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Migrating to the US and Culture Shock

By Francis Wade
I don’t know of any statistics that measure the success of Jamaicans, or Caribbean people in their migration to other countries, but I do know that there are some who leave for America and end up no better off.

There are critical differences between working in Jamaica, versus America, and many Jamaicans find themselves dealing with culture shock as they adapt to life in the US. Fortunately, there has been a great deal of research done on this topic that a professional can learn from in their own attempt to successfully settle in a different country. In particular, the book “Breaking Through Culture Shock” by Elisabeth Marx, is a useful one for distinguishing the phases that a person goes through when they settle in another culture.

As a university student in the US, I distinctly recall moving through these phases.

Phase 1 – Honeymoon
At first, the new émigré finds all encounters in the new place to be exciting, positive and stimulating. The new life is viewed as full of endless opportunities for advancement, especially in material terms. The émigré is open and curious, and ready to accept whatever might come.

There is very little negative judgment as even minor irritations are suppressed in favor of the nice things that are happening at the same time.

This phase is one I remember fondly – everything on the campus worked efficiently, and there appeared to be an abundance of resources and interesting people in every direction. This was a big change from my days at Wolmers when we had to share chairs, desks and at times had to sit on the ground due to a lack of furniture.

Phase 2 – Culture Shock
In this phase the émigré realizes that something is not quite right. They start to realize that there are many things happening that they do not understand, and cannot predict. They may have their first experiences of being treated differently, and of not being fully accepted.

A level of stress may set in that may have physical symptoms. A negative view develops about the people, the values and differences related to race, class and ethnicity.

With a growing discomfort can even come a feeling of hating anything foreign, even things that were accepted without question a few months earlier.

The onset of culture shock can be a major turning point.

From this point on, the professional’s response defines how well they will adapt to the new culture.

Some will use the discomfort as an indicator that they need to learn something about themselves and their new environment. They take the opportunity to reflect on what they consider to be normal and acceptable, and whether or not their assumptions are reasonable.

Others, however, attempt to ignore the symptoms, and either pick up harmful, temporary solutions (such as taking drugs) or become increasingly rigid, refusing to question their mindset, values or methods.

I recall seeing Blacks and White living separately, eating apart and generally being surprised at how significant race was in the daily conversation of African Americans. Although I knew that I was a Black person, I came to realize that it had a very different significance – one that I never knew existed. I also learned very quickly that as a Black man, I was seen as threatening by women of all backgrounds.

Phase 3 – Recovery
Only those émigrés who appreciate that they need to change enter the recovery phase. They realize that something has to give, and that trying to “fix” their new environment is a futile effort (although some try to do so.) They question their own expectations of the new environment and start to adjust to them.

Over time I realized that I could not expect to fully understand the culture of the U.S., and just needed to adapt myself to it in order to succeed. My own intention was always to return to live in Jamaica, and this kept me believing that my time there was temporary.

Phase 4 – Adjustment

In this final phase the émigré is fully flexible, and is quite self-reflective. They use the incidents happening around them to grow, expand and learn, and are open to becoming different people by virtue of the new environment they find themselves in.

Even as I have returned to Jamaica, I still keep important ties to the U.S. that I think are important to live and work here in the Caribbean. Among the things I brought back were a certain open-mindedness, a North American work ethic and an exposure to new technologies that I incorporate in my business on a daily basis.

Some Jamaicans who migrate also experience a form of culture shock in which they come to distance themselves from anything related to their former home. They lose their accents, change their tastes and rarely visit home, very quickly becoming Americans in the full sense of the word.

A young professional thinking about moving abroad should appreciate that culture shock is almost never mentioned by Jamaicans who have migrated, yet it visits many, and that they can prepare themselves for a move abroad by knowing the different stages that they are likely to go through.

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The author is the owner of Framework Consulting, a firm specializing in conducting high stake interventions for Caribbean companies, and the author of FirstCuts monthly e-zine.

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