Failing to Adjust

I finished reading Eryk’s book where in the last couple chapters he claims to have failed to adjust or adapt to the culture. This self-reported failure to adjust did not occur in my dissertation study, although I anticipated the possibility. During my dissertation proposal meeting one of my strongest memories was when one of my committee members asked, “What happens if someone does not adjust or fails to adjust to the culture?” At that time and even now, I don’t perceive adjustment as something that one cannot prevent. It’s not a matter of adjusting or not; it’s a matter of adjusting well or poorly. The literature regarding not adjusting or adjusting poorly is scant. For my dissertation, my intention was not to evaluate or measure their adjustment but to describe it, or more specifically find adjustment patterns across my participants.

Although many bloggers have shared their reasons for leaving the country, most of them did not admit failing to adjust to the culture. Perhaps for my next post, I will share their reasons, which was mostly unhappiness with their employer. I could interpret this as a sojourner’s failure to adjust to the host institution culture as part of the host culture complex. I’d like to take this opportunity to briefly analyze Eryk’s self-reported failure to adjust.

What did he say?
In the last chapter (or on his blog at http://thisjapaneselife.org/2013/07/24/ichigo-ichie-leaving-japan/), on page 187, Eryk writes, “Panic attacks and anxiety were warnings that my identity…was being replaced by a new set of adaptations that were radically changing who I was. I wasn’t losing my mind, I was losing my ego.” He touched upon an important variable that I have come across in the literature about sojourners and culture shock—identity, something I was prepared to explore in my dissertation.

In the previous chapter, after Eryk shows that he is knowledgeable of social adaptation theories by describing a study on monkeys and their preferences for certain types of dyed corn, he writes, “[Sojourners] are required to expand their imaginative capacity, because they are required to navigate an entirely new set of institutional constraints. If we apply ourselves to imagining new solutions, we’re expanding our ideas about what is possible.” This sounds upbeat and provides evidence of Eryk’s cultural learning, however he explains his difficulty by writing, “[T]his invention of ourselves requires an openness to extreme uncertainty. That’s hard.” He had difficulty with being uncertain of how to interact, or in his words solve certain problems, in Japan. Going back to identity and the Big Five Model of Personality traits, openness appears to be an important part of one’s identity and/or personality to adjust in another culture. It supports Wilson, Ward, & Fischer’s meta-analysis (2013) that found openness along with conscientiousness and extraversion to be significantly and positively related to sociocultural adaptation.

Could it be that simple?
Should schools hiring foreigners look for these three traits in their prospective employees? Yes, but should these three traits be required to apply? I believe that is a form of discrimination. “I’m sorry we can’t hire you. Although you are well qualified to teach, you are not extraverted/open/conscientious enough to adjust to living and working overseas.” This is hyperbole, but I wonder how this could be factored in the hiring process.

There are other factors besides personality traits that could contribute to a failure to adjust or poor adjustment. Others factors are things out of a sojourner’s control: poor working conditions, sudden illness, and stressful events happening to one’s close family and friends at home. Also environmental factors could play a factor, such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. (I’d like to feature how sojourning ELTs reacted to this catastrophe in another post.) Basically, life can get in the way of adjusting well to living and teaching abroad just as it can an any other type of situation. Perhaps reacting to these uncontrollable events demonstrates one’s commitment to the profession and/or the host culture. They provide opportunities for the individual to make priorities. How important is it to live abroad? How important is it to develop one’s English language teaching skills at this time and place?

Reference

Wilson, J., Ward, C., & Fischer, R. (2013). Culture learning theory: What can personality tell us about cultural competence?  Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(6), 900-927.

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