There are four stages of culture shock:
1. The Honeymoon Phase: Everything is beautiful, romantic, so full of promise. Everything is fascinating, the food is great, the people are interesting and so welcoming.
2. The Annoyance Phase: Frustration, feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion, general disgust/dislike of the culture, stark differences and comparisons between the new culture and the familiar, depression.
3. The Adjustment Phase: The culture begins to appear normal and the individual can relax into it.
4. The Mastery Phase: Also can be called "biculturalism," when a person can easily switch between two cultures. Not achieved by most.
In addition, there are three types of people that emerge from living in a new culture: the rejectors, the adopters, and the cosmopolitans. Most people fall into the rejector category; that is, they isolate themselves while in the country, and feel they need to return to their own country before they can feel ok again. The adopters take on the new culture completely and have trouble accepting their own again. The so-called cosmopolitans can switch back and forth seamlessly. Apparently about 30% of expats take on this personality. I plan to make an effort to be in that group.
This is my second experience living in a foreign country/culture. My first was in South Africa, when I was young and naive and adventurous. I experienced a classic case of culture shock. The first few weeks were amazing and intense. I had never felt more alive. I loved being out of the country, creating my own adventure. After a month or so, I began experiencing homesickness. I desperately checked my email for letters from home. I wanted to talk to my parents. I couldn't help but think about the future in Provo. Some days I stayed home and slept. That did not last long though, and I was able to jump back into life as I adjusted to the culture. I really do not remember feeling like I hated South Africa, ever. I attribute this mainly to the facts that BYU took good care of us, we lived in a nice home (though our host family was a little strange), meals were delivered to the table twice a day, I had three great friends living in the home with me. Our neighborhood was one of the best in East London. I worked at an AIDS clinic where everyone spoke English, and I had rides to work almost every day. Mind you, I had experiences in the slums, the squatter camps, the townships but they were every so often and were a sort of novelty (I hate the idea of that, but it's true). I never remember thinking South Africans were dirty or lazy or stupid. I always loved the food (as evidenced by my 20 or so pounds I gained that summer... I'll never forget my dad's statement when I returned: "No wonder there are starving kids in Africa... you ate all their food"). By the end of the summer, I was excited to see my family but I was sad to leave this country I had come to love.
This time around... the honeymoon took place before the wedding. I had a romantic image of Cairo before I traveled there. The first night we were here we had to go on a walking tour of the area we lived in. My first thoughts included: this place is dirty, disgusting, there is garbage everywhere, I hate it here. I had an incredibly hard time those first few weeks. I was depressed, I cried a lot. I could not believe how poorly I was handling the whole experience. In fact, one of the other wives commented she would have never guessed that I would handle it like that since I was so adventurous and laid-back, and especially since I have lived in a developing nation before where poverty is quite evident and as an American you stick out like a sore thumb.
But.... this time around is a whole new ballgame. For one, I have an Amir. He changes my perception of germs, of filthiness. I'm more isolated. I live with Tim and another couple, but they are all in class all day. There are places to go, but there is no one to talk to and we can't stay out long because some days are just so flipping hot. Most of the mothers around here do not speak great English. A few times I spent time with the other moms from the ward, but most of them are now leaving for the summer so no more playgroup at the Maadi House or yoga class at the Church. We're also living in a more “authentic” location. Our apartment is nice, but we're close to the slums and in the middle of a huge city.
Fortunately, the rejection phase lasted a week or so and I've long entered the adjustment phase. We're in a better groove now. We've started exploring the area where we live and found excellent vegetable stands, a supermarket, and two bakeries. There's a great park nearby that we go to pretty much every day. There's two great swimming pools right by the park. I'm embracing the heat, the dirt, the dust, the pollution, the grime. I'm beginning to appreciate and love the nuances of the culture and the religion. We've become friends with a few families that invite us over for dinner often: the food is great, the cultural experience even better. And there is much that I know I will miss when we leave. I look forward to hearing the reassuring voices emanating from the intercoms all over town during the call to prayer. I love learning Arabic. My language learning is coming along at a snail's pace (as everyone's is) but at least I can get around and understand a bit of what people are saying. I'm better at following conversations that Tim has when we're out. We get less stares now that people are getting used to us. I no longer feel overwhelmed at buying vegetables or bread. I'm comfortable now with everyone wanting to hold Amir, kiss him, snap at him, feed him random things. Now is the time to sit back and enjoy (well maybe not sit back, but explore and venture without coming home so upset and overwhelmed).