What You’ll Find in This Post:
The definition of culture shock
The things in Qatar that didn’t give me culture shock
The one thing in Qatar that did give me culture shock
The way the culture shock affected me
My experience with reverse culture shock
Last thoughts on the socioeconomic situation in Qatar
You’ll understand the relevance of this a little later.
This was mentioned to me when I first went to Morocco in 2017 and I didn’t think much of it; I felt I was too open-minded and excited to even fathom the notion that experiencing another culture would send me into culture shock. Then, lo and behold, my Moroccan adventure didn’t inspire a single symptom of culture shock. However, I was only in Morocco for a week, whereas I had plans to be in Qatar for four months. With that much time immersed in another culture, the culture shock would surely set in, right?
Well, yes, that’s right.
However, my experience with culture shock in Qatar was unexpected and felt far from the type of “culture shock” that had been described to me, to the point where I didn’t even realize I was experiencing culture shock until I reflected back on my time in the country.
So, that’s what I’m going to talk about today: What I expected from culture shock, the things that didn’t give me culture shock, and the surprise experiences that did give me culture shock.
What is culture shock?
Is culture shock having to buy your figs out of a giant bucket in the narrow alley of a market instead of a supermarket?
Culture shock can be defined as: The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
Culture shock comes in a few phases:
Preliminary stage: Before you leave your home country, you’re doing things to prepare. You’re packing, doing “farewell activities”, and mentally preparing yourself for what you anticipate this journey will offer.
Honeymoon: When you are absolutely in love with all the newness! The food, the hustle & bustle (or lack thereof), the art, the language, and so on.
Negotiation (Irritability & hostility): When you start feeling anxious, frustrated, or just angry because things are so damn different! Language barriers, traffic, hygiene standards, healthcare, or the simple fact your intestines are still scrambled as they continue to adapt to the natural bacteria present in the food that grows in other countries.
Gradual adjustment: You start to get used to things. You no longer get surprised when this happens or that happens, and your mind and body start to balance out. Sometimes you’re even laughing at the way some things work in your new country, and that laughter is refreshing.
Adaptation: You get comfortable! You are a mix of the culture you can from and the culture you’re living in now.
Reverse culture shock: When you come back home, you experience culture shock all over again. I’ll talk more about this later.
Some culture shock symptoms include:
Confusion/Disorientation (and feeling overwhelmed by it)
Feelings of helplessness (often inspired by losing your independence through being dependent on others)
Irritability (being more short-fused than usual)
Anger & hostility
Insomnia or oversleeping
Under or overeating
Paranoia (about anything from being kidnapped to drinking bad water)
Loss of focus
And many, many more, I’d bet. Generally speaking, though, symptoms of culture shock overlap with symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, which is interesting because depression and anxiety are also symptoms of culture shock. Don’t think about it too hard; just know that culture shock makes you feel like crap and may even turn you into a person you don’t recognize.
But what aspects of a new environment specifically cause these symptoms?
Back in the U.S., in preparation for my international trip, the things people listed as inspiring culture shock were: Language barriers, styles and expectations of dress, being dependent on someone else to get things done, homesickness, boredom, and new food. However, a lot of things can cause culture shock, including technology gaps, generational gaps, religious presence, dining schedules (like having dinner be normally at 11pm instead of 6pm), traffic, and—honestly—anything, really.
However, that “anything and everything can cause culture shock” narrative wasn’t expressed during the prep time, and that’s part of the reason why I didn’t realize when I was in the midst of experiencing culture shock. I was looking to be shaken up by obvious things like language and food, but that’s not what happened.
My experiences with culture shock
The types of stores, names of stores, appearances of stores, and even their services definitely took me a while to get used to.
Actually, let’s start with what things didn’t cause me culture shock
Seeing nerd books on my friend’s bookshelf? A familiar sight, quite the opposite of culture shock.
One reason I didn’t experience the culture shock I expected to experience is because a lot of the typical culture-shock-causes were weren’t present in Qatar. Everyone spoke my language, Western culture was everywhere, social cues were only a touch different, and women wore whatever they wanted (it wasn’t uncommon to be hijabi in the day and crop-top-wearing dancing queen in the night). There were plenty of familiar brands, the radio still played Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, people still registered for events on Eventbrite, cartoon characters were still advertised on kids’ juice boxes, and seniors still rolled into class late because senioritis is a worldwide affliction.
You get what I mean?
Then, at one point, I felt like the I was experiencing culture shock backwards, as in to say, I recognized how different life in Qatar was, but instead of these differences inspiring feelings of sadness, they inspired good feelings. For example, Qatar was exponentially safer than the U.S., so my feelings of paranoia and anxiety actually lessened. Then there was the extraordinary diversity present in the country, and even though Qatar has its fair share of discrimination issues, it was wholly unlike my experiences in the U.S. as a black woman. For the first time, it didn’t feel like I needed to keep my guard up as a woman or a person of color, and that feeling of freedom allowed me to explore a better, more authentic version of myself almost immediately.
But, c’mon, there’s got to be something that freaked you out?
A different natural environment doesn’t necessarily constitute as culture shock, but it’s still symbolic of extreme change, right? Especially when you compare the greenery of Richmond to this.
Okay, sure, I had a few experiences that fell into the traditional “causes of culture shock” categories, but none of them were significant enough to truly “shock” me.
I mean, was it weird to be greeted with a cheek-kissed by women I hardly knew? Yes. Was it a bit overwhelming not knowing how work the badge scanners, touch screens, and iPads that had suddenly replaced doorknobs, buttons, and paper menus? Also, yes, and it led to some mildly embarrassing and genuinely frustrating moments when I couldn’t do things like open doors or turn on the lights in my apartment. Or how about existing in a country where my strict American-style punctuality was no longer the norm, where nearly everyone breezed through life with the greatest sense of unurgency I’d ever witnessed? Yeah, it was awkward at first, but I got over that real quick, just like I got used to the lights in my apartment and the possibility of cheek greetings when I was with a group of girls. These sorts of cultural differences just didn’t create any manner of long-term, deeply felt feelings of discomfort.
The closest memory I have to being effected by the traditional things that cause culture shock was when I interpreted a sesame ginger marinated chicken in a bed of yogurt mint sauce with a poppadum as a chicken nugget on a popsicle stick with a tortilla chip and some weird presumably inedible green garnish. When I voiced my humored disbelief at being served what I thought was a hilariously lowbar appetizer, I was immediately corrected, and though my embarrassment made me feel a little peeved, I still didn’t get any of those awful, intense feelings of food-inspired culture shock that I had been warned about.
Note to self: Poppadoms are not tortilla chips. Note to self 2: Poppadoms exist
But then, here’s the thing:
My irritation wasn’t actually inspired by the food: It was caused by being unfamiliar with the situation. See, when I encountered this mini dish, I was at a classy event in a hotel, where waiters constantly buzzing around offering me desserts and drinks and snacks like tiny blueberry cheesecakes and smoked salmon and poppadoms. To everyone else this was normal, but to me, it was something I had never seen before. And the reason I had never seen these things before all leads to one thing:
What did cause me culture shock
All. That. Money.
Qatar has been the wealthiest country in the world for a while now, but somehow that fun fact slipped past me as I was preparing to enter the country. Even if I had known, though, I still doubt I’d have been able to envision it; I didn’t know what an absurd amount of money looked like aside from what I’ve seen on television, which included images of nice cars, big houses, and billionaires in sweatpants. My experience in Qatar, however, was the first time I had been ever face-to-face with the way an uncanny amount of funds effects everything in life.
After a lot of reflection, some of the things that caused my money-inspired culture shock included:
Those iPad menus, badge scanners, and touch screens I told you about
The many, many, many malls (most of which having been built within the past two years, so they were still quite new)
The fancy restaurants
The normalcy of having maids, nannies, and drivers
The luxury cars
The designer clothing and makeup
The constant presence of custodians
The (classy) catered food at nearly every event
Waiters constantly cleaning tables and walking around with trays of food at casual events
The “Tea Girls” at school, who brought tea to faculty and managed the break rooms on every floor
Peoples’ affinity for making carefree, impromptu purchases
How spending money genuinely seemed like a hobby
Before I elaborate more on that list, I want to talk about this first:
It’s interesting how immense wealth wasn’t considered as a possible “shock factor”
I’ve born witness to plenty of statements advising students—or even just tourists—to psyche themselves up when preparing to enter an impoverished country. That in mind, it’s so interesting how the idea of psyching someone up for a wealthy country isn’t given the same attention. One big reason for this, I assume, is because all the advice was given to Americans by Americans, and America has a habit of portraying itself as the epitome of well-off-ness. Thus, I’m not surprised that an American study abroad program simply wouldn’t consider what life would be like in countries that are—gasp!—more well off than the United States in some way, shape ,or form. I’m not accusing any one person or program of thinking America gets an A++ in every category, I’m just saying that it’s not part of the national rhetoric for us to be less than; America is the place other countries want to imitate because we’re just that awesome, not the other way around.
I find this all really interesting because here’s the other thing: There is an incredibly wide and nuanced financial spectrum present in the U.S., so it makes little sense for any sort of international education initiative to assume its students are all accustomed to the same way of life, be it high or low income environments. In essence, I think that study abroad program should prepare their students for any kind of economic environment abroad because that coverage reflects the economic spectrum of the U.S.
But here’s the other other thing: Study abroad programs are traditionally very expensive, and if you can afford to go on a program (while still affording the outrageously expensive tuition American uni’s are known for), then you’ve probably got some moolah. Couple that thought process with PWI’s—since those uni’s are the ones that typically offer an abundance of study abroad programs—and I wonder if study abroad advisers simply forget how varied their students’ backgrounds are.
Alright, now that I’ve said my peace, let’s get back to the larger topic at hand.
The way all that money struck me
When I said, “bring me some chocolate”, I expected a KitKat . . .
It was the little things like deciding to get this designer shoe instead of that designer shoe, buying a $6 coffee every morning, or even just grocery shopping whenever you felt like it (not just when the paycheck hit) that were new to me. I simply came from a different environment than a lot of the people I was surrounded by and these differences became overwhelming because no one seemed to relate.
No one seemed to understand why:
Having a maid iron a shirt I could undoubtedly iron myself would make me feel guilty, especially when she was busy doing something else.
I couldn’t just Uber everywhere willy nilly without having to check my bank account first.
I was so uncomfortable with people I barely knew offering to by me a $10 drink, because in my head, I’m wondering when they’ll expect me to pay them back’ after all, if it’s not -in my budget now, it probably won’t be in my budget anytime soon.
I was confused when servicepeople did things like pump gas for me or bring fast food menus to my car after simply honking the horn
I’d be caught off guard when someone’s idea of quick, casual dinner involved sitting and ordering sushi
I was surprised when someone could afford to order takeout four times a week (and how nearly every restaurant was willing to deliver food)
Waking up every morning to have breakfast prepared by the maid shocked me
I often said “no” to hanging out (because no one seemed to understand that their idea of hanging out costed a lot of money between transportation, food, snacks, and shopping)
Fancy restaurants made me nervous because I didn’t know how to order or which fork to use
I felt uncomfortable asking the cook to make me a totally different meal because I simply didn’t like what was already being served
I was inclined to clean up after myself instead of letting the custodians do it for me, and why leaving my trash around in public made me self-conscious
I was surprised to see that impromptu decisions to throw a birthday party for a classmate included expensive cake
Seeing students call their maids midday to bring them and their friends food at school garnered a curious look from me
Being able to add a candy bar impulse buy to your grocery basket intrigued me (because that action implied that their “tight budget” wasn’t the kind of tight I was used)
Having someone nonchalantly mention their vacation house in London blew my mind
Hearing about adult students receiving hefty allowances from their parents surprised the hell out of me
And that’s just naming a few.
It was also weird being around students who didn’t have to finesse finances to pay for school
Classic photo of my hyperfocis as I work in my dorm bedroom
A lot of students, mostly Qatari Nationals, didn’t have to pay their way through school with part time jobs and competitive scholarships, and being around them was the first time I’d ever been around people in that situation, which made it weird for me. It was weird being around students who couldn’t relate to student loans in the slightest, and it was weird being around students who weren’t worried about whether or not their degree could get them a job (because they knew that even without a job, they’d be fine).
Bottom line, the biggest “shock” was simply being surrounded by people who weren’t who didn’t seem to have the slightest understanding of financial stress
I had never seen this Transformer before, and I would have loved to have had it, but there were other more important things to spend my $15 on. That wasn’t the case for a lot of people.
It was all this lack of understanding that made me feel socially isolated, while also making me hyperaware of my actions and inspiring a few panic attacks.
To boot, whenever I tried to explain to people what I was going through, their only recommendation was to go hide in the bedroom or my apartment—physically abandon the situation that was making me uncomfortable—with an attitude of, “It’s okay, no one will mind.” Thing is, what these people didn’t realize was that hiding would make me feel worse because:
1) I was worried about how my absence would be perceived
2) Escaping to your bedroom simply isn’t possible in a lot of life’s situations
3) Even if I hid away, I’d never be able to truly escape reminders of Qatar’s wealth
After all, Qatar’s wealth was reflected everywhere. The quality of the residence halls, the fact all my painting supplies were gifted to me by the university, that long line of personal drivers waiting in BMW SUV’s, and the simple fact that very few personal vehicles seemed older than 10 years old. Then there were the red bottom heels click-clacking on the polished floors of malls, seeing nannies in uniforms run after children as the parents trailed behind, and the realization that a common aesthetic for female Qatari students included the abaya & shayla, a designer mini-purse, Gucci sneakers, and a freshly made face that clearly cheap makeup had never dared touch. All these things, and so much more, were nonstop reminders that I clearly wasn’t in Kansas anymore, you know?
Something about this photo just reminds me of what I experienced. My experimental yarn twists (with lots of new growth) are in a ponytail and I’m wearing a cheap necklace I bought that same day, but couple that with the fact I’m not wearing my glasses (something I love to do), that dress belongs to someone else, and the way I see it, so does my face. It was the first time I’d ever gotten my makeup done, and though I looked beautiful, I also didn’t recognize myself. All these things made me feel as though there was a dissonance between myself and the environment I had suddenly found myself in. Then the expression on my face and the low-resolution photo are like the cherry on this conceptual sundae.
Did I ever adapt?
Afterall, by the end of the culture shock cycle, you’re supposed to be flawlessly well-adapted, a mix of your old world and the new one you inhabit. So, did that happen for me?
If I want to spend my money on Minion juice drinks, by Jove, I will.
Part of the reason I never quite adapted
I wasn’t in Qatar long enough. The stressful part of culture shock typically sets in around month #3 and dies down by month #6. Well, the entirety of my Qatari adventure was four months long; I started feeling the culture shock around month #3, but I wound up leaving mid-shock in month #4.
Some people around me worsened my feelings. Some of the people around me had a habit of critiquing appearance in a way that just further highlighted the finical differences between me and them. Deep down they meant well—they wanted me to fit in better—but only through pointing out the fact that my afro, consignment sweatpants, Ross purse, $6 earrings, and lack of literacy when it came to all things makeup, was unappealing and apparently didn’t fit into the environment I was in.
I felt isolated in my interests. I am easily impressed, whereas a lot of locals are not. If you’ve ever played The Sims 3, the opposite of the “Easily Impressed” character trait is “Snob” and that’s often what it felt like I was contending with; it felt like people were essentially giving me shit (in the form of patronization and dismissal) for being impressed by the (expensive) things they understood as norms.
Despite not fully adapting, Qatar made me reflect on what I did with my money
I tried wholeheartedly shopping for the first time ever while in Qatar, embracing something I don't usually do, which is why I took photographic evidence.
No, it wasn’t the rich people criticizing how I chose to spend my money (yes, that really happened) that inspired some sort of deep financial reflection. It was more so in watching the way they spent their money that made me take a step backwards, zoom out a little to look at the big picture and where I fit into it.
See, I was a hardcore money saver, through and through, no ifs, ands, or buts, and definitely no wiggle room. I was very strict about the way I spent money 95% of the time, but a part of me couldn’t help but want to imitate the social norms of Qatar (the kinds of norms that implied financial security). So, I tried. I tried buying sugary drinks and croissants from mildly overpriced cafes. I tried wearing perfume. I tried wearing heels to school (though, if I tell the full story, these heels were 1) Wedge heels, 2) Thrift store shoes, and 3) Required me to glue them back together a few times before they eventually broke broke right before leaving the house for a date). I even tried shopping at stores that weren’t full of used clothes—and even though shopping in Qatar made me terribly anxious—I ultimately bought a new dress from H&M that cost me a whole $20, the most I’d ever spent on a single article of clothing.
Some of the new things I tried I genuinely liked; I liked wearing perfume and heels, I liked that dress I bought, and I was reminded of the positive effect simply knowing I look good has on me. I was also reminded of the importance of treating yourself, especially after accomplishing something you feel is significant. However, these sorts of activities also felt a bit hollow when repeated essentially every day, which was the habit many of the people around me had.
But you know what’s worse than culture shock?
Reverse culture shock.
Interestingly, this last stage of the culture shock path was the one most glazed over in those pre-departure meetings, and yet, it’s the stage that affected me the most.
What did reverse culture shock feel like?
Look at how varied this vending machine is! What was even better was the fact it was cheaper than vending machines on campus in the U.S. However, I had to say goodbye to it and get used to use to what was waiting for me back in the States.
The feelings I had when I came back to the U.S. after living in Qatar for four months were intense, more intense than anything I’d felt in Qatar. To be frank, before studying in Qatar, I was already living a life riddled with social isolation, depression, anxiety, dependency on others, and a seemingly bizarre inability to keep up with social cues and follow conversation; in a way, it was like I was feeling the symptoms of culture shock from the community I’d grown up in. In Qatar, however, I simply felt less of all that; it wasn’t completely gone, but enough had diminished that I felt better able to function for the first time ever.
When I came back to the U.S., though, it was like a triple whammy:
I had returned to an environment I naturally felt uncomfortable in
I had returned to an environment that had changed
I had returned to an environment that was so different than the one I had just left
All the difficulties I felt, emotionally and physically, seemed multiplied by a hundred and it took me a very long time to equalize. Honestly, though, I don’t think I ever truly balanced out; for the year and a half I was in the U.S., I felt a constant dissonance between myself, my environment, and the people around me.
Ah, but enough of that, let’s wrap this up
These are the papers I was given pre-departure, listing ways to ease the transition into a new culture. Some of the suggestions seem objectively helpful, while others just irritated the heck out of me.
Not everyone was rolling in dough
I find it so interesting to reflect on how the country’s wealth has only been present for a few generations, and yet, it is fully exercised in every way imaginable. That in mind, even though it was often an overwhelming environment for me to be in, it was also fascinating. I had never seen a designer store up close; I had never seen so many nice, shiny, new cars in one place, and I had never seen a fleet of workers lying in wait to clean the cars as soon as they got a little dusty. I had also never witnessed the stark social disparities wealth could produce.
See, because you have to remember that not everyone in the country is swimming in pools of cash à la Scooge McDuck. The topic of migrant labor is a huge indicator of that, and that topic is so big, I suggest you investigate it for yourself. To add, there were still people around me—also expats—with stories of migrating to Qatar as toddlers as their family tried to escape some manner of strife in their country, people who had that classic immigration story of “My parents left everything behind” or “My dad came to Qatar with $10 and worked his way up”.
So, in conclusion?
Look, there are a lot of different words that come to mind when I think of Qatar and one of them is opulence. I didn’t expect plentiful money to be more of a cultural norm than any language, dress, food, or religion, and I doubly didn’t anticipate that it would fuel my feelings of discomfort. That said, I realize now that culture shock—from what triggers it to how you react— can just catch you off guard.
And, though I kind of hate to say it, the only way to get through culture shock is to wait it out. It’s kind of like the flu: There are things you can do to alleviate symptoms, but not every treatment works for every person, and at the end of the day, you just have to let the bug run its course. You’ve just got to be patient with yourself and have a bit of self-compassion, which I know is way easier said than done. And look, if you’re studying in Education City, you’ve got the benefit of having a team of genuinely great counselors who will be more than willing to help you out (and it was nothing like [awful] counseling services I got in uni back in the U.S.).
What I can say for certain, though, is that it will be okay. It may take a while—maybe been a long while—but once you feel you’ve hit rock bottom, it’s actually true that the only place left to go is up.