Thoughts on culture shock

I’ve been here before.

I’m in my fourth extended stay abroad; I did two stints in Germany (a year in high school and a semester in college) and spent a little over two years with the Peace Corps in Morocco. So I’m not new to the ups and downs of figuring out a new culture. There are good days and bad days, days when you actually go without food just to avoid leaving your house because you can’t possibly deal with the intricacies of communication with humans of a culture outside your own. And there are days when you want to hug strangers on the street for reasons even you don’t understand.

There is even a “typical” progression, from honeymoon through culture shock, to adaptation and eventual mastery, when one comes to terms, as they say, with a new culture. At that point, one accepts it as another way of living, other than a home culture but just as legitimate. One might adopt some aspects or practices into one’s own culture. In this way, we bring home our new favorite foods, perhaps ways of dressing, exercise habits, even religious practices. Or we marry a dude. Whatever.

Here, you can have a look at the typical “W-Curve” of culture shock that most people experience. It is a sadly predictable affair, with all its excitement and fun at the start, and then the steep descent into the deepest part of the trough where everything is hateful.


I’d say we’re right now somewhere between “Crisis” and “Recovery.” We’re figuring out how we’re going to navigate this place, how we’ll tolerate some of the irritants. We’ve figured out how to stay in relatively close touch with family and friends back home, in spite of time differences and the massive expanse of geography between us. We’ve plotted timelines with milestones and checkpoints, stepping stones across the deep.

We’ve learned the therapeutic value of an ice cream or a movie. I’ve developed selective tunnel vision and cultivated a highly affected naiveté that allows me to run, sleeveless and alone, in public, and even on the beach. The children’s skins have thickened and they’re becoming comfortable with the strange sense of solitude in crowds that one can have in a place like this.

But, for us to continue with the typical culture shock developments, I think we would need to have a coherent culture to begin grasping. For better or for worse, we don’t get that here in Dubai. This is a totally contrived environment for the expat. There isn’t a choice, as there are in many other foreign-living situations, of whether to embrace or avoid the local culture; the local culture is shielded from outsiders. Oh, we have just as much right to attend prayers at the mosque as the nationals, and we do. We shop at their grocery stores. We stroll in their parks.

But, you see, we–the expats–are not the minority here as we would be in virtually any other place in the world. In Dubai, we–if, by “we,” I mean everyone who is a citizen or national of a country other than UAE–are the enormous, thronging majority. We are about 80% of the population.

So, let’s consider for a minute. How would you, given that sort of math, attempt to dig in and find the “real” culture? And, even if you did, since that’s not the culture you’re walking through in the day-to-day of living here, how much would adaptation within it actually help you? For example, a very large majority of the expats here are from Asia: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines. Already, there is great cultural diversity just between these groups. And even though I can count on crossing paths with many of them, much of our interaction may be prescribed, as there is a whole separate world of the service-worker here. And that is a world almost wholly closed to an American. I wouldn’t be expected to live in a labor camp, or live here for years at a time without returning to my home country, or without bringing the family to live together.

This is just one small aspect of the cultural incoherence that will serve to prevent our “mastery,” or internalization of the local ways. Another is what’s described here as the “nanny culture.” Just yesterday, my son announced that “almost all” the other kids in his class have “two maids and a nanny.” of course, my first reaction is to think about how nice it might be to have someone else clean up after breakfast. This passes when I consider that a family on a single income can afford two maids and a nanny. How is this so? Well, someone has to make the sacrifice–and you can bet it’s the two maids and nanny. Maids can be paid as little as $200 a month, even less, and the luckier of these service workers are often treated with indifference. The unlucky get hostility, abuse, even rape and murder. The same goes for houseboys, drivers, gardeners and all manner of people doing manual labor. They come from some of the poorest countries in the world, many without any skills or even language to help them, and they are quickly absorbed into the system, invisible yet incredibly essential to the “Dubai lifestyle.”

There are a lot of people who apparently “get used to” this aspect of life in Dubai. They hire the help and learn to mistreat their own small army of workers to the expected standard. That is not to say everyone does. I have met very respectable people who pay their housekeepers well, who speak to them with respect bordering on (I think, appropriate) reverence (they are, after all, keeping them clean and fed and clothed as a mother would do). These are a blessed minority. And the rest of us wash our own clothes and cook our own noodles and live in a relatively lower standard of housekeeping, and make our kids empty the dishwasher and put away their own laundry.

And I suppose that is going to be what mastery here looks like. As it is a very curious “expat culture” here, so our mastery will depend upon how successfully we build our own little idiosyncratic way of living inside ourselves–within the four walls of the villa, within the walled garden, within the walled compound, and finally within our own observations of self as we navigate the city and actually allow our little bubble to touch those of others. When I can drive from one end of the city to the other without a spike in blood pressure, I feel mastery. When I cook a dish, using ingredients bought at the store, that makes my children happy to eat dinner, this is mastery. When we give and receive friendly greetings to and from our co-expats who have nothing in common with us besides our shared foreigner status, this is the sort of mastery we wish upon everyone in Dubai.

Right now, according to most experts on the subject of culture shock, we are smack at the bottom of that first trough. Four to six months in, the subject pretty much hates everything. We arrived four and a half months ago. I suppose we’re lucky to have recognized already a few things we don’t hate. We have the beach, we have shwarma, we have sandals in October. I like that I can get my car washed in the grocery store parking lot while I buy food. I like that I can talk to the taxi drivers and that, for the most part, they treat me like their sister. I like laban and dates, and date syrup and spices in Arabic coffee. I love fresh fish. I like the smell of diesel fuel in the morning. (But I like that everywhere.)

There’s still a lot I don’t like. I don’t like that the water runs hot in the pipes; it’s impossible to take a cool shower. I don’t like that it’s 90F and humid when I leave the house at 7AM to run. I hate the aggression and hostility with which most people here drive (particularly the people who can afford the large luxury SUVs, and no, most of these are not the Asians I mentioned above). I hate it more as a pedestrian or cyclist than as a driver. I don’t like that there are stray cats everywhere. I don’t like the smell of grocery stores here–and I am aware that a preoccupation with hygiene is a symptom of culture shock. I don’t like how much we have to pay for everything here, from parking to electricity to…well, everything but gasoline and maids, it seems.

Anyway, it goes on. And within a month or two, I’m sure we’ll be working our way uphill toward the next crest. It will surely help that temperatures are expected to begin falling this month, from 36C/97F forecast today (though I’m confident our thermometer will read 38C/100F) to 32C/90F for highs by the end of October. Lows around 22C/72F will open a whole host of new possibilities. Like perhaps even cool showers now and then.


7 responses to “Thoughts on culture shock

  • bcastleton


    This article is brilliant. I think you should submit it to your hometown newspaper or other outlet, with pics. One of the things I’ve learned while writing for Suite101 is that it is important to review your writings before you “publish” them elsewhere, as in a blog. Some publications will not allow already published material, and yet, what you have written in this piece is certainly worthy of a wider audience. That may not be important to you at this point, but you may want to consider it for the future. Still you could expand or rewrite it, forming something new and different if you chose to submit it.

    Anyway, sweetie, you’ve nailed it, with all the complex distinctions clarified. Thanks. I’m probably heading toward the trough. Hard to tell in this country club.

    Love, Barb

  • Becky Van Elsen

    Again, I can’t even wrap my head around the life experience…you continue to amaze me.

  • Deann Kelley

    Hey Jo,

    I agree… this article *is* absolutely brilliant! You know what a I loved the most? When you listed all of the things (no matter how small) that you like. And, that you’re taking notice of these things (*already*–according to the chart). I love this because, no matter where we are, physically or mentally, if we focus on the likes, we bring much more ease, grace, and flow into our experience… and attract more of it! You’re doing this, each day, even in small steps. So, keep it flowing, sister… no need to make your way ‘uphill toward the next crest’. Ignore that chart, and let it flow… you’ll be there recovering and adjusting before you know it! As always, sending you and your beautiful family love… XOXO

  • Jennifer

    Fascinating and as always, delivered with amazing clarity and grace.

  • Birky

    This is fantastic Jo! What another interesting experience to add to your life. I look forward to hear more. Jen (aka, perky)

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