Making Aliyah and the years that follow bring with it a rollercoaster of different emotions and experiences, some liberating and exhilarating and some more complex and stressful. So how can we better acclimatise to a new culture? What predicts a softer landing and an easier ‘settling in’? When are we more likely to adapt in a relatively straightforward way and when are the changes necessary too much for us?

 What does the research say?

 Moving to a new country can potentially be a positive experience; an opportunity for personal growth and self-development [i]. In fact in 2006, Berry and his colleagues found that in the thirteen countries they studied, immigrant adolescents were just as well adapted as their peers and even reported slightly fewer psychological and behavioural difficulties.

 However, as a result of the sudden loss of the “average expectable environment [ii]”, immigration can also potentially be a negative experience, with harmful effects on one’s identity and self-esteem. For example, Berry writes that the loss of one’s own culture (‘culture shedding’) can result in heightened levels of depression and that uncertainties about how to live within the new culture (‘culture learning’) can result in heightened levels of anxiety. Walsh and Horenczyk [iii]found that English-speaking olim, often lose their sense of feeling competent and belonging. Ben-David (1996) found that Russian Olim were less confident in their external environment and their own internal resources. Walsh and her colleagues [iv]found that the stress of Aliyah impacted significantly on the ability of young Russian olim to make independent decisions.

 What is acculturative stress?

 In the past, the term ‘culture shock [v]’ was used to describe the process of moving to a new society. Shock, however, implies that only difficulties arise from contact with a new culture. These days the term ‘acculturative stress’ is preferred (e.g. Berry [vi]). ‘Stress’, as opposed to ‘shock’, is a term that is likely to generate coping strategies rather than helplessness. The term ‘acculturative’ takes into account that stressful experiences lie in the interaction between cultures rather in one culture or the other.

 Furnham [vii]describes six common aspects of acculturative stress:

  1. The strain of making necessary psychological adaptations
  2. A sense of loss of friends, status, profession and possessions
  3. Being rejected by and rejecting members of the new culture
  4. Confusion of roles, values, feelings and self-identity
  5. Surprise, anxiety, disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences
  6. Feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with the new environment.

 Stress is worsened when there is a culture clash, in particular when there is a scarcity of resources, such as jobs or education. Just as stressful, however, can be a clash of values or cultural behaviours. Which, when very different, may lead to uncomfortable internal, psychological conflict. For example, ways of interacting, conceptions of courtesy, expressing points of view, getting needs met and so on may not fit in the new society – so waiting in an orderly queue for help may be culturally appropriate in the UK or the States, but may not get you very far at an Israeli shuk!

 What factors affect acculturative stress?

 Berry explains that the level of experienced stress depends upon an interaction between: the society of origin, the society of settlement and personal characteristics – in a sense the balance between ‘push and pull factors’. So, for example, the political, economic and demographic situation of the society of origin relative to the society of settlement will shape experience and affect motivation to migrate and settle. If the society left was perceived to be in a worse situation this is a ‘push factor’ to migrate. If the new society values multi-culturalism and provides social support this may be seen as a ‘pull factor’.

 This makes an interesting situation for the typical English-speaking oleh/olah. On the one hand the political and economic situation is easier and status higher in the country of origin; on the other, Israel, its Ministry of Absorption and the various olim agencies offer Jewish immigrants wide-ranging support and a ‘Kibbutz Galyuot’.

 When it comes to individual characteristics, the most successful immigrant is flexible in personality, somewhat of an extravert [viii] and has a sense of self efficacy and competence [ix]. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger immigrants, particularly children, make a smoother transition to a new culture (Beiser [x]). Perhaps this is because earlier on there is less embedded culture to ‘shed’, or perhaps we are simply more able to be flexible and adaptable in our younger years. Immigration later in life, after many years of living in one cultural setting, may be more difficult (Beiser [x]). Of note, acculturation can be somewhat problematic during adolescence, perhaps due to the compounding pressure of ordinary developmental identity formation with cultural transition. 

 High status in the country of origin coupled with devaluation of credentials in the country of settlement has a big impact on wellbeing, often leading to depression [xi]. Interestingly, Kim [xii] found that Koreans who emigrated to Canada with high ‘push’ factors tended to have problems with psychological adaptation to the new environment. Immigrants with high ‘pull’ factors, however, tended to have just as many difficulties settling in, but were more able to adapt psychologically. Perhaps this was related to unrealistic expectations of the country of settlement.

 Cultural distance between the old and new societies impacts on acclimatisation, as it leads to a greater culture conflict and ‘shedding’, both resulting in poorer adaptation. For Jewish immigrants cultural distance may be bridged by shared religious and Zionist ideologies, values and perhaps even language. For non-Jewish immigrants, however, the cultural distance may be vast.

 How can we cope with stress?

 One of the most important processes in settling into any new culture is ‘cultural learning’. That is, learning a new behavioural repertoire appropriate for the new cultural context. Learning about the culture even before arriving, the language, history, norms and values can act as a kind of ‘pre-acculturation’. In fact, education in general is a protective factor against Aliyah stress, in that it promotes problem analysis and solving skills. In addition, keeping physically healthy also positively correlates with successful acculturation.

 It is important to try to be flexible in your thinking and behaving and to try and ‘get out there’ and be sociable. Social support is an excellent way of coping with stress. Some find support from those of the original culture the most beneficial [xiii]. Others find relationships with members of the new society most important [xiv]. Supportive relationships with both cultures, however, is most predictive of psychological adaptation [xv].

 What can I do if I am finding it difficult to cope?

 If you are finding it difficult to cope with the process of acculturation there are a number of things you can do. Your focus may be on problem-solving in which case the Ministry of Absorption  or any of the support organisations for olim may be able to help you. If your focus is more on coping with the emotional aspects of Aliyah then it may be helpful to speak to a psychologist or attend one of the support organisations’ Aliyah support groups. If you would like more information please feel free to contact me here.

 Concluding thought 

 This article highlights the inevitable ‘bumps’ of any big transition. I began by comparing Aliyah to a rollercoaster. Perhaps, having made this cultural leap, we can take some wisdom from the grandmother character in the 1989 film Parenthood:

    “when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster…Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride!…It was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around…I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it. 


     
    [i] Sam, D. L. & Berry, J. W. (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology (pp. 452–468). New York, NY
    [ii] Hartmann, H. (1950). Comments on the psychoanalytic theory of the ego. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 5, 74–96
    [iii] Walsh, S., & Horenczyk, G. (2001). Gendered patterns of experience in social and cultural transition: The case of English speaking immigrants in Israel. Sex Roles, 45, 501–528.
    [iv] Walsh, S. D., Shulman, S., Feldman, B., & Maurer, O. (2005). The impact of immigration on the internal processes and developmental tasks of emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 413–426.
    [v]Oberg, K. (1960). Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177–182.
    [vi] Sam, D. L. & Berry, J. W. (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology (pp. 452–468). New York, NY
    [vii] Furnham, A. (1990). Expatriate stress: The problems of living abroad. In S. Fisher & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), On the move: The psychology of change and transition (pp. 275–301). London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd
    [viii] Ward, C. & and Kennedy, A. (1993) Where is culture in cross-cultural transition? Comparative studies of sojourner adjustment. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 24, 221-249.
    [ix] Schwarzer, R., Hahn, A. & Schroder, H. (1994) Social integration and social support in a life crisis. American Journal of Community Psychology. 22, 685-706.
    [x]Beiser, M., Barwick, C., Berry, J. W., et al (1988) After the door has been opened: mental health issues affecting immigrants and refugees. Ottawa: Departments of Multiculturalism and Health and Welfare.
    [xi]Beiser, M., Johnson, P. & Turner, J. (1993) Unemployment, underemployment and depressive affect among South East Asian refugees. Psychological Medicine, 23, 731-743.
    [xii] Kim, U. (1988) Acculturation of Korean immigrants to Canada. Unpublished doctoral thesis: Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.
    [xiii] Vega, W., Kolody, B., Valle, R. & Weir, J. (1991) Social networks, social support and depression among immigrant Mexican women. Human Organization, 50, 154-162.
    [xiv]  Berry, J. W. & Kostovcik, N. (1990) Psychological adaptation of Malaysian students in Canada. Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
    [xv]  Kealy, D. (1989) A study of cross-cultural effectiveness: theoretical issues, practical applications. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 13, 387-428

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