Culture Shock

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culture shock

A feeling of disorientation and confusion experienced by a person visiting or relocating to a culture different from his nor her own.


Adoptive families who adopt children internationally often must travel to the country and stay for days or several weeks until legal procedures are completed and they may leave with their children and return home.

Many families report a feeling of dismay at being strangers who don't speak the common language. Adoptive parents of children born abroad report that it is very helpful, whether they travel to the child's birth country or not, to learn some basics of the child's native language. Even if the child is an infant, he or she is used to the sounds of the language. And if the child is older than an infant, it is really considered a must by adoption experts for parents to learn some basics: "I love you." "Do you need to use the toilet?" "Come here." "What do you want?" "I am your mother (father)." Learning simple words and phrases can help both parents and child with problems of culture shock. The parents will feel more comfortable if they can communicate with the child at a basic level while in the foreign country. The child will feel more comfortable with the parents in her new country if the parents can use some familiar words.

If parents have already traveled abroad, they will probably understand that attitudes and the overall atmosphere of another country may be very different from what the adopting parents consider "normal"; for example, the host country's prevailing attitude may be flexible when it comes to time, whereas Americans like punctuality.

To alleviate culture shock, preparation well ahead of time is the best defense. Prior to traveling to a foreign land, it is advisable to read about the country and talk to other North Americans who have traveled there recently. Often an adoptive parents support group can advise how to find a fellow traveler or one who could provide good advance information.

Another aspect of culture shock can be fear. One American reported feeling a sick feeling in his stomach as he viewed armed soldiers on every street corner of a Latin American city: the local residents appeared not to notice.

Concentrating on the objective of legally adopting the child and relaxing as much as possible by taking deep breaths and reassuring oneself aloud and silently are several helpful steps. If possible, Americans should travel with fellow Americans and stay in the same hotel as well.


If adults who are well aware of their goals in traveling abroad to adopt a child experience culture shock, how much greater a shock must be felt by a small child who is adopted from overseas. Children adopted in intercountry adoptions must often contend with a complete language change as well as new parents and a totally different lifestyle.

Video cassette recorders, microwave ovens, fast foods, television and computers are all unknown in an overseas orphanage. The way Americans dress, think, behave, even how they beckon people or wave to them is different from the behavior and gestures of people from other countries.

As a result, the culture shock to an adopted child who is not an infant can be profound, and new parents should take this into account. Experts advise limiting parties and visits for at least a few days after the child's arrival to give the child an opportunity to begin the cultural assimilation process.

Even children adopted from within the United States can sometimes face a form of culture shock, although there are usually a shared language and many commonalities. For example, one adoptive parent was amazed when her child asked what an ocean was and drove the child to the ocean to see for herself.

Children raised in small towns or big cities need time to adapt to a radically different environment. Social workers generally try to place older children with families in environments similar to what they are accustomed, such as placing a child from a rural area with a family living in the country. But sometimes this is not possible.

Whether children are adopted from abroad or within the United States, most children are flexible and will, given the chance, adapt to their new families and their new homes. (See also INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION.)

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