Culture Shock

“That expectation is appropriate for [certain circumstances], but is unrealistic for [this particular situation]…”  Sensei (my instructor) patiently explained.

Surprised, I thought to myself, “Wow.  Back when I was a teenager training in [that other organization]…”

I stopped that train of thought immediately, recognizing it as a symptom of culture shock.  I have a background from a previous karate organization.  Some things were the same or similar, and some things were different.  Culture shock can either be a roadblock to learning or an opportunity to open a productive discussion.  I chose the latter and was glad I did.  I gained insight which I will use to shape my future words and actions in the dojo.

Me circa 1983

For those of you who don’t already know, I trained in a different Karate organization for three years when I was a teenager.  I participated in only two tournaments and I didn’t use the opportunity to make connections with karateka (karate students of all ranks) from other organizations like I do today.  The Internet didn’t exist, so there were no online martial arts forums.  And let’s face it – I wasn’t as “seasoned” in life as I am now.  My perspective was very limited.

Let me stress that from my point of view, there is nothing wrong with the organization I was once a part of or how they did things back in the day.  Having that background has given me a great boost when it comes to navigating things like etiquette and work ethic.  It’s just that every once in awhile I run into things that are handled differently and I find I have to adjust my thinking.

You’d think that a 27-year-long “vacation” then subsequent training for two years, six months, and six days would have eliminated any preconceived notions of how things are “supposed to” work when it comes to the “culture” of the organization of dojos (karate schools) I currently train in.  Nope.  I still have a lot to learn and I think I will always be learning because my past did shape me – yes, in a positive way, but it was different.  Not better, not inferior, just different.

I remember the first time I recognized the signs of “culture shock” in myself.  It took me weeks to come up with a good way to open a discussion about something I’d seen.  I formulated a polite question and carefully chose who to ask.  I was scared out of my gourd that I’d cause offense.  I needn’t have worried.  The sensei (instructor) was every bit as sensitive to my need to know as I was sensitive to not be judgmental in any way.  I gained a lot from the discussion that followed.

I can definitely respect “new” and “different.”  Even if I happen to think something was handled better in the other organization “back in the day,” I am willing to adjust, adapt, and patiently wait for evidence that the “new” way works best for “my” dojo under today’s circumstances.  The way I figure it, some day I’ll have a black belt and I’ll get my chance to dust off some things from the past to see if they’ll work.  Either I’ll fall flat on my face or I’ll succeed.  Meanwhile, I continue to ask carefully crafted questions.

I’m getting better at recognizing “culture shock” and more at ease with opening dialogs.  I find it helps to ask questions and to not bring up how things were done at the other dojo.  The first line of our dojo kun (school code of ethics), which we recite at the opening and closing of nearly every class, instructs us to be humble and polite.  This is a great guideline for navigating the tricky waters of culture shock.

“Culture shock” can be turned into a driving force for learning and growing or it can get ugly.  Sometimes the strong emotions evoked can take one by surprise, and these emotions are, admittedly, tricky to wrestle with.  The good news is that one has a choice of how to respond.  It’s an important choice.  I’ve seen a student with a background from another martial arts school fail to work beyond his culture shock.  During his short-lived study he chose all the wrong responses to what he was experiencing.  It wasn’t long before he was asked to leave.  This could have been avoided.  In contrast, no one has even so much as assigned push ups to me for asking questions, so I’m probably on the right track.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

6 thoughts on “Culture Shock”

  1. Really thoughtful article Joelle, as always. It’s probably a good thing that you have that different early experience, and that more recently you have trained across several different dojos. This variety / breadth of experience will hopefully protect you against getting institutionalised, and assuming that the way your dojo does things is the “only way”, without questioning it . . . 🙂

    1. Thank you very much, Kai. It’s been a very interesting journey, and I am very fortunate to have the experiences that I’ve had. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. I think we have all been there. Well put. There is a lot to be said by conceptualising things as “different” as cf “wrong” and tactful lines of questioning when you don’t understand. A little respect and humility go a long way. Osu.

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