Reactions to and Outcomes of Culture Shock

Culture shock, when you arrive in an unfamiliar country and your senses are hit with sights, people, minds, ideas and ways of life that are different from everything you’ve ever known. The mind has spent decades creating schemas of how to see the world, and now all of a sudden many of those schemas don’t apply anymore. This can cause feelings of discomfort, unhappiness and anger for many.

People deal with culture shock in different ways. Most eventually use it as an opportunity to become a more open-minded individual; they acknowledge, accept and experience the idea that there are hundreds of different ways to live a life in the world.

Some people’s psyches aren’t able to adapt and accept different ways of seeing the world, and so their minds calcify; they cling to the culture, ideas and way of life of their home society.

Some, whether consciously or unconsciously, use culture shock as an opportunity to completely unshackle (unhinge) their minds from the social rules, constructs and schemas that they felt constrained by in their origin country.

Different expats deal with culture shock in different ways. Therefore, once the dust of culture shock settles, expats will end up with differing levels of psychological attachment to the schemas, ideas and way of life of their home society. Past experiences, personality types, upbringing and people (other expats and locals) they are exposed to will also influence this level of attachment.

The following is a 1-5 spectrum of types of expats based on their levels of psychological attachment to Western society:

1) Expatronizers | Complete Psychological Attachment to Western Society

Not only do these expats genuinely believe that every aspect of Western culture is superior to all other cultures, but they seem to believe that it is their God-given mission to come and spread their “correct” culture and way of life to the place where they are living.

Expats may behave like this because they never properly psychologically completed the process of culture shock, never reached a point of acceptance. Their minds have become closed and inadaptable, like blocks of concrete getting torn asunder by another annual record-setting hurricane. Their inelastic minds have been made unable to open up to the idea that there are other ways to live a life in this world.

Furthermore, the origin of this behavior can stem from simply needing to feel like they have a purpose or hobby; if you took away their right to be a condescending all-knowing expat then they wouldn’t have anything left to give them an identity or occupy their mind.

Other Expatronizers may be this way because they are afraid to be alone in a foreign country and are desperate to make other expat friends, realizing that adopting an “us and them” mentality is a classic way to make fast friends.

Finally, many act this way due to economic reasons. They have business interests in the country; one way or another they would make more money if the locals (and other expats) all thought, behaved and consumed just like good little Westerners.

Expatronizers tend to clump together like tetanus-causing bacteria on rusty rebar twisting out of a destroyed cement building. They build off of each other’s toxicity and sometimes go so far as to amalgamate into a “culture” of Expatronizers with the unstated mission of attempting to passive-aggressively “civilize” everything around them; to try and make Western thinking and behavior the norm.

Highly active in social media groups, they will promote and encourage people (informal positive social sanctions) who say or do something that a typical Western person would say or do, as well as insult, belittle or try to undermine (informal negative social sanctions) people who say or do things in a way that a well-adjusted Western person wouldn’t.

Expatronizers generally don’t have any control over formal social sanctions of the country that they are living in (to their extreme frustration), so they tend to go all out with using informal social sanctions to try and influence people to act in a Western way.

Some people may arrive in a novel country with the seeds of an Expatronizer attitude already propagating their synapses; as the months and years go by this attitude can solidify and become less and less resistant to change.

These are the expats who have been in the country for years but can’t speak more than 10 words of the local language, who couldn’t tell you (or care less about) 3 different local dishes.

Often using wealth as a measure of the value of a person or society, they feel like they have “bought” the right to their xenophobic, neo-colonial attitudes.

Static and inflexible, they feel uncomfortable in an environment that is not Western, and when they aren’t at home monitoring and attempting to influence social media channels, they will usually be in a Western-owned, Western-style restaurant or bar.

As the economy of a country improves the prevalence of Expatronizer-esque behavior will decrease. Recent changes involving Facebook (including cracking down on anonymous profiles) have also reduced the likelihood of people becoming, or continuing to be, Expatronizers.

On the flip side, they are usually putting money into the economy, and although they are usually way too forceful and dickish about it, it’s not always a bad thing to try and mix a moderate and consensual amount of your own culture, ideas and way of life into the mosaic of the society where you are living.

2) Bubblepats

Like Expatronizers, Bubblepats are usually found in expat districts and probably haven’t been outside of them in like 8 months. However, whereas Expatronizers make a conscious effort to belittle and chip away at local society, Bubblepats are generally just pretty ambivalent about it.

They’ve gotten quite comfortable in their expat neighborhood with their favorite expat restaurants and expat bars. They can chill, go to the pub, and live a laid-back hedonistic lifestyle that they couldn’t afford to do back home. It’s not that they are necessarily opposed to local food or to local culture, but they’d just rather go for that familiar $15 chicken caesar salad that they know is delicious, rather than taking the adventurous and potentially erroneous route of trying an unfamiliar $2 local dish at a local-style restaurant or street stand.

Passport-diggers absolutely love Bubblepats, jackpot; they’ll try to absorb as much Western culture as possible. They can see that the Bubblepat hasn’t made much of an effort to integrate with local society and will most likely be returning to their home country at some point. They’ll try to get in there like a bur stuck to a cow’s leg.

You can usually find Bubblepats sitting inside places that if you looked at the people, prices and decor inside, you wouldn’t even be able to tell that you’re in a foreign country.

They might’ve been to an all-inclusive resort or 2 before and were probably in a group travel tour at some point.

The people they talk to are most likely all Westerners that aren’t much different from the typical person in their home country. They might often take big white group photos together posting about how they’ve met such amazing, interesting people in their travels to show people back home how open-minded, adventurous and unique they are. To avoid idle minds, they often have a tendency to clique up and pass the time by making like their life is an episode of a teen sitcom, gossiping about each other and other expats in their circle while they sip their overpriced drinks.

It makes them feel secure. Psychological safety in numbers; in their bubble they’re safe even as a cyclone reshapes the world outside.

Some expats become Bubblepats because they were previously in a situation where they were legitimately in objective danger at some point. Understandable.

Bubblepats are alright though, you can’t really blame them for anything. They’re enjoying their lives and not hurting anybody physically, mentally, socially or culturally. Usually friendly people; they’re just having fun without trying to detract from local culture or society.

I don’t really mind Bubblepats; I was a bit of one myself when I was fat. I just think they’d get a bit more out of life (and grow more as a person) if they switched it up a bit with environments and people. Mental and physical stagnation isn’t great, although it is comfortable. But who am I to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do.

Anyway.

3) Open-Mindedpats

If you don’t end up in a bubble, then studies have shown that people who travel and experience different cultures are humbler, happier, more open-minded, more creative, and more trusting, as well as demonstrate better problem-solving skills, than people who haven’t ever traveled. So, we meet the Open-Mindedpat.

The Open-Mindedpat is probably the most common type of expat. The majority of people begin with this attitude when they begin to live in a new country and are curious and excited, but also a little hesitant and skeptical. Viewing the new society with an interested, open, rational attitude, this type of expat may maintain this outlook for years or decades if the black hole of Expatronizers doesn’t pull them in or they don’t get trapped in a Bubble.

These expats are interested in learning about local culture, meeting local people, trying local food and seeing local attractions, but they’re also super down to shred that Burger King up the street every now and then. They might be working on communicating in the local language and are maybe learning a new word or two per day.

One night maybe they’ll go out drinking on the street local-style and will be more than happy to chat and joke with locals. But then maybe the next night they’ll kick back in an expat bar to watch their football team.

Typically, genuine and down-to-earth people, Open-Mindedpats will often be up for an adventure to try a new food spot or bar. Easy and adaptable, Open-Mindedpats are comfortable with a variety of different types of environments, people and situations, like flexible blades of the glass blowing in the wind, casually weathering the storm and absorbing the downpour as the world transforms around them.

They’ll openly share honest, helpful advice about the country that they’re in with newer expats. You’re able to have an original conversation with these Open-Mindedpats over a beer; a conversation that won’t deteriorate into gossip, pretentiousness or bigotry.

4) Gone-Nativepats

Gone-Nativepats have usually been in the country for a fucking while, like Expatronizers. However, quite unlike Expatronizers, these expats have fully embraced the local culture and customs. They are completely comfortable living in a local neighborhood and speak enough of the local language to go about running errands and living a normal life in a non-English speaking community with ease.

There’s a pretty good chance that they have a local partner or spouse. Although they may feel completely comfortable in a local environment without seeing another Westerner for days or weeks at a time, they will still every now and then go out to drinking at an expat bar to have an English conversation with other expats.

They know how to search for and find things in local society; so they pay a local price for accommodations, food and everything else. They know how to live well with a fraction of what Expatronizers and Bubblepats spend, but sometimes they’ll go drop some money at a Western-priced establishment.

They might not really care much about what happens in the Western world anymore; simultaneous Category 7 hurricanes spontaneously appearing across the globe could completely decimate Western civilization and they probably wouldn’t be too psychologically affected by it.

A lot of Gone-Nativepats have settled into a routine and a way of life that gives them a sense of contentment that they couldn’t have in a Western country; having a local partner often helps them quite a bit with that too.

However, it’s possible for a Gone-Nativepat’s thinking to become slightly maladaptive at times; as they may feel a form of reverse culture shock if they ever return to a Western country, or even simply from going to a Western area or establishment.

Too much time away from Western influences might even cause them to develop stubborn polarized thinking where they blame Western culture for everything bad in the world.

But let’s step back for a minute.


Traveling and Freeing the Mind

One of the great things about traveling is the ability to be free of the sociological and psychological restrictions that society puts on people. These restrictions (caused by jobs, friends and the media) can force people to have to be the same static, unchanging person every day. In their home country, individuals are often made to constantly play the same role while interacting with others; to deviate from that role is generally met with disapproval.

Traveling can be an excellent avenue for somebody to not only get to know the world but also get to know themself, who they truly are. You don’t have to be the same person every day; you can choose to be who you feel like being each day, each moment. You don’t have to force yourself to fit into the square peg slots.

When you travel, you are free to be who you want to be.

Ok, stay with me for a minute here.

Neural Pathways, Like Paths Through a Cornfield

So look at it like this. The brain is like a cornfield with paths through it. When similar types of mental stimulation happen repeatedly over time, your neurons along that pathway grow more dendrites. Picture dendrites like little bridges or paths that connect one neuron to another.

The paths of neuron connections in your brain can be compared to paths through a cornfield; it’s easier to take the same paths repeatedly than it is to go out of your comfort zone to create new paths.

So essentially, if your brain is always receiving the same types of stimuli (same people, same thoughts, same opinions same behaviors, same schemas etc), it’s going to take the same established paths while simultaneously strengthening those paths in the process. The brain then becomes trained to take the paths of least resistance and send electric impulses through the already “trampled down”/strengthened/”paved” paths rather than putting in the extra effort to create new paths.

The more that specific neural pathways are used, the stronger those pathways become and the more likely that they are to be used again in the future. Picture it like this, what begins as a small hiking trail meandering through a forest becomes a superhighway if your brain uses that same path repeatidly.

This is why depression and anxiety can be so difficult to get out of, you are trapped going around in circles in the same entrenched paths through the cornfield. It’s uncomfortable and takes conscious effort to form new paths. It requires mental energy to react to situations differently than the way that you have always done in the past.

The ease of using the well-established paths rather than putting effort into forging new ones may be why Expatronizers and Bubblepats people behave as they do; it’s easiest. It feels familiar and psychologically safe; they don’t have to deal with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance brought on by experiencing situations that they are not welladjusted to.

Straying off the Beaten Path

Conversely, forcing yourself into unfamiliar situations (as what often happens while traveling) will often obligate your brain to create new paths through the cornfield. Constant exposure to new situations can rewire the way that you react to things. It eventually can change the way that you view the world or even your very personality to a degree.

Creating new neural pathways is how we psychologically grow, learn new things and break out of maladaptive ruts such as depression, anxiety and stagnation.

This notion is very scary to some people. Whereas others may see this as an adventure and welcome the thought of becoming a more open, dynamic and adaptable person.

However, like almost everything in life, too much of a good thing can be destructive. It’s possible to wander too far.

A dark ominous path.
Quite far off the beaten path now.

Some may hit a point where they stray so far from the established paths in the cornfield, that they don’t ever want to be stuck on those paths again. So, they burn the whole cornfield down. They “free” themselves.

However, when the chains (schemas inherited from Western society) that held the mind together are completely unshackled and the mind is cast wide open without a tether to return safely with, it can unravel.

5) Feralpats | Complete Psychological Detachment from Western Society

Feralpats have completely rejected and deleted almost every concept, idea and cognitive structure that Western society had uploaded into them, and so thus are living without a framework to see the world through or a moral compass to guide them. Their sense of identity is unstable and they don’t believe in anything. They have completely distrusted and razed all of the paths in the cornfield and so they are lost, having destroyed all points of reference.

They’re out on the dark, wide, empty beach laughing in the face of the typhoon as colossal crashing waves collapse all of the internalized structures and schemas that they had felt constrained by all their life. The roaring wind drowns out the condescending inner dialogue that decades of growing up in Western society had coded into them. The chaos of it all clears their mind; it doesn’t remind them of anything and they feel content, free. For the moment.

This state is often contributed by, and contributes to, substance addiction of some sort. Feralpats may spend years apathetically stumbling around bars and seedy areas on a self-destructive odyssey to escape from a world that they now see as meaningless and insignificant. They are unable to make sense of the world because they have chosen to psychologically incinerate the cognitive foundation that living in Western society had created for them.

You might see Feralpats wandering around lost in a cloud, or blackout drunk in a dark bar with bags under their eyes lookin’ like the Grim Reaper. Perhaps the Hangover 2 phrase “Bangkok has him now” originated from the concept of lost Feralpats spending years barely conscious in dull LED-hued bars tucked away into the deepest corners of the never-sleeping city.

Not really healthy. Not really sustainable.


So Which Pat Has the Best Attitude?

How attached to Western society should an expat be? Well, a wise professor at my university once said, “Nothing in the world is black and white. Anybody who is 100% extreme in one direction is probably pretty stupid. Anybody who is 100% extreme in the other direction is probably pretty stupid too.”

I would argue that being on the far end of either side of the spectrum is not only unhealthy but also unfair to the people around you. Like almost everything in life, there are infinite degrees of gray, especially when it comes to the psychology of people.

Also, I’m going to argue with myself now and say that it’s impossible to classify the infinitely broad and diverse range of personalities that people have onto a simple 1-dimensional linear scale such as this, but it can serve as a representation to help conceptualize the idea.

What I’ve Learned from Observing Different Types of Expats

The ideas that I’ve taken away from observing these 5 types of expats are these:

From observing Expatronizers I’ve learned: Don’t try to force your ideas, values or way of life onto other people and never allow anyone to try to manipulate or coerce you into changing your own ideas, views or way of life.

From Bubblepats: Try new things that take you out of your comfort zone.

From Open-Mindedpats: Try to view the world with a reasonable, rational and open attitude. Appreciate new places, people and situations.

From Gone-Nativepats: Embrace a new culture and way of life if it makes you feel peace and contentment.

From: Feralpats: Even if you don’t like what you came from, don’t psychologically throw it away; it made you who you are and without it, your mind may not have the structure to hold you up (or contain you).

All together: Life is short, so get to know yourself. Your true self, not the self that society manufactured you to be. Don’t be too held back by the social norms of Western society and don’t let yourself become too attached to any one ideology or way of thinking. Overcome maladaptive psychological barriers caused by deeply entrenched Western schemas when necessary, but always make sure that you don’t go too far down the rabbit hole that you can’t get back out if you need to.

Peace,

James | MosaicWriting.com

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Thomas
Thomas
7 months ago

Hi James,
I really enjoyed your perspective on expats. Well thought out, and a wonderful depiction of the various personas one sees while abroad. I’ve seen them all here in Japan 😉
I’ve read a few of your posts, and I can relate in many ways to your work. I am also from Calgary, and have lived in Japan for 4 years now. Part time English teacher, part time blogger. Huge into crypto and weight lifting.
Anyway, keep up the good work!
Cheers!
-Thomas