This post covers culture shock and how to deal with it. I also share my own experience of having culture shock
Travelling solo is amazing but sometimes when we are thrust into surroundings which are unfamiliar to us, the shock can sometimes be too much. The people, the heat, the sounds and the hygiene may not be what you’re used to and you may think that this only applies if you are heading somewhere like India, but it can really happen anywhere especially in places where you are in the minority. This article covers how you may feel when you experience it and how to deal with culture shock.
What is Culture Shock?
Culture shock is our body’s way of reacting to the change in our environment, whether it is a different climate, different language or different foods. Don’t underestimate the effect it can have on your body. Social behaviours may surprise you, people may not be as friendly or welcoming as you initially expected and you may be feeling unconfident, confused or nervous about wanting to go outside as you feel like an obvious outsider.
After the initial excitement wears off, you may notice many differences in your new environment as you move into an unfamiliar culture to your own, such as people staring at you out of curiosity or invading your personal space more than you’re used to. It may be that you’re finding it difficult to cope with being away from home, your friends and your family or your everyday routine. The language barrier may be a problem so invest some me in learning a new phrase each day. Once you become more comfortable with the language, your confidence will soon grow.
Discovering that other cultures do not have the same set of values as you as well as different beliefs can make you crave familiarity and feel uncomfortable in your surroundings. Don’t be quick to judge others just because their circumstances are different from yours. You may find that you share more common ground than you initially thought. Allow yourself me to get used to your surroundings, embrace the new culture one day at a me and you’ll soon adapt. You may even find that your fear of differences with others is now something to savour.
Immersing yourself within the local culture, and seeing yourself as a unity rather than an outsider will help create an understanding of the country that you are in. Being more accommodating to other cultures doesn’t mean losing your identity, it means being more comfortable with others and them also with you, to create no divide or behaviour that can be mis-read and offensive.
A country is only defined by the people within it, so while sights and places can be breathtakingly awesome, you’ll never truly know a place unless you speak freely to the people within it. Embrace the locals, join in with their activities, try the local food and above all, do as the locals do. Not only will you enjoy your time so much more, but you’ll come away with a more enriched experience of what life is really like within another culture.
How To Deal with Culture Shock
1. Find out as much about the country as you can. Integrate with it instead of seeing it as separate from you.
2. Keep a journal and write down how you are feeling. Mark yourself out of 5 for how you are coping. Write in it every day and look back to see how you are progressing.
3. Stop comparing. Things may not be running smoothly but that’s the way it runs there. Don’t compare it to your home.
4. Make plans to help the time pass quicker and write down your goals for your trip. Keep looking at them to remind you of why you are there.
5. Tell yourself that if you still feel the same tomorrow, you’ll book a flight, then when tomorrow comes tell yourself again that if you still feel the same way tomorrow, you’ll book a flight.
Don’t underestimate culture shock. I recently experienced it when I moved to Spain even though I am European. Realise that that is what it is and that it is perfectly normal then you can adapt and begin to enjoy your new adventure.
My Personal Experience of Culture Shock
If you have followed my blog for a while you’ll know that I was living in Colombia and had to leave in July due to my visa expiring. During July to October I travelled around the rest of South America before heading ‘home.’
Returning back to England in October I experienced reverse-culture shock. If you have ever experienced it, it is the feeling of everything being the same yet you aren’t. I felt trapped and if I’m honest, I think I was also a bit depressed. Not because I was in England but because I was not where I was meant to be. I was trying to settle back into something which no longer fitted. For the whole 3 months I was there I battled the feeling of not wanting to be there as well as the guilt for wanting to leave my family and friends.
On the 1st February I finally left. I had made the decision to move to Spain. I needed to be in Europe for personal reasons and as much as I missed Colombia, Spain seemed to be a good alternative. Yet I had no strong instinct of exactly where I was meant to be. My idea was to fly into Valencia to see how that felt then work my way up to Barcelona. To be honest, I was worried I wasn’t going to find somewhere that I loved as much as Medellin.
As I stepped on the plane to Valencia I felt calm and as though everything was going to be okay. I can’t explain the feeling of freedom that I had again; of leaving my past behind. Was Valencia where I needed to be? If it wasn’t, it was a good starting point.
As Lao Tzu once said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
I had taken that first step.
Excited and eager, I arrived in Valencia ready for my brand new chapter. Immediately everything felt shiny and new. I figured out the metro system, and got to where I had booked for my first night.
I was only across the water. I was still in Europe yet I found myself struggling. Only a few days before I couldn’t wait to leave England, yet I found myself missing my parents, missing central heating, and missing the quietness at night. I had swopped comfort, ease and familiarity for a culture that I didn’t know. I was used to English culture, to Colombian culture, but this was different.
I spent afternoons under my duvet working on my laptop because it was so cold, I couldn’t sleep until 1am because I heard everything through the thin walls. My meal times had shifted to fit in with the Spanish culture and my brain was working overtime to remember my few Spanish phrases to get by. And I got sick again.
I felt strange and to be honest there were times when I just wanted to get on a plane and fly straight back.
This was meant to be my new life. I didn’t understand why I felt so strange. I was totally unprepared for this feeling. If I hadn’t committed to the Barcelona marathon in March I would probably be writing this from Medellin. I knew I had to give this a chance but I didn’t feel quite right. Valencia was a pretty city but it wasn’t doing it for me.
Then I realised – this was culture shock. Okay, I wasn’t in a developing country facing poverty but I was in a different country. One that was still on the same continent yet it felt so different.
It had been nearly three years since I had ‘moved’ anywhere. I wasn’t here to travel, I was here to find myself a home. It was a completely different mindset and one which I had forgotten. I remembered how it had been moving to London, how I had felt homesick after just arriving. This was no different. Just because I had lived in many places didn’t mean that I was immune to culture shock or the feelings of unbalance that I was experiencing.
I was also in transition. Valencia wasn’t where I wanted to be but I had had to come here to know that. I was apprehensive. Would I ever find anywhere I loved as much as Medellin? What if I got to Barcelona and didn’t feel it. I was filled with anxiety, stress, and couldn’t shake my cold.
I moved to a different Airbnb and then serendipities began to happen. A friend who lived in Spain came to visit me, then a mutual friend invited us to stay. Amongst the doubts I began to trust that everything would unfold as it was meant to. I left Valencia and spent two days in a Spanish village before heading to my next destination.
Getting on the metro into the city of Barcelona, I was filled with trepidation. What if I felt the same as I did in Valencia? What if it didn’t grab me like Medellin had? But as I walked in the Gothic Quarter looking for my flat share, I felt it. The magical feeling of being transported into a dream, and the tingly sensation of being completely aligned.
Is this where I am meant to be? Yes but I had to experience the last two weeks to know this. I have finally arrived.
If you are moving to another country, even if it’s on the same continent, don’t underestimate how much it can affect you. Change is a bubbling pot of emotions. Sometimes you just have to trust, go with it and know that everything will work out.
As Robin Shama says, “Change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end.”
That first step is all you need.