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Tongue-tied and Culture-shocked

By ALEXINE CASTILLO YAP

The author’s attempt of reminding herself how to say ‘help’ in various languages | Photo by author

I’m in a bit of a language rut. I’m forgetting bits and pieces of languages I already know, including my mother tongue, Tagalog. At best, it’s only caused a few embarrassing hiccups whilst Facetiming with my best friend from back home; at worst, it has led to more than just a few late-night identity crises.

This would have been a bit easier to take had I been doing well in my Japanese classes -- I could then at least tell myself, ‘hey, at least you’re doing okay with this’ -- but I, unfortunately, have seemingly accomplished the opposite, despite my best efforts. The results of a recent progress test have not been very promising, and throughout the semester I’ve progressively found my bed more and more inviting compared to going to class. Furthermore, being told that I am not eligible to gain credit for an intermediate-level French class that actually suited my French language ability has not helped at all in quelling my language-related frustration.

It looks as if I’m regressing, and for some odd reason--perhaps in a misguided attempt to reset my brain, or as an exercise in escapism--I’ve even begun, rather counterproductively, trying to learn another language (please don’t ask me why I picked up Teach Yourself Colloquial Arabic from Book Off the other day). It’s also come to the point where I’ve already considered giving myself a serious intervention by booking an appointment with a Berlitz language school outside the university (which, I’ve discovered, is not only a time-suck, but also wildly unaffordable).

Is there something wrong with me? I’ve tried chalking it up to a host of different explanations, all with varying degrees of ridiculousness, starting from ‘Maybe I just need more sleep’ to ‘Maybe my brain is, at the ripe old age of nineteen, already getting too old’ through to ‘I’ve been cursed by a wrathful language deity (or kami, in Japanese) as divine retribution for all those times I said hajimemashite without a yoroshiku onegaishimasu’.

It’s been said that the most important part of solving a problem is to accept and admit that you have a problem, and, quite importantly, to identify and study the root of said problem. I’ve been stashing the language problem away at the back burner of my mind for some time now without confronting it, causing it to fester. Though yes, more sleep would definitely help, and no, I’ve not been subjected to the curse of a language kami, I also need to see the language problem as, arguably, part and parcel of the wider culture-shock problem that it is situated in, and that which I’ve been mentally avoiding for months and months now.

Canadian anthropologist Dr. Kalervo Oberg is often credited for being the first to describe culture-shock as the ‘occupational disease’ that it is for people who have moved to a different country. He formulated a theoretical model, a series of 4 stages, that may describe one’s experience when living abroad:

  1. The Honeymoon Phase: also known as the tourist phase, one might experience initial excitement, euphoria and high motivation to learn new things, and would engage in activities that only superficially engage with the culture.

  2. Culture-shock phase: a period marked by crisis, one might feel frustration and irritation as the novelty of the new environment starts wearing off; coupled with homesickness and isolation, one might blow minor problems out of proportion and even develop prejudicial attitudes and stereotypical ideas about the culture.

  3. Adjustment phase: marked by increased familiarity and comfort with the new culture and environment, this phase does have periodic highs and lows, but is also characterised by recovery: a return of one’s sense of humour and of ‘deeper’ learning and engagement with the culture.

  4. Adaptation phase: the new country is no longer as ‘foreign’ or ‘novel’ as before, as it feels like another home, and one begins to have the ability to be both appreciative and critical of multiple aspects of the culture, whilst being able to live and work to one’s full potential

As you can imagine, I tick all the boxes with regards to the ‘culture-shock’ phase. I’m the poster child of someone going through culture-shock--and it’s taken me months to accept this.

Full disclosure: I’m not exactly a newbie to the whole ‘moving to a completely different country’ schtick. I’ve been through this exact same cycle of ups and downs before, having lived abroad in Vietnam during my teenage years, even though I wasn’t fully aware that there was an entire theoretical model describing the experience. I want to say that I’m a culture-shock veteran--but really, I’m not. It is most probably precisely due to my assumption that if ‘I’ve already been through it, then I shouldn’t be finding this so hard’ mentality that’s made it so difficult for me to accept that I am going through culture-shock here in Japan. But the fact is that I am in a new country, which would logically demand its own, unique adjustment process.

And though the four aforementioned theoretical stages seem clear-cut and ordered in a somewhat linear, progressive manner towards the coveted fourth stage, Oberg and many others do acknowledge that in reality, it’s far more complicated than just a smooth transition from A to Z. That ‘gradual adjustment’ phase, in particular, is a tumultuous one, punctuated with highs and lows--something like experiencing mini-culture-shock crises every now and then.

So the fact of the matter is: it is, and will be a roller-coaster ride, but it’s also completely fine and a normal part of the process--for everybody, including people who think themselves ‘used to’ the culture-shock experience. The one thing I do know, though, is that just like my past experience living abroad, things can and will get better, if given time and effort. I’ll just have to hit the books a bit more and make that language school plan work out somehow (and maybe put Teach Yourself Colloquial Arabic on hold). And of course--I should learn to seek help when I need it, that there’s nothing shameful or burdensome about it.

I also need to remind myself that everyone will have a different ‘culture-shock curve’ from each other--so whilst it may seem like one person is ‘better-adjusted’ than the next, it’s probably just because they have different highs and lows at different points of time, with different issues, whether it be language barriers or homesickness or something else entirely. Bottomline is: admit you have a problem, and do what works for you in order to fix it.

Hopefully, in acknowledging my issues and thereby finding solutions and help for them, I’ll be going through an ‘up’ phase sometime soon, and hopefully without the need to battle a vengeful language kami.