Migration: Culture Shock and Loss, A Comparison

Many migrants to New Zealand usually go through some form of culture shock -a pyscological reaction to an unfamiliar environment, or a sense of grief for the loss of the lives they they’ve left behind. I’d like to just take a few moments to weigh up the two.

1.Honeymoons and Denial

Exposure to an unfamiliar environments can be a positive experience, there’s freshness of a new set of stimuli, the joy of discovery and the initial elation at having “made it”. It’s often called the honeymoon phase because of the the differences between the old and new cultures are seen in a romantic way.

It is during this phase that many migrants congratulate themselves on their decision to move to New Zealand, it’s a re-affirmation that their decision was a “good choice”.

Not every migrant feels this way though, some are hit with the feeling of ” What have I done?” when they realise that the quality of their life in New Zealand is going to be lower than it was in their own country. Poor working practices, low remuneration, poor quality housing, lower standards of education and xenophobia are often cited as factors

“This is so much worse than what I came from, this can’t be happening to me!” is how they often feel. This is called the denial phase.

2.Negotiation and Anger

Migrants come out their honeymoon phase as the gloss begins to wear off and the routine of everyday life is established. That vacation feeling fades away after a few weeks and they enter the negotiation phase. People often start to miss food from home, their favourite TV show, friends and relatives; they find cultural differences annoying. They may suffer mood swings during this time and some go on to develop depression.

Others transition from denial to anger as they rail against the injustices and unfairness of their new lives. They feel restricted and trapped by the situation they find themselves in.

3.Adjustment and Bargaining

Moving out the negotiation phases takes around 6-12 months. By then the sense of newness has worn off, the routine of daily life takes over and people begin to feel a lot more settled and content as they assimilate into the culture. Unless circumstances change for them they tend to stay in this phase

The other group moves from denial into bargaining: How can they work out a way to make this place work, if they stick at things for a year or two perhaps it will get better?

They often take up a course of further education, get stuck in to having a family, take up a new hobby or or concentrate on doing up that awful house they just bought.

4.Reverse culture shock and Depression

Migrants who’ve made it through to the adjustment phase tend to stay put. But those who do move on often say that they have problems when they return to their own country – whether it be on a holiday or to live. The problems they have re-adjusting can be just as marked as those they experienced when they arrived in New Zealand and most are unprepared for it.

The group that experienced grief as a result of their migration move on from the bargaining phase into depression. They feel powerless to control their own destiny, they feel as if they live on the margins of society. At this stage they may not have the means to leave New Zealand or are prevented from going due to other commitments e.g.their partner is a New Zealander and doesn’t want to leave.

If they are still working they may be in a job that they are over qualified/experienced for and subordinate to someone that they feel no respect for.

This can cause depression, suicidal tendencies and a distinct feeling of being trapped and powerless.


Some make it through into the acceptance phase, some do manange to leave. Those who stay may change their careers completely – move from the IT dept to the kindergarten, or from the hospital to a cab or a volunteer group.

I hope it this has been of some help to you .

If you feel that any of these issues affect you and if you are still having problems you may like to see out the services of a professional counsellor who has experience of working with migrants, perferably one that is a migrant themself and already understands the issues very well.

Grief the Kübler-Ross model

Culture Shock

One thought on “Migration: Culture Shock and Loss, A Comparison

  1. Your blog makes for depressing reading, but it’s true – New Zealand has many flaws, and is not the utopia that it claims to be.

    This post in particular struck me, as I have experienced almost exactly what you described.

    I think, though, there is another way to look at the denial stage. In my experience, it’s not a case of, “this can’t be happening to me” but more, “this isn’t happening”. I believe denial means that you simply cannot accept the reality of the situation you’re in – “I must have misunderstood what just happened, that can’t really be true…”.

    Also, I would suggest that reverse culture-shock is mostly about finding out that, when you finally go home, that ‘home’ is not as great as you remember. For me, I saw it through rose-tinted glasses, while mainly seeing the negative aspects of my new country. Then, when I came home for a visit, I found that it was not actually as great as I remembered. And I actually missed the place that I had returned from, even though I used to criticise and complain about it.

    People back home (who’ve never lived abroad) rarely understand what it’s like. It’s also very difficult to fit back in to the old lifestyle, because you change when you live overseas for a long time. It’s not possible to come home and start your old life again; you must begin a new life, so once again you experience the problems of readjustment.

    Living and working in a new country is tough. It seems is if everything is different and more difficult. You must adapt to a completely new environment. This includes the working environment, the buildings and housing, the landscape and climate, and the social and cultural (and even political) environment.

    There are many disappointments along the way to becoming acclimatised. You will often experience feelings of frustration and anger towards the locals who frequently stare at you, don’t understand you, and are sometimes rude or even violent towards you simply because you look different and they think you are an unwelcome foreigner who has come to take their jobs, ruin their culture, and even – in extreme cases of racism – steal their women and pollute and dilute their ‘pure’ bloodline. At times, you will also experience friction between yourself and your boss and co-workers, your landlord, and possibly even the police, and the government who seem to treat you unfairly and treat you as if you are less important than the locals.

    I thank you for your effort to provide balance to the tourism campaigns. And I know it’s not necessary for you to provide good points to balance the bad (because there is plenty of information available about the good points from tourism-related services), but I do want to end on a positive note.

    I would like to say that there are many great things to be found when you finally move past the the inevitable period of culture-shock. When you start to feel at home and realise that your new country has many wonderful people and places (despite all its problems and flaws), you realise that it has good points and bad just like your old country.

    Wherever you live, there are good and bad points. There are racist people everywhere, just as there are those who are kind and helpful. In every country, there are dirty and polluted places, just as there are places of great natural beauty.

    If you immigrate after careful research and planning, have some support (whether from friends and family, or counsellors and other professionals), go with the right attitude, have strength of will, and also have a little luck, then you will survive. You may have troubles from time to time, but you will also have a lot of fun and some great experiences that you would never have had if you hadn’t taken the risk to go in the first place.


    P.S. I’m writing as a New Zealander living in Korea.

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