Beginning when we arrived in Casablanca three months ago, and almost constantly through our first month, we kept hearing in a foreboding way about October in official school orientation sessions, in administrative conversations in the course of our daily jobs, and in casual exchanges with people in our school community.
“There are usually spaces that open up in faculty housing in October.”
“We really try to keep an eye on people as we get to October.”
And, most directly, “October is really the key month for culture shock to hit, and when people are most likely to leave.” Leave, as in give-no-warning-just-get-your-stuff-and-leave leave? “Yeah, except sometimes it is just leave-your-stuff-behind-and-don’t-come-back-from-Fall-Break leave.”
Our school does one heckuva job helping ameliorate the adverse affects of culture shock. This starts with acknowledging explicitly that culture shock is a perfectly understandable phenomenon that can manifest any time with anyone in many possible ways. One administrator shared during our August orientation that the school used to analyze predictively who had the greatest culture shock difficulties to predict who subsequently was most likely to pulls up stakes and leave before the school year finished (or even barely after it had begun). After considering variables like (1) previous experience with international education, (2) other international experience and international travel, (3) marital status, and (4) age, they eventually concluded these and other variables had absolutely no predictive value in ascertaining which new faculty were more prone to be “runners” who do not finish out the school year.
Unable to foresee the onset of culture shock in those most likely to suffer its effects badly, instead the school leadership determined to forewarn new staff of the reality that culture shock happens. By acknowledging this, and equipping staff with strategies to deal constructively with it, they hoped to reduce the chances of culture shock leading to “runners” that deplete our staff and school morale. During the August orientation for our sizable newbie faculty class we talked as a group about culture, about shaping expectations, and about the culture shock cycle that can devastate the most hardy people. Our school even has a “circle the wagons” support strategy for how to deal with individuals (or families) who come onto the administration’s radar because they are exhibiting signs of difficulty, and we have both been involved with providing support to the small number of people on the radar this year.
The culture shock cycle begins seductively with a Honeymoon Period that lulls people into a false sense of security about how well they are doing and how much they love being in their new international home. Over time, though, the excitement and euphoria of the Honeymoon Period gives way to Hostility born of homesickness, doubt, anxiety, and a sense of crisis. This is the SHOCK of culture shock. Eventually, if the culture shock bottoms out before claiming another “runner” as a victim, people carry on toward a Stability Plateau of adjustments to their new circumstances. This, in turn, leads to Nesting with acceptance and adaptation. The process really tracks very well with the grief process of denial-anger-depression-bargaining-acceptance. One key thing, though, is that the grief comes less from one big loss than from the accumulation of many small things. Moving into a new culture changes some identity elements while others stay the same, with the challenge coming ultimately from a fear of losing one’s identity as this balance shifts. Yet, crucial to remember is while external identifiers may change in new circumstances, intrinsic things like personality and the core of who you are does not change.
And so we have progressed from week to week and month to month well aware that culture shock could be right around the corner for either or both of us (or for Charlotte). As we got closer to October, and some others in our cohort had wagons circling around them, we went on alert to identify any warning signs in ourselves and each other. What has struck us, though, is that with each check-in we have had with each other, as we approached October and then went through it, we both have wondered if maybe we are missing something in ourselves that should jump out as a red flag.
“It’s October. You doing OK?”
“Yep. How about you?”
“Actually, I’m doing fine. Still love being here – love the school, and love living in Morocco.”
We do not want to plant firmly in complacency that could lead to denial that could lead to hostility. Yet, with regular intentional checks we keep looking for the little things starting to accumulate in bad ways. So far, we have not seen evidence of that. Quite to the contrary, the longer we are here the more it seems the statement made by a longtime administrator on our first day – “You guys may end up being here a lot longer than you think you will” – may prove prescient.
For years Brian has counseled parents reluctant to see their children head off to colleges far from home that college freshmen typically may head home to mom and dad for Thanksgiving Break, but by Christmas they spend their semester break with their parents before heading home to start the Spring semester. Interestingly, last month when we were driving back from our Eid road trip to Spain, we both thought it was nice to be heading back to Casablanca and to the faculty apartment on campus where we live. Just a month later, as we took a train back from a Fall Break jaunt to Marrakech for a couple days, we talked about how good it would be to get back home. Picking up on that sentiment in a Facebook post by Brian, fellow Claremont McKenna College alumnus Chris Wong asked in a comment, “Did you ever think you’d use the phrase ‘our train home to Casablanca’?” Not before we started exploring jobs at our school here a year ago. And since arriving in July? Perhaps, but certainly not this soon.
On your mark…get set…here we go!