News - September 27, 2012

Reverse Culture Shock

For many foreign students and PhD researchers, the bluntness of the Dutch is rather alarming at first. But in due course they find themselves becoming more and more assertive - and always in a hurry. This can lead to some interesting clashes when they go back home. 'It was terrible for me to hear that my best friend thought I had become arrogant.'
text: Stijn van Gils and Nicolette Meerstadt

Joke Marinissen hears a lot of stories like this: stories of foreign PhD students who return to their own countries to find themselves feeling like a fish out of water. She knows a Chinese woman who had to say goodbye to her partner after returning home with her PhD. She no longer fitted the bill as an ideal wife in  the Chinese culture. And one African even had to flee when he turned out to have been too outspoken in his criticism of the local dictator. He is now living in the United States.
The consequences are not usually quite as drastic as this of course, but Marinissen, who provides teacher training for PhD students, says this sort of reverse culture shock is a common phenomenon among foreign visitors. 'Back in their own countries they realize they have gone a little bit Dutch in ways that soon get noticed. It is hard for them to just fit right back in to the home scene.'
Culture shock is the alienated feeling you get when you first move to another country. Everyone who studies or lives abroad for a while will have experienced it to some degree. Culture shock goes through various stages, following a U curve. At first you are madly enthusiastic about your new environment and you see all the differences - in lifestyle, language, food, climate - in a romantic light. Sadly, this stage gives way to irritation about such matters as hygiene, manners and personal space. Then there is a stage of adaptation to the new environment until you finally find a balance between the two cultures. On returning to your own country you go through the same stages all over again. At least, that is the theory.
Blue jeans
'In reality it is more complex', says Rico Lie, who teaches intercultural communication at the university. 'Everyone goes through the stages at their own pace. What is more, it is not necessarily the case that you eventually find a good balance.' Because you are not expecting it, the second culture shock can be worse than the first. 'It can be especially difficult for students,' says Lie. 'They have been in a completely different country where they have also developed intellectually.'
Attitudes to power relations can also change for ever, in Joke Marinissen's view. 'Professors here walk around in jeans and can be addressed by anyone so authority here takes on very different forms from other countries. And then there is the difference between individual responsibility and a more group-based form of responsibility. The two elements form an interesting combination.'
Sometimes the feeling of alienation settles down, but sometimes the experiences are so intense that students cannot pick up the thread of their old lives any more,' says Rico Lie. 'In those cases they feel the need to go away again. This is how you end up with cosmopolitans, people who feel a little bit at home everywhere but really at home nowhere.'
‘She said I was arrogant'
Mohammed Armani
MSc students of Forest and Nature Conservation, from Ghana

'When I was doing my fieldwork in Ghana I met one of my best friends. She asked if I could help her get cash out of an ATM. Goodness, I thought, surely you can do that yourself? Then she got very cross and said I had become arrogant. That was very hard to take. I just don't understand it. Have you seen an ATM that is really hard to figure out? Why do you have so little self-confidence? When I arrived in the Netherlands myself I took the wrong train and ended up in Zwolle instead of Ede-Wageningen. Once I was in my room I made a point of finding out exactly how the public transport system works in the Netherlands and now I understand it. I see a lot of my Ghanaian fellow students still asking where they should go, and that is something I just don't understand. Why should a European be able to figure it out and an African not?
When I am in Ghana I can get very cross about people being late. I once had an official meeting somewhere in town at nine o'clock. And travelling doesn't work the way it does in the Netherlands, you know. No 9292, but hunting for a taxi on the street to take you to the bus, and then hoping the bus will be running. I had done my level best to be on time, and I got there at five to nine. Only to wait for the meeting to start, at least half an hour late. But well, these were people higher up in the hierarchy so you cannot say anything about it.
I would like to do a PhD in Europe but only about African ecosystems. I will never become a European. Here I have to think about every step I take, whereas it all comes naturally to me in Africa. And then deep down I love all that confusion and chaos. Deep in my heart I am still an African.'
'Everyone is always so positive'
Dian Suliantí
MSc student of Leisure, Tourism and Environment, from Indonesia

'At first I had to get used to Dutch directness. The first time I took a train in the Netherlands I had a lot of luggage with me. One man found that annoying and called me an idioot. I don't speak Dutch but I certainly understood what that meant.
Personally I try to be a bit more tactful than that, but when I was doing my fieldwork in Indonesia I noticed that I have changed a bit after all. I was driving around the area with a friend and I asked her if she was hungry. 'No no', she said. When I felt hungry myself a bit later, we went to get something to eat. It turned out she had been hungry for a while but she didn't like to say so. Since I came to Wageningen I take less notice of body language. Someone has to tell me what they want, whereas I used to be better at guessing. When I was working on my thesis it was a problem too. I did research on the Chinese communities in Indonesia. They are very reserved. Sometimes people totally clammed up when I asked direct questions.
My parents think I have become more individualistic too. But I am not wild about everything Dutch. I find Dutch women far too dominant, for example. At meetings they are always talking, with an air of 'here I am.' I think this is why many Dutch men choose a foreign wife.
I don't know whether I would like to stay on in Holland. It depends on the opportunities I get. I am pessimistic because my grades are not all that great. What I really envy the Dutch is their self-confidence. Everyone is always so positive. I should try to be so myself, really.'

'Actually I prefer directness'
Ehsan Kamalipour
MSc student of Horticulture Chains (VHL), from Iran

'When I was living at Dijkgraaf, my light wasn't working. My housemates told me I should write an email to Idealis. A simple email, to an official institute, saying you say that you want something done. That would be unthinkable in Iran. There you have to go to an office and nothing will be done until you have the necessary rubber stamps. Whereas here my light was repaired within a week. I thought that was marvelous.
But now I think, a week? They really took their time. So yes, I have definitely changed. If I see a fellow student doing something I consider odd, I just ask, what the hell are you doing? That is not customary in my culture, where it is strange enough just to say 'no'. If you don't want something you have to beat around the bush so that the other person ends up thinking, let's do it differently.
I keep in touch with my friends on Skype. They see the changes and have to get used to them. Someone asked me, for example, what the red light district in Amsterdam was. When I said women sell sex there, they were amazed and jealous. Not of what goes on there but of the way I described it. We usually talk in veiled terms of such things, using a lot of figures of speech. Actually I prefer directness. I stand by what I say, so why should I beat around the bush?
Whether I have really gone Dutch seems rather doubtful, considering I was in a class without a single Dutch person in it. But I have definitely become more international and I don't ever want to lose that feeling. I am going to graduate soon. I would love to be able to stay on in Europe and work here.'
'I started a discussion straightaway'
Caucasella Díaz
PhD researcher on Bio-Interactions and Plant Health, from Mexico  

'At first I saw my stay in Wageningen as one big adventure. But I missed my family very badly. Now I have been living in Holland for seven and a half years but I go home every Christmas. My parents gradually saw me changing. On the one hand I have become more tolerant of other opinions, but at the same time I have become less tolerant if I cannot express my own opinion.
The first time this struck other people was three years ago. A woman at a stall told us we were lucky we were so early. 'Because', she said, 'the longer I stand in the sun the higher the price goes. And tourists pay more anyway', she added nonchalantly. I thought that was dishonest and started a discussion straightaway. My friends were standing by looking like: what on earth are you up to now? Formerly I would never have got involved with something like this.
I notice it in emails too. I sometimes reply with: point 1, yes; point 2, no. No one expects that in Mexico. Not long ago I was only just in time with an email excusing myself. I look for consensus much more quickly than I used to, as well. If we want to go to the cinema in a group in Mexico, I am the one who talks us into going to the same film.
Back in Mexico I will miss Holland but I don't see myself living here all my life. I want to give something back to my country. I want to teach students that anything is possible and that you should look beyond your horizon. Dutch students don't really have to learn that lesson, but Mexicans do.'