In another country and a state of shock

18th February 2005 at 00:00
They warned me about something called culture shock when I arrived in the United States last July to take up my teaching post. Did I listen? Did I heck.

Embarking on the biggest adventure of my life, I was on a high. New school, new curriculum, new home, new friends - things could hardly have been more exciting. And anyway, we are not talking outer Mongolia. I had come to America, the land of Coca-Cola, MTV and four-wheel drives - just like Luton, really.

Well, apparently I was in the euphoria or "honeymoon" stage of culture shock, and there were a few more shocks to come.

The first six weeks or so were like being on holiday. But suddenly the homesickness kicked in and I began to wonder what I had got myself into.

For the first time in my life, I was officially a foreigner.

Every time I opened my mouth, I stood out as different. At school there were many new systems to cope with, but the biggest shock of all was getting up at 5.30 every morning to start teaching at 7.20am. Why couldn't the Americans just do things the British way? And why do they drive on the wrong side of the road?

I even found myself missing stuff like EastEnders - how sad is that? Desperate for a bit of Blighty, I subscribed to BBC America but was bitterly disappointed. Dying for a decent curry and a girls' night in with my friends back home, I started counting down the months until the end of the school year when I would be on the first plane to Gatwick and out of here. That was definitely my conflict stage.

The phrase "culture shock" was coined in 1954 by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, who first described the emotional reactions to the disorientation felt when immersed in an unfamiliar culture and deprived of familiar cues.

Oberg identified four distinct stages of culture shock: euphoria, conflict, adjustment and adaptation. These are described by psychologists today as the U-curve of cultural adaptation - starting at an emotional high point, then experiencing a decline or depression before a levelling-off period, then a critical "recovery" stage, ending up more or less balanced where it all began.

Although generally considered a negative consequence of moving abroad, some psychologists regard culture shock as a transitional experience important for self-development and personal growth.

As the daughter of Irish immigrants I can finally empathise with my parents, who left friends and family to start a new life in Britain. Even after 25 years, my mother always called Ireland home. But more interestingly to me as a teacher, I now have some idea of how immigrant, refugee and asylum-seeking pupils must feel when they arrive in the UK. I will never forget the little girl from Kenya who joined my Year 6 class in Luton last summer, and how she wrote, in broken English, about her journey to Britain - the emotional farewell to her extended family, the excitement as she ventured beyond her village for the first time, her amazement at seeing an airliner and how she shook "like a bug in a baobab tree" during the nine-hour flight.

She described Heathrow as beautiful, and at school continued to express awe and wonder at everyday things. Her enthusiasm and hunger for learning lit up my classroom. I find myself thinking of her now, at secondary school somewhere in England, and wondering if she, too, is coping with the conflict and adjustment stages.

At least I have not had to learn a new language as well, although these days I "grade" instead of mark, "check" instead of tick, and I have learned that you never call erasers "rubbers" in front of a class of American kids.

The lifestyle here is fantastic, the weather glorious and both the class sizes and workload are smaller than in the UK. I am now feeling settled and really enjoying the experience, although getting up at 5.30am still kills me and I still miss my friends back home. This is my gradual adjustment.

I think I am just about ready for the recovery stage now. And I hope the girl from Kenya is, too.

Mary McCarney is a visiting international faculty teacher at an elementary school in Georgia, USA

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