Written by Elizabeth A. Haas
You´ve inevitably used the phrase “culture shock” in letters home, journal entries, long-distance telephone chats and embarrassing poetry. Most associate the phenomenon with something as fleeting and easy to overcome as jet lag. But a good night´s sleep and a few days time won´t keep culture shock (the textbook term is “acculturation”) at bay. In fact, it is a very real and challenging process with distinct stages—and whatever name you give it, it can last from six months to over a year. So how do you differentiate between normal, healthy acculturation and a more serious condition like depression?
Depression is a prolonged illness that requires medical attention. Insomnia, lack of appetite, diminished sex drive—all are red flags for depression. If you struggled with depression in your home country it´s crucial to continue therapy and medication here just as you would back there. Before departing for Prague do your homework. Contact an English-speaking mental health professional (see our listings) and discuss what meds are available to you in the Czech Republic and if they are covered by your health insurance. (Antidepressants and antipsychotics are available, stimulants are available but rarely prescribed and amphetamines aren´t available at all). Once you´ve arrived follow up with an office visit.
On the flipside, a brief bout with mild depression—as well as confusion, frustration, anxiety, paranoia, sadness, excitement and a whole host of other feelings—is typical of the four-part acculturation process. These extreme emotions reflect what´s going on inside your head as you attempt to absorb the strange beauty of the Czech Republic while remaining loyal to your own heritage.
Here, we cut through the psycho babble to help you recognize and anticipate the phases:
Stage 1: Oh my God, Prague is amazing!
Postcard-pretty Prague Castle, the ancient, awe-inspiring Charles Bridge, the sweet, sweet nectar that is pivo—Prague´s historic sites and culture, its diverse international crowd and swingin´ night life all contribute to the sense of ELATION you will experience during your first few weeks in town.
The numerous Western taboos up for grabs in Prague—sex, drugs, cheap and plentiful alcohol—also play a role in your euphoric arrival. It´s important to maintain a cool head during this stage (yeah, yeah easier said than done we know), keeping your party habits and cash flow in check. Eventually the honeymoon comes to a halt and then it´s high time to find work, an apartment and traverse the mind-boggling bureaucracy of residency permits and visas.
Stage 2: Ugh, the Czech Republic. Drag.
Dealing with the above-mentioned realities can trigger RESISTANCE to your new surroundings. The things that initially thrilled you have become full-blown annoyances—Prague seems polluted, the language and people abrasive. The cost of living isn´t nearly as dirt cheap as you´d imagined. You long for your friends and family. Those in the resistance stage frequently begin sentences with “Back in the States ”
Some will remain mired in this stage until they leave Prague for good, isolating themselves from the Czech community and existing inside of a protective, English-speaking bubble. At first, the bubble may feel protected, safe, right. But beware: it can, and usually does, burst. The expat experience is a highly transient one with friends, places and faces coming and going at breakneck speeds. If you want to really live here, it´s important to create a safety net, learn a little Czech and ground yourself in the community at large.
During this stage some will opt to pack it in. And so what? Not everyone has to adore Prague. If you´re on the verge of calling it quits ask yourself why you came here in the first place. More often than not the answer is “to escape.” Could escaping yet again mean that your problems run deeper? Probably. Give yourself time to think things through.
Stage 3: Really, it´s not so bad
Those who clear the hurdles of resistance will be rewarded with a period of TRANSFORMATION. Suddenly Prague´s labyrinthine streets and the tricky Czech language are no longer so foreign. Your appreciation of the city now runs deeper than its old-world charm and dazzling nightlife. You will have learned to genuinely appreciate your unique and exciting lifestyle, travel opportunities and the city´s amazing cultural offerings. Nomadic souls may find themselves falling in love with the expat way and planning a new move to a different city.
Others may fall prey to extremism as their transformation unfolds. Extremists reject their own language and verbally disparage their home country´s customs and politics in an effort to embrace all things Czech. Before denouncing your citizenship and marrying into the country, keep in mind that this is likely a phase and severing all ties with your homeland can prove a rash decision!
Stage 4: Home sweet Prague
Whether it´s a job, a spouse or something else that has brought you to Prague for the long haul, INTEGRATION is your ultimate acculturation goal. Everything comes together during this stage. The cultural abyss closes up, you learn to appreciate and embrace your own heritage and your new way of life. You´ve accepted the red-tape that accompanies life abroad, the cultural quirks, the oft-gloomy weather. You are truly cross-cultured.
Exceptions to the rules and special circumstances clearly exist. No one is suggesting that something as complex as your emotions can be ordered so succinctly. Yet culture shock to some degree will be a part of your life no matter what. Allow for adjustment time and be patient.
Still finding yourself in a funk? Regardless of your geographic locale, reevaluating your behavior is key (in the immortal words of Mom, drink less, quit smoking, exercise more and eat your leafy greens). With sensitivity and an open mind you´ll eventually find your way.
Special thanks to: Cathy Tsang-Feign, MA, MFT, author of Keeping Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad; Dr. Tomáš Rektor and Dr. Joseph Dodds of Terapie.Info, s.r.o., a Prague-based private practice specializing in psychiatry, psychotherapy and counseling. For more information visit www.terapie.info.