When culture shock hits you in a foreign land

Adapting to new ways of life can be extremely stressful

In Summary

• Foreign-language notices and menus worsens the frustration

Colleagues gossip a stressed expatriate
Colleagues gossip a stressed expatriate

If you are of employable age, looking for a job or planning to upgrade your career, you have probably thought about going outside Kenya to work or study.

The prospects of moving abroad look increasingly attractive in a country with few new jobs. Besides, overseas jobs offer much better pay than their local equivalent. For example, the monthly wages for unskilled workers in the Middle East are more than double the going rate in Kenya.

Working abroad appeals to our primal instincts, which drive us to explore foreign lands. The demand for career opportunities in foreign countries is reinforced by success stories of Kenyans who went out there with almost nothing and struck it rich.

Kenyan workers can be found in almost every part of Earth with the possible exception of Antarctica, the South Pole continent. War zones are no exception, with Kenyans spotted working in Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Lebanon, South Sudan and Ukraine.

On April 3, a Kenyan who identified herself as Achieng' Otieno appeared in a video in which she claimed to have survived an air strike at a Russian factory, where she was working. A few weeks earlier, the Russian government stated that at least five Kenyans were fighting for Ukraine as mercenaries.

For every success, there's an almost equal number of tragedies. Reports of mistreatment of Kenyan workers in foreign lands keep emerging, but that has not diminished the appetite for those jobs. The prospective income is very appealing regardless of the risks.

A key aspect of living abroad that doesn't get much attention is culture shock. Living in a land whose language, culture, people and weather are completely different from one's home country can be extremely stressful.

"In Kenya, almost everyone is awake by 6am. Here, I have learned, if it's a holiday, it's holiday. Businesses will start opening at 12pm or 1pm. So, it was also challenging," A Kenyan student named 'Kim' said of his arrival in Pakistan. Consequently, Kim had to change his previous routine of waking up very early on weekends.

There has been a recurring concern by our Saudi counterparts that we do not seem to prepare our workers adequately for the culture, labour market system and workplace expectations in the host country
Florence Bore


The loss of familiar faces, signs and symbols are further sources of anxiety in immigrants. After spending five years in Pakistan, Kim began losing fluency in his vernacular language. This was another source of stress as he prepared to return to Kenya.

"Sometimes when I talk with my parents, I find some of the words they are using difficult. I keep asking them 'What is that?' Then they have to tell me in Kiswahili. So there is a negative impact," he said. Kim's comments are recorded in a survey on cross-cultural adaptation conducted by Prof Shumaila Ali of Karachi University.

Differences in work expectations often result in conflict. The formal sector in Kenya typically consists of an 8am-5pm job with a one-hour lunch break at midday. Elsewhere in the world, a workday could be as long as 18 hours a day, depending on the occupation. Security guards, domestic servants, restaurant workers, commercial drivers and nurses all work much longer hours than they would in Kenya.

In some countries, being 10 minutes late for a meeting would be considered highly offensive. On the flipside, there are countries where showing up early is offensive. Some cultures do not encourage physical contact, but there are countries where strangers bathe together in saunas and hot springs.

A brochure of an Eastern European recruitment agency that's actively scouting for employees in Africa expressly warns of summary dismissal for anyone missing four working days regardless of the reasons.

"You are arriving to work. Our team works hard for you to join the programme, and we expect you to be serious about the job," reads part of the agency's brochure.

For Kenyans already used to the English language, being in a country where hardly anybody speaks the language can be frustrating. The lack of English-language notices and menus worsens the frustration. Anyone working in a foreign country must strive to learn the local language, but language has nuances that a learner may not immediately know. The same word can mean different things depending on where or how it is used.

The food you grew up with may not be available in your new country. Perhaps your religious denomination does not exist in the country where you found a job. Your contract may not have stated that your salary will be heavily taxed in your host country and, subsequently, you may not have much left to send back home. Such realisations can result in disillusionment with the job.

According to a UN manual designed to help its staff adapt to working anywhere, culture shock occurs after you have been in a different culture sufficiently long enough to feel the variances between this new culture and your "home" culture. It is a normal human response as our bodies, minds and spirits adjust to the rhythms of another part of the world.

Symptoms of culture shock include resentment, depression, feeling vulnerable and powerless, anger over minor inconveniences and changes in temperament. Preoccupation with aches, pains and allergies is a common set of symptoms.


You also may experience extreme homesickness and intense feelings of loyalty to your own culture, identifying with it or idealising your home country and, therefore, developing negative stereotypes about the new culture.

An individual suffering from culture shock may appear unwilling to interact with others, lack confidence, feel inadequate or insecure, long for family, be sad and undergo marital or relationship stress.

The most effective way to cope with culture shock is to prepare for its occurrence because anyone who spends a long time away from home will eventually get it.

With help from more experienced colleagues, you, too, can overcome culture shock and appreciate the differences between your home culture and the new one. Isolating oneself only worsens the sense of culture shock.

Pre-departure training is one of the approaches taken by the government to help Kenyans understand their rights and responsibilities before setting off to work abroad. In the case of workers going to the Middle East, training includes the basics of Arab culture and language.

"There has been a recurring concern by our Saudi counterparts that we do not seem to prepare our workers adequately for the culture, labour market system and workplace expectations in the host country," Labour CS Florence Bore said after visiting Saudi Arabia in 2023.

Bore called for a "thorough review and overhaul" of the pre-departure training programme to better prepare Kenyans for jobs in that country and elsewhere.

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