Starting Out

Learn about what to expect, what’s normal, and how to manage when you start a new life in a new country.

When you move to a new country, and especially if you are immigrating to that country – starting a new life and making a break from your own home country – then change is a reality and it happens quickly. Even if you are well prepared, you will experience some culture shock.  At the same time, if you expect and prepare for culture shock it will be easier to recognize and handle.

What is culture shock?

People with culture shock feel anxious when they lose familiar signs and symbols, for example… when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. In our own cultures, we grow up with these signs and don’t think about them. In a new culture, the social signals are different so often we can be unsure how to respond to a particular situation.

Culture shock has six main elements:

  • stress from learning about what to do in a new culture
  • feeling lonely, feeling that you have lost your career and position in society, and missing all the comforts of home
  • feeling that you may not be accepted by people from the new culture
  • confusion about what people expect you to do, and about your own expectations, feelings and identity
  • being afraid of making cultural mistakes and also afraid of judging the new culture
  • a feeling of not being able to manage

Symptoms of culture shock can vary from simple anger to serious depression or even thoughts of suicide. A change in diet and weather, stress, or general anxiety can also result in physical symptoms like hair loss, sleep problems, weight gain/loss, headaches, and other illnesses. Anger and depression are common emotional responses when a person is having difficulties adjusting.

The phases of culture shock

There are several stages of adaptation to foreign cultures, and understanding them will help you deal with the feelings you experience as you adapt to life in Canada and Whistler. Most simply, there are four distinct phases, so be prepared by knowing how to identify them.

Initial Euphoria

Also known as the honeymoon period, this is when you see your new surroundings as a tourist would. You are excited at finally being in Canada. The scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly and you are happy to try some new and different foods. Everything is new, curious and interesting. Life is full of exciting possibilities and surprises.

Culture shock

Characterized by irritability and hostility, after a few weeks to a few months newcomers are immersed in survival issues such as housing, transportation, and learning a new language. There is often a loss of prestige; many newcomers are professionals and were capable providers for their families in their home country, but the only work they can find in Canada may be low paid and low skilled. The stress of this stage may manifest feelings such as anger, apathy, and hopelessness, which can lead to depression and other physical symptoms such as weight gain/loss, insomnia, tiredness, and headaches.

Initial Adjustment

By this stage a normal routine has developed. Everyday activities such as housing and shopping are no longer major challenges. English skills are good enough to communicate basic ideas and feelings. Gradually, newcomers begin to accept their new home and make friendships; they discover there are good things about their community.

Mental Isolation

Newcomers have been away from family and friends in their home country for a long time, and may feel lonely and homesick. If they haven’t gained mastery of English, they might experience continued frustration at not being able to participate fully in many aspects of society. They may also feel frustrated with unsatisfying jobs, and lack the confidence to and question whether they will ever reach the social and economic level they were at in their own homeland.

Acceptance and Integration

This is the period in which learners and their families realize they are in the new community to stay. The newcomer has accepted the habits, customs, foods, and norms of Canadian culture. Learners probably have enough English to feel comfortable interacting with native speakers, and they are able to participate more fully in Canadian society. They may also have developed a sense of belonging through ongoing acts of welcome by their new community.

Remember, though, that culture shock and this process of adaptation and integration is not straightforward. There is no clear length of time it takes to adapt and integrate. Be prepared to move between stages for a long time. Even once you are feeling more comfortable and in control, you can come across another situation which causes the stress of adaptation and acceptance of a new situation to come back. At those points, you may want to go back into your own cultural environment, relying on those who speak the same language and come from the same home country; and the process of acceptance and integration starts all over again. Don’t worry if this happens – it is normal – and you will get better at coping with it.

How to manage culture shock

  • Don’t let culture shock take you by surprise. Allow time to find out about it before and expect it to happen. Accept that it’s normal to have these feelings, however much you really want to move to Canada. It’s different and there will be things you don’t fully understand or that you find difficult to adapt to.
  • As soon as you arrive, identify all the opportunities for building support networks. Are you interested in sports? Then find a club or group you can join. Do you have children? Find out where parents and children can meet and socialize.  If you’re going to work, then that helps, but mothers left at home with children may find it much harder to get out and meet people. Learn the language so you can participate as much as possible, understand what is going on around you and be able to improve your work prospects. Joining the local ESL settlement groups and visiting the local Welcome Centre will also help you meet other newcomers and immigrants who are experiencing the same things as you.
  • Fight culture shock – don’t give in to it. Build a new routine as soon as you can rather than stay home and isolated. Take a walk each day, visit the gym, go swimming, or go to the store. Try to talk to someone new each day – maybe just someone in a store – but this will help you feel less isolated. At the same time, ask others around you how they felt and for their advice. You will see that you are not alone and everyone feels the same way at some point.
  • Give yourself time to adapt and don’t rush into too many projects at the start. It’s OK to take time to make decisions. Learn about your new community, new culture and norms. Find out about groups run by the Settlement Assistance Program which cover Canadian culture, society and current affairs to help you understand your new environment and start participating more widely.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if symptoms persist.
  • Think about the positive aspects of culture shock – people who experience it adapt better to their new environment than those who do not.
  • Don’t lose your sense of humour.
  • Participate – Seek support – Appreciate cultural differences (Settlement – Outreach)
  • Learn about Canada and British Columbia:

WelcomeBC Newcomers’ Guide – Chapters 11, 12 and 13 talk about Community and Culture, Environment and British Columbia.

Welcome to Canada guidebook  – Chapter 2 gives a brief overview of Canada.