Monday, 2 July 2007

Culture shock and the Brontës

Sheila Fordham moved recently to Brussels from Leeds, where her work at the university brought her into contact with foreign students.

I used to work in the Student Section of Leeds Metropolitan University and every year I helped with the Welcome Weeks for new international students. It was an interesting week and I felt that I was helping the students to settle into life in Leeds.

There was a lot of information available to the students about life in the United Kingdom but one of the things which struck me most was the booklet on 'Culture Shock'. It is something people do not really think about until they go abroad. Moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar is not easy.

After the initial period of feeling as if you are on holiday you start to miss things from home, customs, people, patterns of behaviour, support networks, food, weather, even smells and sounds. Also, what is important in one culture is not looked upon as such in another and this can make international students feel threatened and question their own beliefs and actions. It can make you feel depressed as a newcomer in a country if you have a few difficult days - where you are not sure of the local customs and procedures. Even buying things in the shop or going to the bank, finding out about transport can bring unexpected problems. If people seem unfriendly or brusque then you do not have the family support to help you to put it in perspective.

Things which are normal in one culture can seem strange in another. For example, how close people stand to one another, how they greet one another, what is polite and what is not, how people in authority such as officials or the police treat the public. What is a normal reaction in one country is seen as rude or aggressive in another. A visitor may feel insulted and upset.

It is good to explain culture shock to the new students because if they realise it is perfectly normal to feel like this then they will understand what is happening and can do something about it and seek help - or friends can see what is happening and help out.

This started me thinking about it in relation to the Brontë sisters´ experiences abroad. It is something which affects every traveller at some time or another.

In the 19th century, when the Brontës came to stay at the Pensionnat Heger, there was already quite a large expatriate community here in Brussels. However, people were probably not aware of culture shock and did not talk about it. It could explain quite a lot of the attitudes of Lucy Snow in 'Villette' in relation to the students and the Catholic religion and Charlotte´s criticisms of life in Brussels.

After a few months things become more familiar and you start to appreciate things in your new country and enjoy them. In fact, after a year or two in the new country it can then cause problems when the students return home again. The international student section also holds a briefing meeting for students before they go back home. Things at home are not always the same as when they left home, they have changed and their family has changed and they have to re-adjust all over again.

Going through this experience helps the student realise who they are and what they are what is important in their life - what they enjoy or dislike.

It would be interesting to hear whether other Brontë readers think culture shock had an impact on Charlotte´s and Emily´s writing and lives in general.

Sheila Fordham