Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Wonder Years, Part 4: Dealing with Culture Shock

As much as I love Egypt, I must admit that it may not leave the best of first impressions. Traffic is insane with cars weaving in and out beeping their horns incessantly like they're in some PlayStation game gone wrong.

The air is thick with pollution and dust. In fact, everything seems to be a permanent dull beige in color.

It's hot. And the sun just doesn't ever seem to stop shining. By midday, you're praying for just a small tree somewhere to lend you some shade. Or at least for that building's shadow to move just a little bit to give you a break.

It can all be a little too much to bear.

All in all, if some pharaoh hadn't thought so much of himself to build himself a huge monument of stone that's lasted for centuries... Well, perhaps we wouldn't be so enamored with the thought of making the long trek here.

That's the Pyramids, by the way, in case you were wondering.

But in all seriousness, it's important to highlight the difficulties alongside the good things. I mean, we ARE trying to paint a real, authentic picture of Egypt here on Egypt Ramblings, now aren't we?

So what is culture shock anyways? I like Wikipedia's take on culture shock, in case you've never experienced it for yourself. The only thing I would add is that culture shock comes in cycles. It's not all cut-and-dried, the first few weeks in the Honeymoon phase, the next few months in the Negotiation phase, etc.

The fact of the matter is that while the phases might come in this order the first time around, well - if you're in Egypt long enough - you're bound to go through them again.

And again.

And again.

Unfortunately I didn't last very long in my initial Honeymoon phase the first time around. It might have even lasted days. It may have been the fact that I arrived on Friday and started language school across town bright and early on Monday morning.

Getting to language school was no easy task. First, it didn't help that I had to wake up earlier than I'd gotten up in years (as in Northern Kentucky University, freshman year, 2nd semester - when I foolishly signed up for a 5-day-a-week 8:00 AM Calc 2 class). Secondly, the 10-minute taxi ride to the Metro station took 20-30 minutes at that time in the morning (yeah, I know, since when do people actually STOP for the traffic lights in Cairo?) Then it was just a small matter of braving the morning rush to work by squeezing onto the ladies car on the Metro.

Forty-five minutes later we'd peel ourselves from the glass to step out onto the platform and breathe fresh air (that did not include the stink of some polyester-clad lady's sweaty armpits).

Only to find that we were 15 minutes late for the opening remarks by the language school principal... who promptly scolded us in front of the entire school for being late.

I think the girls had to hold me back from scratching his eyes out.

Yep, I definitely hit culture shock pretty fast.

My way of dealing with culture shock back in the old days was mostly withdrawal. I was perfectly happy hanging out at home. My roomie and I became experts at McDonald's delivery and late-night movie marathons. She also happened to be a Law & Order junkie so I got my fill of *dun-dun* pretty quick.

Sure, I'd get out and walk around the neighborhood. I'd buy fresh bread from the bakery around the corner. I'd go hang out with some of the girls from time to time. I enjoyed hearing their stories about all their exciting escapades through out the city and marvel at how brave they were.

But I was not about to go out and experience it for myself.

I was what you might call a "late bloomer" in Egypt.

It took me a while to get used to being here. I was too afraid of making mistakes to try very hard. Life for me in Cairo was more about just treading water than actually going out for a swim. I was just trying to make it from day to day.

It didn't help that I felt like a fish out of water here. Too many things had changed for me in too little time. I was paralyzed from the shock of it all.

Here are a few things that had changed for me:

My clothes. I'd been a t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes girl all my life. And here I was in Egypt wearing dresses and skirts. Whose idea was this anyways? It was downright uncomfortable. I didn't know how to cross my legs properly. I didn't have the right shoes. And somehow I lived in constant fear that some crazy Egyptian guy was gonna come up behind me and flip my skirt up.

The attention in the street. Let's just say that in America, I was invisible. I was never the kind of girl that turned heads. And I was okay with that. But suddenly everywhere I went in Cairo, men were looking at me. And when I mean looking, I mean LOOKING. It unnerved me. And they said things to me. I didn't understand the words but I didn't need a translator to know that I didn't want to know what they were saying.

Living in a big city. I had never lived in a city even remotely close to the size of Cairo. So dealing with the Cairo crowds and having to take public transportation everywhere was overwhelming. I couldn't believe how many ladies could fit into a single Metro car, especially when schools started... and then Ramadan came.

Being unable to communicate. I was a Speech Communication major for cryin' out loud. Words were my life! And suddenly 2-year-olds could communicate better than I could. I felt like an idiot.

Not having any friends. I struggled to connect with people. I had a great roommate and had class with some great girls at language school. But that was more like "friends by force" than true friendship. They were basically stuck with me. The good news is that I became great friends with them later, but it was rough starting out.

Sometimes I think about the Erin back then and I want to go back and shake her. I wish I could tell her to JUST. DO. SOMETHING! Stop being so afraid. Stop waiting for the world to stop and take notice of you. Stop comparing yourself to others. Stop trying so hard to keep from failing that you fail from doing NOTHING!

I still struggle with culture shock in Egypt at times. I do love this country, I really do. But there are times, days, weeks, even where I have just had it up to here. I don't want another guy looking at me that way. I'm tired of trying to think in Arabic. I get lonely. I miss home. And if I have to explain one more taxi driver this week why I don't want to put my son's stroller on top of their car...

Hey, I'm only human.

But I've gotten better at reading the signs of culture shock for me. It still creeps up on me occasionally, but I recognize the feeling a lot quicker than I used to. I know when it's probably better that I sit at home and watch reruns of Glee or NCIS than go out. That maybe today my son and I should just take a stroll down the street to our favorite local coffee shop rather than braving the traffic to go somewhere more exciting. That when he's taking a nap maybe I should too.

And if I have a cold... well, just forget about getting out of the house. Because I am not a very nice person in any language when I can't breathe right.

I think we all have days like that.

What is my advice to anyone experiencing culture shock? Answer these questions.
  1. Have you lived in a big city before? Not everything we small-town folk have to deal with is culture shock... sometimes it's just big city shock. The crowds, the traffic, the buildings everywhere, the noise. Maybe your problem is that you just need some quieter, less-polluted air to breathe (so skip down to #8).
  2. Do you have a support system where you are? Not everyone comes to Egypt with all the details worked out. Maybe you're having trouble because you don't know how to do basic everyday things... and you have no one to ask for advice. If so, find a community. This might be a gym, a church, a expat group, you name it, whatever works to get you the help you need. Don't be afraid to ask for help. I'm not saying everyone has the resources to help, but we've all been there so maybe they can point you in the right direction.
  3. Do you have friends, as in people you'd actually CHOOSE to hang out with? This is hard because as expats we're often surrounded by people and feel all alone in the meantime. If you're anything like me, you don't like to put yourself out there. But I think we probably all feel that way. Give it time. Find small things in common with people and build on that. Friendships don't happen overnight (and if they do, you are extremely blessed.)
  4. Do you have a regular schedule? I'm not saying pack your schedule full of meaningless errands. But seriously, having something to get up for every morning will take your mind off of what you're struggling with and back onto what you have to get done for the day. Just be careful not to overdo it (and don't let anyone else make you overdo it too).
  5. Do you have frequent contact with family back home? Trust me, it is cheap and easy to keep in touch with people back home. Try using Skype which lets you call computer-to-computer for free (or you can use Skype Out which lets you call computer-to-phone for set fees). Just do yourself a favor and limit yourself to once a week. Too much contact can make it more difficult to be here. 
  6. Are you doing okay with language learning? I know this isn't a simple question but it's an important one. If you've been here 3 months and aren't making any headway with the language maybe you need to change your tactics. If you're in a school, switch to using a one-on-one tutor. If you're using a tutor, enroll in a school. This might shake things up a bit to let you get back into the groove of language learning.
  7. Are you trying to do too much? Maybe you just have too much on your plate. I've seen a lot of volunteers get worn out here in Cairo because there's so much that needs to get done and there's no one else to do it. You're only one person. You'll last longer here if you focus your energy on just a couple of things rather than stretching yourself too thin across more responsibilities.
  8. Have you been out of Cairo? Get out of the city for a few days. This might mean going to the Red Sea or the North Coast, or even just taking the train to Alex for the day. 
  9. Have you taken some time out for you? One time me and the girls went to a spa somewhere in Zamalek and it was a nice change. Other friends of mine went for day-use at a 5-star hotel near the Pyramids where they swam and just enjoyed the sun for the day.
Don't forget to check out the rest of this series:

The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more about her adventures in Egypt the first time around.


  1. Hi Erin,

    I'm a female Australian journalist and have been based in the Mideast for approximately nine years. Two and a half of those years were spent in Cairo and in Maadi for part of the time. I also lived in Beirut, Amman and Dubai but have spent most of my time in the occupied Palestinian Territories and am currently based in Ramallah.

    I can so relate to what you are saying about the culture shock and have to say that after nine years in the region there are new cultural issues that I'm now beginning to realise I can't abide in the long term. I had originally planned to stay here for many years but am now resigned to the fact I won't live here forever as there are too many issues I find difficult. And I actually found the Palestinians a lot easier to deal with than the Egyptians.

    So I admire you for deciding you can stick it out in Egypt forever.

  2. Hi there. Well, I am just impressed that you survived that long in the Middle East! I think that's admirable in itself, whether you choose to continue to stay here or not.

  3. I really like your site.I have a good friend here in L.A. from Egypt so I was checking out websites.

    This reminds me of the culture shock I experienced during a trip to India. You didn't mention the children. Do you have a changed view of the street children now that you are a mother?

    Wishing you the best,


  4. Hi Erin
    I'm an Australian woman, married to an Egyptian man, who is preparing for the Big Move to Cairo in a month or so. I have been trawling expat blogs, trying to inform and prepare myself, and yours is the most endearing I've come across, and I am just delighted to have discovered your blog :)

    I'm sorry to hear you're doing without your husband right now. I had to return to Australia and leave mine in Belfast for a very extended period of time, so I feel your pain, and hope you're going along okay with it all.

    I will be combing your blog over the next few days/weeks, trying to get a sense of what lies in store for us. Hubby hasn't been home in many years, so some adjustment will be required of us both!

    Best wishes,


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