The English Wiktionary defines “culture shock” as:

A state of anxious confusion experienced by someone exposed to an alien or unfamiliar environment.

While we often think of culture shock as something experienced by people visiting different countries where people speak different languages than our own, it is not necessary to cross an international boundary to experience culture shock. This semester is proving to be a challenging one for me on several fronts, including the variety of new and unfamiliar contexts in which I’m finding myself working. I’m not sure to what degree my perceptions can be defined as true “culture shock,” but it’s proving challenging to adapt to new environments in rapid succession.

At the end of August, I started teaching one section of an undergraduate “Computers in the Classroom” course at the University of North Texas, in Denton. This is a 3 hour commute for me in Oklahoma City, and for most weeks of the term I’m spending two nights a week in Denton so I can teach my Monday and Wednesday class. The primary reason for this is it’s providing me a chance to have some protected time to finally complete my dissertation. It’s also valuable to compare the teaching and learning environments at UNT with those at UCO (where I taught two sections of “Technology 4 Teachers” this past Spring) as well as Wayland Baptist University in Lubbock, where I taught for two semesters in 2005.

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A lack of situational awareness can contribute to perceptions of culture shock. When I started here at UNT, it was interesting to be self-aware of my own lack of situational awareness and the increased comfort I felt as my brain started to “connect the dots” between different places I’d visited and been shown. My iPhone has definitely been my most valuable piece of technology this semester. Google Maps alone has been a huge help in this process of learning where to go, where I am, etc.

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I was here on the campus of UNT the first day of the fall semester, and that really gave me pause to consider what it’s like today for college freshmen going to university for the first time. A college like UNT can seem SO big, and it’s easy to feel quite small. Since I’m just an adjunct here on campus a few days each week, it’s pretty easy to feel isolated and alone. It’s great to have an office space to work, and that is the main reason I’m here– not to socialize or integrate myself into the fabric of another academic community, but to complete my own work in a quiet, isolated space. Still, the overall experience of being here has made me think more about my own kids and the challenges they’ll face (and face now) both in secondary school as well as later in college.

On the subject of culture shock and successful adaptation to change, I’m reminded of Kim Cofino‘s outstanding pre-conference keynote for last year’s K-12 Online Conference. The title of Kim’s presentation was, “Going Global: Culture Shock, Convergence and the Future of Education.” I’m reminded of a point Kim made in the presentation, that many of the “21st century skills” our students need to acquire today are similar to the cultural adaption skills which “third culture kids” must learn and demonstrate in order to survive. Those adaption skills are essential not only for people going to live in different countries, but also for everyone adapting to the changes all around us in our society. Those changes can be more apparent when our physical surroundings change, but I think the constant of change is surrounding us even when it “appears” our environment is staying the same.

Last week in Shanghai for the Learning 2.010 conference, it was wonderful to spend time “in person” with Kim as well as other people I’ve met as a result of the K-12 Online Conference, including Julie Lindsey. This is a photo of Kim, Julie and I at the Friday evening conference reception.

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Traveling to China but spending the majority of my time with other international educators served as a natural culture shock inhibitor, I think. While you might think a visit to China would automatically feel completely “out of the box,” it’s amazing how familiar faces and Western-style restaurants can moderate sentiments of culture shock. On the Sunday following the conference, I had a chance to explore Suzhou, China, with Chris Betcher, Gail Lovely, and Melinda Alford. While there WERE many parts of our day that were QUITE different from my “normal” experiences living in the midwest of the USA, again the presence and guidance of friends made this time far less “culturally shocking” than it could have been. How would you like to order from this menu (of “fast food dumplings”) without the assistance of more Mandarin-literate friends?! Thankfully Melinda was able to help us order for this meal!

Fast food dumplings in Suzhou, China

Another blessing was the fact the automated train ticket purchasing system in Shanghai DID have an English language option.

Our experiences exploring the canals of Suzhou were wonderful not only because of the sights, but also because we could experience the city TOGETHER.

For more background about our shared adventures in Suzhou, check out Chris’ post from last week, “Travelling Freak Show.” Chris also created a very nice 8.5 minute video, sharing highlights from our day on YouTube.

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Wes Fryer and the train

I felt a sense of mild culture shock most acutely last week when I was, for the first time, entirely alone in China, and took a couple days to explore the World Expo. I am going to post in upcoming days about those experiences in greater detail, but for now I’ll just reflect briefly on the perceptions of isolation and culture shock from that experience.

This was the line to get into the Chinese pavilion at the World Expo. I waited an hour and a half to get in, and spent an hour and a half inside marveling as well as enjoying the exhibits as well as multimedia presentations.

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The World Expo would be a pretty amazing place to go on a school field trip, as these Chinese students did!

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Today, as I’m back in Denton at UNT teaching class and working, I’m struck by how a sense of culture shock can be more dependent on a sense of isolation rather than immersion in a “foreign” culture or language. My travels in China were far too cursory to likely encourage any deep sense of culture shock, and I don’t want to give the impression that I felt like I had a serious case of it. There are certainly differences between perceptions of loneliness and culture shock, but the two must be related closely when we find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances. I’m quite thankful for the blessings of access to digital communications technologies like cell phones and Skype. Even with that access, I’m struck by how I feel more isolated and alone here in Denton, Texas, than I did last week in Shanghai, China.

Good friends and friendly people can make a HUGE difference in how we perceive the world and experience it. Remember your words are powerful. Take some time today to make someone else feel welcome and recognized. 🙂 Many thanks to Chris, Gail, Melinda, Kim, Julie, Jeff, and others last week who made me feel QUITE at home and comfortable in Shanghai!

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