Everyone experiences loss, in different ways and at different times. Each loss has a different meaning. I’d worked in Aurukun about a year and a half and decided I’d stay for another year and a half. I bought a Toyota landcruiser, rescued a camp dog puppy and was given a scrawny bedraggled looking black kitten, with a car and pets I was ready to settle for a bit longer in a place far from home. Fasi and I nursed our puppy named with the Samoan word for baby, Pepe, to health. We delighted in her antics, Fasi even let her sleep on him. When she was about six months old I went to Samoa for a few weeks to visit Fasi as he’d returned to care for his elderly mother, and arranged for a nurse who lived next door to care for her.

Apparently all went well until the day before I was due to fly back into the community, Pepe became unwell with gastro symptoms. I wasn’t contacted. I had only her to look forward to seeing when I returned, as Fasi had left Aurukun permanently. I kept imagining her joyful welcome during the long flights from Brisbane to Cairns to Aurukun.

As soon as I reached the gate to my yard in the semi-dark of a Cape York evening I knew there was something wrong. The manager of the clinic came across and told me she put Pepe to sleep herself that morning. She hadn’t bothered to phone me.

I walked away and up my steps and sunk to the floor once inside and sobbed. I phoned Fasi in Samoa to tell him and we both cried. It seemed such an unnecessarily cruel thing to do, normally the nurses do all they can to save each others dogs.

I lasted a few days and handed in my resignation, I couldn’t work with the attitude of that manager.

There isn’t just one side to a loss. I felt Pepe’s death keenly, especially the way she died and the thoughtlessness of a nurse from whom people would expect better. After a few days Fasi rightly pointed out that Pepe would have kept me in Aurukun had she lived, I couldn’t travel with a dog. So I reluctantly turned to the next stage in my remote area nursing journey and took up life as an agency nurse, travelling over the top end of Australia experiencing places and people I barely knew existed.

Thank you Pepe.

Reverse Culture Shock

I worked in Aurukun at the top of Cape York, Queensland on a five week contract before deciding to apply for a permanent job in the clinic. After I was interviewed and got the job I was flown home to South-East Queensland for 10 days to pack my things to be shipped back for the three-bedroom house I was to move into.

En-route I stayed overnight in Cairns. There were too many people at the airport, the shops and the motel foyer. There seemed to be more cars on the roads than when I was there five weeks previously. The colours were brighter, there was too much choice in the shops and everyone seemed to be talking loudly. I felt strange just walking around Cairns Central looking at the shops. I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong.

When I arrived home and met up with family and friends their questions sounded trivial to me, or their lack of questions widened a gap I felt was opening up between me and everything I’d considered normal before I left home.

I didn’t know it then but I was feeling the effects of reverse culture shock.

When a person returns home after being in another country or social environment it takes a whole other set of adjustments to when they first encountered the new setting. People assume because their friend or family member who’s been away, looks and sounds like the person they knew, that they still  belong to all they left behind. But often things have changed in their absence and they have experienced life outside their previous norms in the time since they left home. They can, in fact, be quite disorientated on return.

Being aware of reverse culture shock, being prepared to experience boredom, isolation, disorientation and annoyance on arrival home will help a person to readjust. It’s a good idea to keep in contact with new friends made from the host culture and to talk to people with whom you can relate. It’s also often helpful to use creativity to incorporate the new cultural experiences into one’s regular life by writing articles or creating a photo exhibition, or simply by bringing art or cultural items into one’s home as a reminder of the time away.

Asking yourself what you’ve learnt and how you’ve changed help you to be more aware and to adjust and for the time away to have a positive effect.

I have to admit though that while these ideas are helpful, coping with reverse culture shock takes a much longer time than you’d think and if a person moves between cultures fairly regularly it doesn’t seem to get any easier. In fact one often feels like an in-between person not quite belonging anywhere.

More Culture Shock

100_0269When that shop assistant told me to Google culture shock, I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember a thing I read, neither have I written anything about it in my journal. Thats a puzzle to me and unlike what I normally do. I read to figure things out and record my thoughts.

I probably read that the definition of culture shock is “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” It may be experienced due to immigration or a visit to a different country, a move between social environments or simply travel to another type of life.” But I don’t remember being helped by any words about it.

Culture shock is a type of transition shock. Its a predictable state of loss and disorientation caused by a change in a person’s familiar environment that requires adjustment. Completely understandable when you read back  a few years later from the comfort of the familiar place, but when, without warning you suddenly lose sense of yourself and the reality of the country you thought you knew, no written words will enlighten your rational mind.

It has degrees of severity, different effects and time spans but the most commonly experienced symptoms are as follows:-

  1. Sadness and loneliness
  2. Over concern about your health
  3. Headache, pains, allergies
  4. Anger, depression, vulnerability
  5. Idealizing your own culture
  6. Trying too hard to adapt by becoming obsessed with the new culture
  7. Feeling insecure and shy
  8. Homesickness
  9. Feeling lost and confused
  10. Clinging to everything familiar by the need to email/phone home
  11. Compulsive eating/drinking
  12. Irritability

In the first few months and beyond of arriving in Aurukun I experienced all of the above and it was only a stranger behind a shop counter who thought to tell me about it. There’s a lot of helpful information on the internet but being aware of, and prepared for, culture shock would be the most help. The problem is that it’s an overwhelming reaction that once you’re experiencing it is difficult to get perspective. I’ve just found an on-line cultural competency course from “Unite For Sight” a US charity organisation. It gives the following helpful advice to dealing with cultural shock:-

  1. Pursue information gathering
  2. Look for logic in your new surroundings
  3. Make sense of the environment
  4. Use wisdom and patience
  5. Use humour (A big help!)
  6. Have faith in yourself (what you’re feeling is normal!)
  7. Don’t pity yourself
  8. Stay mentally, physically and socially active
  9. Get enough rest
  10. Eat a balance diet
  11. Take reasonable risks (go exploring safely)
  12. Ask for help
  13. Use friends and family as emotional supports

Thinking about all this five years later I look back over my life and recognise a few times of transition when I’ve experienced a sense of dislocation, moving interstate with my family as a teenager, staying at home with small babies after I married in my early 20s and returning to a hospital to do my nursing training in my 30s are the main times that come to mind. But beginning life as a remote area nurse was by far the most overwhelming and has taken the longest to come to terms with. In lots of ways I’m still dealing with culture shock.