For the hypochondriacs among us, WebMD covers a fair amount of ailments we might feasibly incur.
Culture shock didn’t make the cut.
Yet, the term gets thrown around as if it’s a common and treatable issue, like air sickness or jet lag.
I’ll be honest, before my first ever trip abroad, I did not understand what this mythical culture shock was. I envisioned myself experiencing real shock — body tensed up, a look of horror upon my face, not speaking –– the works. As if moving to a new country for a few months would cause all my functions to freeze up, rendering me nonfunctional.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that culture shock isn’t any of those things. In fact, it doesn’t really resemble anything you would call your family doctor about.
Ultimately, culture shock looks different to every person, but some symptoms might look familiar to frequent travelers and nomads.
So, what is culture shock? And what is the antidote?
Based on my experience living in a couple different countries, it can be largely summed up in seven emotions:
Experiencing a new country is rife with awkward moments. Most of them are borne out of varied cultural backgrounds with different social norms and traditions.
Bowing, cheek kisses, personal space, touching/not touching, gestures, eye contact, and many more physical actions can be jarring if you’re not used to or ready for them.
2. Confused / Frustrated
Blame it on the language barrier, the poorly-written signs, the unclear directions, or the fact that everyone else seems to know what they are doing and are now unabashedly staring at you, the unwitting gringo who can’t figure out where and how to order a damn coffee.
I’ve had more than my share of fingers wagged in my face, indicating that I have, so foolishly, tried to pay before I ordered, or vice versa. Or scolded because I did not leap up the moment my number was called. Or laughed at for asking why the salad I ordered was literally just a plate of shredded carrots.
Those who grew up United States got several years of U.S. history got crammed into their brains, thanks to multiple choice regurgitation standardized tests. The lucky ones escaped with at least some grasp of the Constitution and maybe some vocab words they now recognize while watching House of Cards.
But unless world history and events is your personal forté, the new country you’re in has a whole back story and culture you know very little about. Even if you did do your due diligence to study up and mind the local current events, there are huge swaths of a place that you might never really understand.
The most humbling moments of conversations with new international friends is admitting, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
This constant life of going out on a limb can be exhausting. Every day can feel like an opportunity to make a fool of yourself.
I’ve lost count of how many accidentally sexual things I’ve said, doors I wasn’t allowed to enter but did, and cultural faux pas that I’ve committed. Not to mention the dozens of incidents I’m sure people were too polite to inform me of.
Red cheeks and “Nothing to see here!” will become a part of your regular routine.
5. Left Out
Along the way you do start to fall into step with what everyone else is doing, but this adjustment can take a while.
Feeling like a local requires a lot of time and investment in a place, if in fact, it ever happens (or if you want it to). Chances are, you look, speak, and act differently than most other people you’re now mixing it up with, and people will generally always notice.
It’s typical to feel like no matter how long you’ve been somewhere, you’ll always be the token foreigner. Try as you might to integrate, a barrier of some kind may always separate you from your new community.
As a result, if you do not have others in your community that are in your same boat who can commiserate with your struggles, it can be a lonely go of things. Neither friends from your new country or people back home will be able to fully relate to what you are experiencing.
Life on the road and/or abroad can unexpectedly turn into a lonely one. It can make you want to run back into the arms of a community that “gets you.”
This can leave even the most seasoned of travelers feeling a bit helpless.
If you are used to doing things on your own, and suddenly you have to gesticulate your way through your coffee order, or ask for help to buy a subway ticket, or spend way too long figuring out an ATM, your notion that you’re an independent-(wo)man-who-don’t-need-nobody disappears as fast as that pickpocket stole your wallet.
Recognizing that you will need to ask for regular help might be one of the most important lessons you can learn along the way.
The Good News
So, this all sounds like a lot of negative stuff. Where’s the positive attitude on culture shock?
Luckily, there are a few:
Culture shock can be a formidable enemy that scares you away from new destinations if you let it. But ultimately, the lessons you take away from those experiences will leave you a more knowledgeable, grounded individual about the world around you.
If you’re very concerned about it––the best way to prepare is to prepare. Before you go somewhere, do research. Read, watch YouTube, and maybe even talk to someone from that country if you can swing it.
You won’t always know ahead of time what kinds of effects culture shock will have on you, but often times that’s part of the fun.
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Who wrote this?
Gina Edwards, Impact Explorer founder and lover of all pun jokes, making a positive change in the world, Stephen Colbert, Jif Peanut Butter, and staying inside on rainy days. Order may vary.