Maybe it’s because the holidays have just passed. Maybe it’s because the four month mark in a new country is a textbook point in the integration process. Maybe it’s because I’d rather write than think about the stack of research essays I still have to grade. Whatever it is, I feel it’s time for some honest reflection on what it’s like to slowly dig yourself out of the massive hole that is culture shock.
I knew it was inevitable; at least, I thought I did. Really, it was naive of me to think I knew anything at all about culture shock before actually experiencing it. I tried to prepare myself beforehand, to rationalize it, hoping that if I did so, the effects would be minimal. Of course, it didn’t help and it hit me even sooner than I expected.
After the first few weeks of soaking up all of the novelty, the honeymoon came to a screeching halt. Suddenly, the feeling that I didn’t belong here and never would became overwhelming. No matter how hard I was studying, it seemed like my Turkish wasn’t getting any better and that the shopkeepers were only getting more annoyed at my inability. No matter how often I greeted or smiled at my Turkish co-workers, it still seemed obvious that many of them were keeping their distance because I was not one of them. The bureaucracy, constant last-minute changes for literally everything, and the general feeling of isolation just kept piling up. Everything felt personal, and on top of that, we were drowning in the insane workload of first-year teachers. I was left feeling so disheartened; this wasn’t what I’d wanted or planned. I felt cheated out of the magical world of teaching, travel, and adventure that I’d created in my head. I kept questioning myself again and again…where had I gone wrong? What had I missed? All of the stress and anxiety took a major toll on me both mentally and physically. I probably spent at least half of my first two months here sick.
And then I started feeling guilty and stupid. I scolded myself for not being grateful for the amazing opportunity I have. I felt ashamed of myself for struggling when it seemed like so many people don’t struggle. I didn’t even want to talk about it because the words felt silly and trivial coming out of my mouth. It wasn’t until one of our friends here opened up about the same things that we were feeling that I realized it was more normal than I thought. Even our friends who came here from other schools in Turkey had been struggling to adjust to the new school, which is a new culture in itself.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I felt the veil start to lift, but I think it was around Thanksgiving when I noticed a shift in myself. It was like coming up to the surface after a long swim. I felt a lot more comfortable in my own skin and in my surroundings. When something random and unexpected would happen, I’d just laugh and say “Turkiye’de hos geldiniz” instead of panicking. I didn’t take the points and stares from strangers and the whispers of “yabanci” so personally anymore. I realized that I really can do this and that it will get better…and it’s only gotten better since then.
I know that it isn’t over…these feelings of culture shock will come and go from time to time. At least now I know that it’s normal, it’s okay, and I can deal with it. Sometimes all you need is to talk about it, grab a cup of (American) coffee, or take a nice, solitary walk to reconnect with yourself. A lot of solace can be found in little things. I just wanted to put these words out there to get them off of my chest and to remind myself that it’s okay to talk about it. I also hope that these words- should they find their way to someone who is dealing with or has dealt with these same feelings – bring some comfort and serve as a reminder that you’re not alone.