Ritter, et al., abstract of “Diversifying Experiences Enhance Cognitive Flexibility,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, July 2012)

Learning the Whys of Culture Helps Even More

Back to Maddux and Galinsky, this time joined by Hajo Adam. Working on the idea that adapting to a new culture brings about novel ways of thinking, the researchers asked, “What is it about adaptation to foreign environments that is critical for facilitating the creative process?” They hypothesized that it is learning about a foreign culture in a multicultural setting that boosts creativity, To test this, the researchers assembled a group of university students in Paris who had previously lived abroad. They then “primed” part of the group by having them think and write about a time when they had learned about another culture. Others in the group did the same about a time of learning about their own culture. As predicted, the first group scored higher in a followup test of creativity.

The three then focused on “functional learning,” or “learning about the underlying reasons for observed foreign rituals, rules, and behaviors.” Subsequent experiments showed that creativity increased even more when the priming focused on not only on learning something new about another culture but learning when the subjects were actually able to find out the reason behind the cultural differences.

(William Maddux, Hajo Adam, and Adam Galinsky, “When in Rome . . . Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do: How Multicultural Learning Experiences Facilitate Creativity,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, June 2010)

Boosting Your Resume in a Globalized World

So, in review, if you want to develop your creativity, here’s the plan:

  1. live overseas
  2. adapt to another culture
  3. learn about that culture
  4. and learn why a culture is the way it is

In an article posted by the Kellogg School of Management, Maddux tells the American Psychological Association that their research

may have something to say about the increasing impact of globalization on the world, a fact that has been hammered home by the recent financial crisis. Knowing that experiences abroad are critical for creative output makes study abroad programs and job assignments in other countries that much more important, especially for people and companies that put a premium on creativity and innovation to stay competitive.

(Audrey Hamilton, “Living Outside the Box: New Research by Kellogg Professor Adam Galinsky Suggests That Living Abroad Boosts Creativity,” Kellogg School of Management, April 23, 2009)

[photo: “Globeism,” by Joel Ormsby, used under a Creative Commons license]