Dealing with Culture Shock as a new International Teacher – Helena Croser, Deputy Principal in Hong Kong



Step 1: The Honeymoon Stage

Like any new experience, there's a feeling of euphoria when you first arrive to a new country and you're in awe of the differences you see and experience.  You feel excited, stimulated, enriched. During this stage, you still feel close to everything familiar back home.


Step 2: The Distress Stage

Everything you're experiencing no longer feels new; in fact, it's starting to feel like a thick wall that's preventing you from experiencing things. You feel confused, alone and realize that the familiar support systems are not easily accessible.


Step 3: Re-integration Stage

During this stage, you start refusing to accept the differences you encounter.  You're angry, frustrated and even feel hostile to those around you.  You start to idealize life "back home" and compare your current culture to what is familiar.  You dislike the culture, the language, the food.


You reject it as inferior.  You may even develop some prejudices towards the new culture.  Don't worry.  This is absolutely normal.  You're adjusting.  This is actually a pretty common reaction to anything new.  Think back to when you started a new job or moved to a new house or a new city.  Any adjustment can cause you to look back in awe and wonder why you made the decision to change.


Step 4: Autonomy Stage

This is the first stage in acceptance.  I like to think of it as the emergence stage when you start to rise above the clouds and finally begin to feel like yourself again.  You start to accept the differences and feel like you can begin to live with them.  You feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that may arise. You no longer feel isolated and instead you're able to look at the world around you and appreciate where you are.


Step 5: Independence Stage

You are yourself again!  You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light.  You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences.  You no longer feel alone and isolated.  You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture.  You start to feel at home.




Reverse Culture Shock

This (a.k.a. "Re-entry Shock", or "own culture shock") may take place — returning to one's home culture after growing accustomed to a new one can produce the same effects as described above.  These are results from the psychosomatic and psychological consequences of the readjustment process to the primary culture.   The affected person often finds this more surprising and difficult to deal with than the original culture shock.



Transition Shock


Culture shock is a subcategory of a universal construct called transition shock.  Transition shock is a state of loss and disorientation predicated by a change in one's familiar environment which requires adjustment. There are many symptoms of transition shock, some which include:

  • Excessive concern over cleanliness

  • Feelings of helplessness and withdrawal

  • Irritability

  • Anger

  • Mood swings

  • Glazed stare

  • Desire for home and old friends

  • Physiological stress reactions

  • Homesickness

  • Boredom

  • Withdrawal

  • Getting "stuck" on one thing

  • Suicidal or fatalistic thoughts

  • Excessive sleep

  • Compulsive eating/drinking/weight gain

  • Stereotyping host nationals

  • Hostility towards host nationals


1  Overcoming Culture Shock

Though culture shock is normally a temporary phase, it is important to know there are things you can do to help so that some of these worrying effects can be minimised.  Don’t feel “this isn’t going to happen to me”.  Culture shock can hit you whatever culture you come from and however experienced or well-travelled you are.  Having information and understanding about culture shock is the first important step.  The diagram depicts the process we go through.  However, by following the actions mentioned here you will help lessen the stress of culture shock…

  • Simply understanding that this is a normal experience may in itself be helpful.

  • Keep in touch with home

  • Focus on what you can control.  When we are suffering from culture shock, we usually feel out of control.  So, don’t spend energy on things you cannot change.

  • Don’t invest major energy on minor problems.  We make “mountains out of molehills” even more quickly in cross-cultural situations than we do in our own culture.

  • Tackle major stressors head on.  Don’t avoid things.

  • Ask for help.  Create a wide support network as quickly as you can in your target culture.  This can include expatriates like yourself as well as people of the local culture.

  • Write it down.  Record your thoughts and frustrations in a journal.  This will give you a healthy outlet for expressing your feelings.

  • Compare and Contrast.  Learn about the differences between the cultures by comparing and contrasting so you can articulate them.  Then see what lessons you can learn and what conclusions can you draw.  Is your own culture more individualistic and initiative-taking; proactive?  Do you find the host culture more collectivist and fatalistic; reactive, etc?

  • Ask questions.  Learn about how locals think of people from your country – the more you learn about yourself the more you can understand how to understand others.

Read up on cross-cultural theories.  Finally, if you are interested, seek out information about how to analyse cultures – there’s a whole science about it – it’s fascinating!


2 Overcoming Culture Shock


  • There are several things you can do to help yourself through the stages of culture shock. First, fight the urge to retreat and join a club, try out for a sports team, volunteer, attend a local church or take a language class. Mixing, meeting new people and forcing yourself to become part of the community will help you through Step Three.

Get out.  Walk around your neighbourhood.  Be seen.  Smile.  Visit the same coffee shop or book store or market.  You'll soon be recognized.  There's nothing that says you're at home, like a neighbour saying "good morning" in any language.

Go on tours.  Be a tourist in your own town.  Sign up for local excursions.  Get to know your city, its history and culture.  This will help ease you into Stage Four, and eventually, Stage Five.


Notice that a positive attitude and making the right choices will help you develop rapport and understanding – then you will be able to straddle both your new and your own culture easily.



It is important to stress that culture shock is entirely normal, usually unavoidable and not a sign that you have made a mistake or that you won’t manage.  In fact, there are very positive aspects of culture shock.  The experience can be a significant learning experience, making you more aware of aspects of your own culture as well as the new culture you have entered.  It will give you valuable skills that will serve you in many ways now and in the future.



Big thanks to Helena Croser, deputy principal in Hong Kong. Make sure to check out her other blogs by following the link:


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