Five years and five stages of cultural adaptation

Some of you may still recall that my stay in Japan was not supposed to last long, actually it was supposed to be no less and no more but one year. Now, five and a half years later, I have to admit that I have lived longer in Japan than I did in Paris (it was quite a shock for me to realize the fact!). If you are thinking I may be staying here forever, rest assured that it will not be the case.

Tokyo Bay

A few months ago I came across an article talking about five stages of cultural shock or adaptation that most people experience when they move into a new country and culture, and I thought it would be interesting to see what they are and if my experience over the last five years has any resemblance to the theory.

While the definition of culture varies to some extent, in short, it could be defined as “what goes without saying”. These are not my words, Van Maanen and Laurent (1993) used that to refer to a set of habits (e.g. gestures, tones of voice, body contacts, etc) that a community uses to recognize someone as its member. Once a person moves to a completely new environment, he/she has to adapt by either avoiding, overcoming or absorbing the cultural shocks coming their way. Cultural shock can have various symptoms, like fatigue, boredom, anger, stress, willingness to return home, digestion issues, other illness, and so on.

Early cherry blossom in Matsuda, February 2021

Various authors distinguish five stages of cultural shock or cultural adaptation. The first one is generally referred to as “the Honeymoon or Tourist Stage”, when a person is exited with the new country and culture and sees everything through the so called rose coloured glasses. Next comes the “Disintegration or Crisis Stage”, when frustrations start arising, comparisons with the life back home are more common and an individual sees all the issues that may have been ignored in the first stage.

If the person manages to go through these two, the next stage is the “Re-integration” when a person finds ways to adapt in the new culture, or, in case of short term stays, leaves. If a person finds a way to overcome issues and a strategy to integrate that works, this brings us to the “Autonomy Stage”, meaning a person starts feeling like at home and is finally enjoying the stay in this new place. Finally, the last stage is the “Interdependence Stage”, whereby a person often goes back and tries to re-adjust to his/her old cultural system and/or becomes multicultural.

Early cherry blossom and Mount Fuji

Looking back at my five years in Japan, I think I missed the “Honeymoon Stage” altogether. I arrived here from Paris in July, when days are short, weather is hot and humid and is getting even worse towards August. My first apartment in Japan was tiny and instead of excitement I was actually getting depressed. That first summer will always remain is my memory as a really tough one, in all senses. When I started this blog, it was my way to force myself to look for good things and explore, tell stories and be busy enough not to have time to compare my life in Japan with my life in Paris. It was super busy at work as well, so by the end of the year I had zero interest to continue on the same basis.

Then, my role at work changed, I moved to another apartment and my life in Japan started looking different (and much better I must say). Maybe we can call it re-integration or finding a strategy that works. I could not say that I have integrated into Japanese culture, though I have found a way to live here and enjoy my life. My attempts to learn the language have failed miserably though and by now I have forgotten most of things since my lessons stopped a few years ago. However, it is possible to live here very comfortably without really speaking Japanese (I do not count the absolute minimum vocabulary as “speaking”), especially if you are an expat. Yet, this is not “an integration” and rarely anyone sees themselves staying in Japan forever, so the question of how long is long enough is always somewhere there at the back of your mind.

Spring is in the air!

As the time goes, I am again thinking about Europe and about Paris. It was my love from the second sight, but it seems, for life. Someone once said that your home is where your heart is, and I am yet to reconfirm where that is exactly… There are many things I like about Japan, and there are many things I will surely miss once I move somewhere else, yet the time is coming for that last stage of cultural shock or (re)adaptation and I will be telling you more about it soon.

In the meantime, I still have a few stories and places I want to tell you about, so stay tuned as we continue this journey together.

Cherry blossom and the iconic Mount Fuji

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