Dealing with Culture Shock

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Culture shock can be an issue for even the most seasoned of travellers. We all have our ideals, our attitudes and our individual creature comforts. So, when you enter a totally new environment where these aspects of what make you who you are aren’t there, you are thrown into disarray. It can be difficult to adjust.

What is it?

The shock can exhibit itself in a number of different ways; for some it is extreme and can result in an inability to function. An example of this would be Paris Syndrome, typically experienced by Japanese tourists who arrive in Paris only to find that what they knew of fabled city of love was not correct. Rather than the fairy tale image put out by films and literature, they are confronted by a busy and thriving metropolis quite unlike the postcard image they’d had in mind.

We are by no means singling out Japanese tourists for this by the way, as culture shock can hit us all (personal examples to follow). Likewise, we aren’t picking on Paris, a city that we love. FYI, there’s also Jerusalem and Stendhal syndrome cases recorded (thank you Wikipedia).

Towards the middle of the culture shock spectrum, and more commonly recorded, travellers simply find themselves disorientated, homesick and exacerbated by the situation that they find themselves in.

Fear not. We, with no prior psychiatric training or credentials, have some helpful tips to help you get by if you find yourself taken aback by the reality of where you are.

Food

When I (Daniel) was 18, I moved to Hong Kong and worked as an English teacher for a year.

Before setting out I knew very little about what lay ahead of me. I had no teaching experience, no Chinese language skills and had never lived away from home before. But, who needs any of that anyways. So I packed my bags and off I went.

Arriving in Hong Kong was amazing. It was humid, hot, busy, and unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. I loved it. Arriving at my accommodation I genuinely saw bamboo scaffolding and a man riding a bike and wearing an Asian conical hat. It was everything that I could have dreamed. Admittedly I didn’t see an Asian conical hat again the whole time I was there. However, for the briefest of moments, it seemed some misguided preconceptions were met.

An hour after arriving I was taken out for lunch with some of the other teachers at the school I’d be working at. After 20 or so hours of travelling this wasn’t what I needed, but I was happy to start taking in my new surroundings.

The first surprise came when, in the restaurant, we were provided with tea and told that it wasn’t for drinking. Instead, we used this to wash our chopsticks, cups and spoons before eating, as they might not already be clean. One lesson learned and only in the country for 2 hours.

The second experience was a little more difficult to get a hang of.

Chinese food, in China/Hong Kong, is not the same as Chinese food in the UK. This might seem obvious, but it hadn’t really occurred to me before.

Food in Hong Kong pays close attention to texture and ideas of what a good texture is differ greatly from the UK.

Gelatinous dumplings and boiled chicken (this was in my pre-vegetarian days) was the order of the day and I actually retched a couple of times (though not noticeably thankfully). Luckily I had been practising with my chopsticks back home so I at least didn’t make a fool of myself by dropping dumplings in my tea, as I was told a previous teacher had.

The rest of lunch went without a hitch. I hadn’t loved this first exposure and the thought of the year ahead made me nervous.

Not sure how I was going to proceed, I discovered the nearest McDonalds and KFC right around the corner. This felt like a god send in the initial days of jet lag and confusion that followed.

A few days later I met the teacher who had tea bagged his dumplings and he mentioned, in passing, that the other teachers had been concerned about his health as he spent most of the year he was out there only eating baked beans and not eating Chinese food. He too, didn’t get on with the different textures.

I love food. In the baby book my parents kept, under favourite food, they wrote “Everything”.

There wasn’t a chance that I was going to spend the year forlornly eating baked beans and the same processed fast food I could get back home, so I decided to dive right in. I tried snake, chickens feet, pigs intestines (though this was admittedly as case of mistaken identity, thinking that they were onion rings).

I didn’t love it all, but I tried everything and my stomach got stronger. Within only a couple of weeks, I was happy eating whatever was put in front of me.

It would have been easy to take the path of least resistance and stick with what I knew. But trying to eat like a local made all the difference in the world and made me fall in love with Hong Kong more deeply than I’d expected to. I still miss the smells of street foods cooking as I walk through town and think back to the epic mounds of dim sum that graced our tables at dinner.

Food can be a fantastic way to take you back home for a short time when you’re feeling homesick (see more tips here: How to Battle Feeling Homesick). Making sure you know where you can go for a pizza or some chips is important. Throwing yourself into a situation can really help you to get the most out of it though and, if you find yourself faced with something completely out of the ordinary, I’d recommend that you try it as you may not get another chance.

Weather

Weather may be the reason that you’ve picked a destination. This can also be a factor in allowing culture shock to set in.

One particular example of this might be in Malaysia. As an Islamic country, ideas on dress are important. When walking down the street this isn’t so noticeable, but it can become important when you want to visit some of the beautiful and ornate Mosques.

Forgetting to prioritise cultural respect over comfort, Rachel and I once found ourselves at the Blue Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, with myself wearing shorts.

It had been a hot day and both Rachel and I had dressed accordingly. We aren’t simpletons and had of course brought scarves to cover shoulders and heads, but hadn’t considered my pasty shins poking out the bottom of me.

As such, we found ourselves walking around the Mosque, Rachel in a hijab and myself in a thobe which were provided by the Mosque for visitors.

Completely unaccustomed to the heat and wearing far more that we’d usually wear on a much cooler day, we both found ourselves becoming increasingly uncomfortable and desperately sweaty.

It isn’t a quintessential example of culture shock but the failure of ourselves to consider the culture we were in lead to us being inadequately prepared, unable to enjoy what we were seeing, and very, very damp.

Bottom line is that, we should have taken steps to understand what lay ahead. Had we have done, we may have enjoyed this particular tour more.

Weather is such an important consideration in going anywhere but it extends beyond simply comfort and should embrace the culture which you are visiting.

Conclusion

There are said to be 5 stages of culture shock:

  1. The Honeymoon Phase – everything is exciting, it is new and it is unusual (to you at least).
  2. Rejection – your expectations aren’t met and the honeymoon is starting to end.
  3. Regression – you retreat from your surroundings, don’t get involved and often try and encompass yourself with others who are in the same situation.
  4. Recovery – if you can work through regression, you can start to acclimatise to your surroundings. Enjoy the differences and take pleasure in learning.
  5. Reverse Culture Shock – you go back. Now home seems weird.

It is easy to retreat and let the differences get the better of you, especially when you are in a phase of long term travel. This is totally normal and you shouldn’t let it get the better of you.

Jump in, embrace the change and have fun.

Finding something familiar like food, television or people, can help you to feel more at home. Always enjoy the differences because they are what make travelling fun.

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