There is this story, perhaps apocryphal, of the woman who comes out of the restroom with a strand of toilet paper hanging from the back of her skirt. Finally, when someone screws up their courage and tells her about it, she laughs and says, “Oops, now you’ve caught me stealing toilet paper.”
That woman is my hero.
For most immigrants, embarrassing social situations can be far too common. Remember when you first came to America? How everyone in the break room stared as you struggled to use the coffee maker? How you stopped all conversation by using the word “rubber” to describe an eraser? How you wished the earth would just open up and swallow you?
The social aspect of immigration is one topic that has not quite got its due. We talk about the big moments—the moment when we decided to leave our families and move to the “promised land,” the moment when we learned to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, the moment when we got our first dollar paycheck. And we completely ignore the lesser battles—the small social blunders, the daily struggles to fit in, and the joys of finally getting it right.
Unfortunately, these cultural faux pas and embarrassing social interactions may lead to tremendous social distress among immigrants. Several studies suggest that Asian Americans show higher levels of social anxiety and social phobia than their Caucasian counterparts. Studies for Indian immigrants are not as easily available, but for a lot of us, it may take a very long time to achieve the confidence of the “toilet paper woman.” For some of us, it may never happen.
There are many possible causes. Adapting to an unfamiliar culture can be difficult. For instance, many people who come from India do not have the habit of looking at signs, because hardly anything is signposted in India. Mukund S., an IT consultant in Los Angeles, talks about “this one time I pulled up in front of a public parking garage and had no idea what to do when I saw the yellow car park barrier. When the cars behind started honking, I got out, walked to the car right behind and asked the driver for help. He told me to push the button for the ticket.”
Another friend of mine recounts an incident when he and a companion first encountered a toll booth. They had no change in the car, so they took a U-turn! They managed to get out alive, but needless to say, the experience was harrowing.
Racism also acts as a risk factor. One British study found that people who saw themselves as victims of racial discrimination were far more likely to experience mental problems than people who didn’t.
And then there is language. “The first time I went to an office party in the United States,” says Irene Hernandez, a Spanish immigrant, “I introduced my husband, Dugan, as my wife. Everybody was stunned, including Dugan.” She sums it up, “So far, all your life, in your country, you’ve been thought of as a normal person, maybe even a little intelligent, and now all of a sudden you are a babbling fool.”
For Indians, language may be less of an issue, since most Indian immigrants already know English. However, we still have to adjust to the differences between British and American English. One 29-year-old Bay Area resident still recalls a “5th-grade mishap” in which he used a “full stop” instead of a “period” to end a grammatical sentence.
Research on social phobia in East Asian cultures also takes into account the fact that a lot of these cultures consider “shame” to be a desirable attribute. This is true of Indian culture as well. Modesty and self-effacement are valued. Shyness is considered to be a virtue, especially in a woman. How many Hindi movies show the shy heroine dashing from the room whenever there is talk of her marriage?
Reluctance to seek help is another significant factor, especially for those with severe anxiety disorders. Studies show that Asian Americans (including Indians) and Pacific Islanders use mental health services less frequently compared to other ethnic groups. In our society, the fear of being called “mad” often acts as a deterrent.
Dealing with this kind of cross-cultural anxiety or shock can be hard. One common coping mechanism is to utilize cross-cultural resources or mentors. Quite a few Indian companies offer cross-cultural training courses for employees who work in the U.S. There are also several student websites that discuss culture shock (http://studyabroad.tamu.edu/travel_shock.asp andwww.internationaledu.net/english/culture.htm. Talking to other Indians who have been here longer can also be valuable. When I first came to the U.S., the first piece of advice a fellow Indian gave me was, “Observe, observe, observe.” It worked.
Another obvious strategy involves participating in the new culture. Thinking of it as an adventure helps. So does a sense of humor. A friend of mine recently immigrated to the U.S. and started working in a retail store just so that she could get used to interacting with American people. Today she is considerably more confident.
Experts also advise taking a break from the outside environment from time to time and doing something you really enjoy—such as reading a book, watching Sholay for the 20th time, or making cantaloupe curry (OK, I just made that last one up).
If necessary, seek help. An entire branch of psychiatry is devoted to helping people with full-blown cultural anxiety—cultural psychiatry. Cultural psychiatry in the U.S. first started after World War I to address the problems of new immigrants like Italians. Today it is a full-fledged science.
And as with anything else, things get easier with time. After a while you should be ready to handle almost anything the new culture throws at you. Right in time to return home to India and deal with reverse culture shock.
But that’s another story.
Sandhya Char is an IT consultant in Sacramento.