I can remember my first experience with it trying to escape the heat on a humid day in Dhaka, Bangladesh. My roommate and I rode a rickshaw over to a “convenience store” to grab a Coke. A normal everyday pleasure in America. My irritation started when the cashier insisted on opening the bottled Coke himself and inserting a straw (no doubt to avoid contact with the grimy bottle rim). But I didn’t want a straw. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want a bottle. I wanted a can, but beggars can’t be choosers and I was lucky enough it was almost cold. As we turned to leave the cashier indicated in somewhat intelligible English that we had not bought the bottles, only the liquid inside. We would have to drink our Cokes in the grimy interior of the store. It was about this time I noticed the half dozen men staring unblinkingly in the front plate glass window at us. My roommate and I were both bleach-blond and blue eyed in a country with almost no diversity, I standing a foot taller than just about everybody else, so I was used to the stares. But being inside the plate glass window gave the effect of an exhibit at the zoo and I was just sick of it. I was sick of the heat, sick of the haze of air pollution so tangible you could taste it, sick of spicy food that burned my lips and surrounding area, leaving me with a clown mouth, sick of just about everything and everyone that was so different from the normal I knew- and I was furious. Hello culture shock! When all the newness of a grand adventure rubs off and the reality of the day to day sets in. When those little differences you thought were interesting now become huge sources of annoyance and frustration. Keep in mind, I am an adult. An adult who realized shortly after the impulse to throw the glass bottle through the plate glass window at the collection of gawkers, what was actually happening to me. An as an adult, I have emotional resources to both recognize and mitigate the effects of culture shock. Students are not always so well equipped. What manifests as headaches, frustration, depression, isolation, and irritability in adults looks very different in a child. It’s the tantrum that came out of nowhere. It’s the bolt for the door the child made (and it you’re lucky, was then retrieved kicking and screaming before he made it too far down the road). It’s the child who lashes out at others, unable to articulate in words the thought, “I didn’t sign up for this. No one asked me if I wanted this” that permeates each action. It’s the stomach ache, insomnia, inattentiveness, anxiety, and homesickness long after you thought your Newcomer had settled in. As a teacher, it’s easy to respond to these situations as you would any other “misbehavior,” yet understanding the root cause of these behaviors undoubtedly changes the response. Perhaps that child needs to be reassured. Perhaps they need quiet time away (I’ve had students who retreated to the bathroom for long periods of time when they were simply overwhelmed). Perhaps the child needs more consistency. Or perhaps he or she just needs more time. Whatever the case, responding with compassion and thought will help ensure that culture shock is a temporary bump in the road to language acquisition rather than a long-term road block.
If you work with immigrant children and don’t know the symptoms of culture shock in kids, here is a chart for your reference.