Acculturation is the process of adapting to living in a new culture. It's something all immigrants go through, and though most writers on the subject seem to think the stages last for weeks or months, I know from experience that it can take place over years. It has taken me ten years to proceed through them, and in the disorienting wilderness of the middle stages, it would have been helpful to have had a description of the process, as a map to guide me toward home.
Stage 1: Euphoria
In this stage, a person is full of excitement at their new surroundings. I remember sitting happily under the grapefruit tree in my tiny backyard during my first long California summer, smelling the jasmine and orange blossom, and living off corn tortillas and avocados. I loved racoons, NPR, all the ethnic food I could get so easily in California, and the natural beauty of the area. This stage lasted several years for me.
Stage 2: Culture Shock and Alienation
In this stage, a person becomes keenly aware of the cultural differences between him/her and the host culture. They feel the loss of aspects of home. Feelings range from irritability to panic. A person can feel deeply lonely and sad, homesick and confused, or angry and hostile at people who do not understand them, and customs that seem wrong. Immigrants in this stage seek out compatriots, and often complain about the local people, culture and customs.
I was filled with a feeling of homesickness in this stage, longing for Europe, seeking out French food, movies and books, and feeling lost in the US. I felt confused about where I ought to be, and found myself often despising the way things were done in America, while trying to hide my prejudices and judgements from my close US friends. It would have been very helpful to me at this stage to have known that it was a phase in a gradual process of settling in, rather than a sign that I had made a big mistake in relocating to the US.
Stage 3: Anomie, or Culture Stress
In this stage, a person gradually restabilises. Some of the stresses of culture shock are solved, and some continue. A person in this stage may experience an identity crisis, feeling at home neither in their home culture, nor in their new culture. In this stage, I used to joke ruefully that I was stuck in the middle of the Atlantic. I knew that there were many things about California that I loved and appreciated, but I still felt confused about my feelings of homesickness for Europe.
Stage 4: Assimilation or Adaptation
In this final stage, a person either assimilates or acculturates.
Acculturation permits a person to find value and meaning in both cultures and identify with both. An acculturated person accepts the new culture, and feels able to negotiate it and live within it, without compromising who they are. They are able to feel similarity with the people of the host culture, as well as identity with their own culture and language.
Assimilation means that a person's old cultural values and beliefs are replaced by the new culture. They leave behind the culture of their parents, for example, and take on "American ways".
As I acculturated to California, I began to take walks around the little Northern California town I live in, smiling at its beauty. I relished soy chai and Thai food, and local farmer's markets. I loved the vast computer-linked library system, the local geeks, quaint wooden cottages, and bay trees. I felt fully myself, with all of my European-ness, living in California, and I began to deepen my relationships with American friends. I decided to apply for citizenship.
All immigrants negotiate these stages differently. Our reasons for coming here make a difference to our acculturation process. For example, did we choose to come, or were we forced to leave our home as refugees, or political exiles? How much trauma and loss were involved? What and whom did we leave behind? What were we able to bring, and what were we able to recreate once we got here? Can we exercise our profession, or did we lose our socio-economic status and earning power when we took up residence here? Is our kind accepted here? Is our being here a matter of struggling to survive, or does it represent an opportunity to thrive?
This blog reflects my deep interest in the different ways the various cultures and subcultures in this world conceive of the world and our lives within it. I was born in Asia, hold a UK passport, lived for most of my adult life in France, and now live in the US as a resident alien, working as a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco. Issues of cultural identity and displacement are very close to 'home' for me, and for many of my clients.