Culture shock is quite possibly one of the hardest and yet, best parts of traveling. It turns your whole world upside down and makes you think in a brand new way. You learn that everything you’ve ever known is not necessarily “right” but it’s not wrong either. It’s just different. And that’s ok.
The term “culture shock” is often used to describe how we deal with cultural differences in a new place and things we first notice when entering a new country or area. As many expats and long-term travelers know, there are many stages to culture shock and some don’t fully develop until after spending a few months in a new culture. It sometimes takes reflection and a realization that the emotions and exhaustion you feel can be attributed to culture shock.
I’m going to talk about 2 of the most common stages of culture shock. The first will seem obvious to those that have traveled to a place with a different culture, the second may seem a bit strange or unexpected!
The Honeymoon Phase
AKA- “Everything is great! I love this country! There are so many new things to learn/eat/speak/see and my new friends are so nice helping me try to speak the language and I love it!”
You really are learning and taking in so much at one time. Everything seems new and exciting as you experience a new way of life, new foods, a new language, new clothes, etc. You’re super happy and in noticing all the different things around you- and they are the coolest and best things ever.
On the other hand, you may also be looking at the culture immediately as “Why would they do it this way when we know it’s better like _____.” This is so different, and not in a good way. Those feeling usually pass though if you really try to integrate yourself into the culture and put yourself out there with an attitude to learn, not judge.
As these feelings fade and you get into a new routine, you’ll start to notice some different things…
The Adjustment/Exhaustion Phase
“I can’t keep up. I feel like no matter how hard I try I can’t fully grasp the language- no one can really understand me here. I feel like I’m on an emotional roller coaster lately and I just want to sleep and speak English for ONE DAY!”
My first time living abroad at 15- I didn’t recognize my symptoms as culture shock. This all manifested itself at about month 3- October, my birthday, my first bus trip to a new city alone- I just thought I was having a rough time and everything started falling apart and I wasn’t good at this whole traveling thing.
What I didn’t realize what the my Spanish was actually getting quite good. I could get around on my own, have conversations and had begun making friends that 8 years later I still keep in touch with. My main problem? I was tired. My mind and spirit and body just couldn’t keep up with the pace I had set.
The thing is- I didn’t recognize this part of culture shock and didn’t know about it, until a wise exchange student counselor handed my a book that explained it all to me.
My brain was tired from translating literally everything I was saying or listening to. My body was tired from running around trying to keep up appearances. And my spirit was missing family and friends back home. I soon learned that all of this is part of the process- making the rest of the process so much smoother. Everything about life was different than what I had grown up with. I was dressing differently, acting differently in accordance with culture, and processing everything around me.
So how do you deal with it?
Sleep more. This helped in almost every aspect. I gave myself time to adjust more and learn more of the language. I found time to keep in touch with friends and family back home, but not too much- still immersing myself in my new life and culture.
I went out more. More time with friends, more travel within the country, more time with other exchange students, just keeping myself even more busy. Counter-intuitive? A little. But it works. Immerse yourself in the culture!
Acknowledge what you’re going through- it’s not totally all in your head. You’re not weird or wrong for feeling this way. It will pass, it will get better. I promise.
I’ve experience culture shock in the form of fear, anger, exhaustion, and complete joy. It’s definitely a unique experience but totally worth it to be able to travel and really learn and be a part of a new culture.
What about you? Where have you experienced the most culture shock? How do you deal?