How long does the culture shock?

Boys football

I seem to have lost my voice. I think it is due to the reality of our second year, our new living arrangements, and compounded by an absence of the thrill of the new.

Not long after we had first arrived in Ghana, while riding the highs and lows of all that was new and different and exotic, I came across a graph much like this one. Now, stay with me, as geek that I am it gave me great comfort.

The Process of Culture Shock and Cultural Adjustment

 As much as no-one likes to be typecast, this graph matched my experience very clearly. The initial thrill of the new, followed by frustrations and setbacks, culminating in an acceptance of the new life. But unlike other smoothly elegant U shaped graphs, I like the reality of the sharp bumps along the way, as satisfaction bottoms out and starts to rise again. Though on bad days I wonder if the sense of satisfaction in the adaption phase (4) will ever reach such dizzying heights.

The honeymoon phase (1) is indeed like being in love, where everything is new, exotic and exciting. But it is followed by a profund sense of dislocation. All that was rich, or simple or easy about the old life, can be gone, No more playdates, support networks, where the hell are the local shops, why doesn’t it work, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen at home…the level of negativitity can be confronting.

While the inital bottoming out (2) was at times shockingly deep, it is the cultural adjustment phase (3) which has been a complicated affair. In the writing of this blog, and in life in general, I try to stay pretty positive, interested and engaged. I still love watching the life on the streets, and people are, by and large, very friendly. Ghana is a stable and safe society.

Engine shopping

Engine shopping

But there are times, when all those little things, that make for a great story when traveling, become a tiresome slog. The attitude towards inconvenience changes when you are faced with it daily, when you are not a traveler, but a foreigner. The negative experience at the store (where Ghana does not love to shop, you know who you are). The constant low level stress when facing that traffic everyday. Being called obruni on a daily basis. [I bite my tongue, when all I want to say is “Yes, you’re right, I am white. Congratulations on you observation skills”]. And plenty of other inconveniences, frustrations, breakages which seem too petty to write about.

And before you are too horrified by me, I am aware of the profound hypocrisy of a ‘rich’ white woman, moaning about her bubble-like existence, in a country she volunteered to move to.

The result of this daily tedium, is that there is a tendency to retreat into your home, to stay inside the bubble. I put things off and miss out on some experiences. Call it self-preservation.

Australia Day, Konongo style

Australia Day, Konongo style

I have had the great experience of meeting some wonderful women since we have moved into Kumasi. Some of which have lived in Ghana for the majority of their adult lives. And every one of them I have spoken to, whether long term expatriates married to a Ghanaian; long term expatriates married to another foreigner, who also call Ghana home; through to the shorter term, more typical expatriates (like ourselves) all admit to retreating into their own bubble. From admitting they spend a lot of time in their garden, to complaining there is no exciting food in the house because they don’t feel up to facing the traffic and the shops, so have a cup of tea for lunch instead (guilty as charged!)

And these challenges, particularly in regional centres, away from capitals (where expats tend to congregate) are often compounded by a profound sense of isolation, when all the usual support networks are gone (and being simultaneously missed). Concerns about healthcare and children adapting; and a spouse that is typically working very long hours. After all, that is commonly why we are here.

And so why would you do it? The reasons are as multifarious as the people you meet in this situation. There are the big reasons people move: for love and family; for work and financial reasons; to expose themselves and their families to a different culture and a different vision to how the world works.

Jock at International Day Celebrations

Jock at International Day Celebrations

And then there are the spinoffs, which are sometimes just what you expected, and range from big to small. Being able to be together as a family to avoid avoiding grueling single parenting schedules. I have spoken to women here who saw their husbands 4 times a year while they were raising children in their home countries. Smaller, although welcome spinoffs, include the chance of some help in the home. Or as we have embraced, the ability to travel. Or the excitement of seeing a different way of life, that can be colourful and exotic.

One of the nicest spinoffs of this life, particularly since the move to Kumasi, has been the variety of people we have met. Everyone has their own story to tell. Their own reasons and their own experiences.

I, and I think most women, find the need to share, support and just talk to each other very important. One of the hardest things in settling in was losing my support network of great women.

Fittingly, a chance meeting on International Women’s Day this year, brought together several expat women in Kumasi. And something as simple and profound as a group of women chatting together has made everything seem much more ‘normal’. And indeed, has helped smooth those bumps on the graph into something a little more elegant.

Bushwalking over the Easter weekend

Bushwalking over the Easter weekend

I hope everyone had a great long Easter weekend. We’re on school break for a few weeks, with some very exciting plans!

14 responses to “How long does the culture shock?

  1. One great spinoffs about you and your family living in Ghanna is the entertaining and exciting blogs I get to read, while you fill us in on all the ups and downs on your time there. Life will be quite hum-drum when you get back home.


  2. Hi Chrissy, I think the bubble has intensified your story telling, which is both is sincere and telling. Love the photos to help visualise the colour and chaos, that one of Jock is divine
    Gracie is very excited about your upcoming visit (so am I) and wondering if you know any dates yet?
    My goss…
    Kiah is having a baby in July so I may be in melb for a bit, unless she moves up for the year-I can only hope.
    Lucy is settling into HSPA-seems like a pretty good school
    Grace is in at St Phillips and has sat Grammar and Merewether tests
    I am working full time and studying so am in a bit of a mind spin, but good otherwise
    Ade is flat out as usual trying to circumvent cuts to the health service- god help D&A if we end up with a double liberal affair.
    Hugs and kisses to you all
    Maryanne xxxx


  3. Moving from France to Scotland and then to Canada I experienced what you have described. And the culture shock was only minor compared to what you are living. I can understand how being confronted to a world so different to the one you grew up in you find it easier to retreat to your garden.
    It’s great though that you were able to find people in similar situation. It helps to find strength in numbers and others.
    All the best


  4. And it is that very point where you find, discover and begin to nurture a spirit within you…..either the spirit that became dormant, shelved away or never allowed a path. Rarely once we start doing what we do in life can we capture or find that space. And for those that do..they write great books or films to share with the less adventurous. Because we are all in the familiar. It could be the familiar job, the familiar daily thing that we settle into everyday. That bubble you think you retreat into is the OPPORTUNITY to be mentally free and aware that you are not having your head stuffed with familiarity, sameness or flipping the TV that has what? 60, 80 or over a hundred television choices and deciding what to see by the process of elimination…and most of the time you end up watching something you have seen already. (new coffee shop, different shopping store) you get my drift.

    Chrissy, my friend…….you are an adventurer either by design, fault, chance or some cool mistake and i cannot imagine you ever working on the assembly line at the Ford motor plant, delivering the daily mail or ever getting back to Australia and getting into a routine.

    You, your family, your lives and your accumulated internet friends (me included) are FOREVER changed.

    Relish in it….trust me.


    • Hi Don, Thanks for your lovely comment. I love the idea of being an adventurer by some cool mistake, it just seems to sum up how we lurch about. But your comment was very flattering, and again confirmed what is easy to forget in the day to day tedium sometimes; that this is an amazing adventure we have landed ourselves in. And to remember, no matter how long we stay away, these particular sensations won’t last forever, as we, and our responses to our environment, are always evolving and changing. Take care, Chrissie


  5. Hi Chris,

    One of the PhD students in my Department been doing research on aid workers in PNG. He records a very similar story of hiding in the bubble sometimes, in order to recharge batteries to keep going in what they have chosen to do. It is a more general feature of life for international aid workers apparently. And while the Aid workers know it is a common experience and response, that doesn’t make life easier to cope with on a daily basis.

    Have a great time with the gondolas.

    Cheers, Kathy


  6. You’ve captured the ‘stages’ of expat life brilliantly. In fact I’m going to share this with all my expat friends, it’s always a comfort to know you’re not the only one on an expat rollercoaster ride. The graph makes a lot of sense. It takes a fair bit of strength and good attitude to reach the ‘adjustment’ stage. Great post!


    • Thanks so much for sharing. And I feel the same way, is been great to hear of others feeling the same way. It’s not just me feeling like I’m going mad!! I just hope I can maintain the good attitude to get a little higher in the adjustment phase!


  7. I feel like I could have written this myself Chris – every single sentence.

    This time around the pendulum isn’t swinging as far but it’s certainly there and I have occasionally lost my voice but funny enough, because life is just so ‘normal’ now. Who would of thought? While I don’t miss the inconsistencies of daily life, I do miss that community of women you talk of – there’s nothing like a little adversity to bring people together.

    Hope you had a Happy Easter – looking forward to hearing of your exciting plans!


    • Lovely to hear from you Jay. It’s interesting you talk about the pendulum not swinging as far this time. I guess you’ve moved to a country not as challenging as Gabon (not that I would say learning Norwegian is anything but challenging), but I can imagine that life is a little more normal for you. An old friend of mine moved to Germany 5 years ago, and she wrote a great blog, but felt, once things regained a sense of normality that she had nothing interesting to say (I disagreed!). And I couldn’t agree more about a sense of adversity bringing people together. Sharing difficulty is a great bond! C


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