ONE EVENING AS I WAS having dinner with my mom at a tiny pub off of Boulevard Bulgaria, a tall, middle-aged man walked in and headed right for the bar. As he ordered a vodka rocks, mom whispered to me: “Turn around discreetly and look at that guy in the scruffy, black shirt. I’ve got a story for you.” I slowly twisted my neck in the direction of the grey-haired man and checked him out, head to toe. About 47-years-old, he looked unkempt and preoccupied. “Who is he?” I asked my mom and leaned back into the comfortable leather booth, his silhouette in my peripheral vision as he silently sipped on his drink, while my mom told the story.

He had been a brilliant astrophysicist at Harvard, accepted on a full scholarship and graduating with honors in 2003. Shortly after his return to his native Sofia, he married his girlfriend and they had a child. A Harvard treasure, Mr. Dimitrov (not his real name) received many accolades for his research and contributions to the discipline, but was unable to stay in the US and was forced to swallow a dry pill upon returning to Bulgaria.

No one in Sofia cared about who he was, what he had done and what he could have done with his incredible potential. All they saw was a man with a foreign diploma and no “serious” work experience, besides scientific research at a small, private institution known as HARVARD, thus deeming him worthy only for a measly assistantship at a low-tier college in the capital. As 9 years went by, Dimitrov grew depressed and anxious, divorced his wife, and immersed himself into complete social solitude.

Culture shock can literally drive you crazy.

There’s a condition known as “the Paris Syndrome” that’s particularly severe in Japanese tourists visiting the City of Light for the first time. Disappointed in the lack of romantic stereotypes (think sunsets over the Eiffel Tower and elegant, beret-wearing models, riding bikes along the Seine), the Japanese vision of Paris shatters to pieces and visitors feel utterly miserable and cheated. It has a few nasty side effects on the body, too. The trauma goes as far as to cause hallucinations, delusions sweating, dizziness and the feeling of persecution.

Diagnosed for the first time in 1986 by Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, this affliction quickly gained recognition around the globe with the increase of international tourists, with four fundamental factors contributing to the Paris Syndrome:

  1. Language barrier — How many Japanese tourists do you think speak French? Or let me ask you this: how many times have you heard of France as a super welcoming culture, where everyone loves speaking in foreign languages? To answer both: very few to none. Being a traveler in a foreign land without possessing command of the local language is tough, but France can be particularly vicious. As author Chelsea Fagan puts it: “If you do not speak French, you can look forward to stumbling through many uncomfortable, labored conversations with people who resent your very existence.”
  2. Cultural difference — Rigid Japanese manners meet flirty, relaxed French communication, passionate mood swings and an unfamiliar sense of humor. Basically, it’s one of those “what do I do with my hands” situations.
  3. Idealization — The image of the French capital figures strongly in Japanese culture, with the city being just a breath away from a black and white fairytale, where Amélie waits around the corner to grab you by the hand and take you on a fantastic adventure. Not so much in person, when you stroll down a filthy alley, face homelessness and perhaps the worst: the reality of Paris being a completely ordinary (albeit beautiful) city.
  4. Exhaustion — We’ve all been on the road, hopping from planes to trains, having no time for shuteye and 0 water in our system. Trying to fit all the “mandatory” Parisian landmarks in a few short days is a Herculean task and frankly a dumb idea.

Combine all 4 factors together, and you’ve got the recipe for a perfect storm. According to the Japanese embassy in France, around 20 visitors a year are affected by the syndrome and repatriated immediately. For the sake of sanity and a good vacation, the embassy also provides a 24-hour hotline for assistance, were you to experience any of these symptoms.

How to avoid the culture shock trap

I first read about this peculiar affliction a while back and felt a mixture of empathy and curiosity of the Japanese’s susceptibility to this cruel travel-ruiner. Then I got to thinking: if a clash between the dull reality and your dream destination can cause such severe trauma, what happens when you return from a wonderful, successful life abroad to your home country, where no one cares about you or gives you the respect that’s due?

My thought is interrupted by Mr. Dimitrov, throwing a bill on the bar and swallowing the rest of his vodka. He walked away and disappeared into the foggy Sofia evening. What would have happened if he had stayed in the United States and continued his academic career? What would have happened if he had accepted the assistantship position in Bulgaria and had tried to climb to the top?

Culture shock and reverse culture shock feel like being punched in the face by your brother — a betrayal by something familiar, which makes it all the more painful. The trick to avoiding late night tears on the 24-hour embassy hotline is to free yourself from expectations and accept that nothing is set in stone. You change and culture changes too, over time. The only thing you can do is be patient and adapt to your new “old world” or seek your place within another culture’s shelter. Keep calm and embrace change.

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