Culture Shock

Have you ever been homesick?

Maybe you were young and away at summer camp, and started missing your mom (or her cooking). Maybe you were older and away at university, and started missing your dog. Or your friends from your hometown, or just having a sofa and a fully stocked fridge instead of bunk beds and cafeteria food. Regardless of your life experiences, you know what it’s like to dislike where you are and wish yourself elsewhere.

Well, sometimes culture shock is like that, but often it’s actually not. It’s complicated, occasionally subtle, and different from person to person.

With culture shock, you don’t want to go back home, not really. You’re exactly where you want to be, planned to be, wished and dreamed and worked so hard to be. And now, after the first few days, weeks, or even months (the honeymoon period), you feel…blah.

At first you had an eager, open-minded attitude; you learned as much of the language as you could remember and tried all the food. You asked a million questions, took pictures, and enjoyed the novelty of new circumstances. You prided yourself, rightfully so, on being enlightened and tolerant. Far be it from you to have anything in common with those xenophobic snobs who think their nation and background is the only “right” way to live!

And now that you’re comfortably settled in? A bad day has turned into a bad week…or several. You’re “over” the food, weather, surroundings, and even people. Cultural differences that you absorbed and adjusted to quickly are starting to get under your skin. Little things are constantly ticking you off, and you’re on the verge of losing your temper in daily interactions (if you haven’t already). If you have anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles, those conditions are definitely acting up right now. No matter how strong, independent, happy, or well-travelled you are, you feel like a bit of a mess at this point.

Congratulations. You, my dear homie, are in the throes of culture shock. Cool, huh? Bet you didn’t know it could happen to someone as worldly and sophisticated as you. And yet here we are. Strap in for the ride.

When you have moved to a new culture (this can happen sometimes even within your own country), you are guaranteed to start feeling frustration, anger, sadness, loneliness, fear, and other assorted negative emotions at some point.

What culture shock is NOT: inflexibility, being over-emotional, small mindedness, intolerance, a bad attitude, weakness, or a personal failing. Do NOT beat yourself up for going through culture shock. Being disappointed in yourself is too big a burden to bear! It will only make things harder for you, especially since so much of this is beyond your control.

So what does it look like?

After a few months in China, I started listening to country music so I could “feel American”.

In Korea and Japan it was much more subtle; I had bouts of insomnia and quit exploring. When I came here to Albania, I soon became much more quiet and withdrawn than usual.

I saw multiple British and American coworkers lose their cool at the indirect communication style of some Chinese coworkers.

One British man said he would sometimes have a “bad China day.” “Do you ever just walk down the street and think, ‘Why does that man’s face look like that?'” he asked. I had to admit, no. “What makes it better?” I asked. “Get drunk” was his advice (rather stereotypically for someone from the British Isles).

Who can begin to say how many Americans (and other westerners with a linear concept of time) have snapped and lost their tempers at slow-moving bureaucrats, taxi drivers, waiters, and other service people? Really too many to count.

Who can begin to say how many African and Indian university students in the U.S.A. and Europe have railed in misery against the cold winters, individualistic attitudes, and comparatively flavorless food? Really too many to count.

So, what makes it better?

Good food

This is first because it’s the most important! Comfort food is an absolute necessity in these dire circumstances, and it will do you a world of good. Get a hearty dinner of a food you’ve always liked. Take a break from the local fare for as long as you need to, if it helps. You’ll come back around in the end.

Friends

Find the expat/foreign community and other like-minded people to hang out with. We humans are designed to live in close society with others, and being new in a place makes that difficult to achieve. If linguistic and cultural differences are stopping you from making friends, it’s more than alright take a little while to invest in relationships with people you have more in common with. Oh, and call your mom and friends back home! Regardless of whether you’re primarily an introvert or extrovert, we all crave belonging desperately. In fact, the lack of it is a huge part of culture shock. Reach out and find someone that you can belong with, even if it’s just over the phone or for a quick coffee.

Watch some Netflix

Come on, this is an easy one, but it does help. Sometimes the world is just too much. Numbing with a good story or exciting series is so much healthier than numbing with alcohol! (But I do recommend having a good drink or two on hand, along with yummy snacks and cozy blankets. Make a night of it.)

β€œFantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” – J.R.R. Tolkein

Things you Like

Hobbies are your lifeline. Lean into the most reassuring aspects of your everyday, usual life now more than ever. If you’re active, join a gym or club, and find good routes for hiking, running, etc. It helps to have some favorite places that you like to go, like a favorite restaurant, bar, or park. Find the stores with imported goods, get haircut and manicure if that’s what you like, photograph what stands out, and generally find a million other little ways to feel like yourself wherever you happen to be. Positive connections and associations with concrete, physical places will serve you well, no matter how low you feel. The more ordinary things you find to love, the less you will hate where you are.

For example, I love coffeeshops and immediately pick one to be “mine” whenever I move to a new place. I get a warm and homey feeling as soon as I walk in and settle down at “my” usual seat. I’m on my fourth country in two and a half years, and this tactic has never failed me. Familiarity and routine are your friends during culture shock!

Patience

Be gentle with yourself, above all. Do not get frustrated with yourself for not being at normal capacity, or pressure yourself to get over all of your feelings and be instantly okay. We tend to react to new circumstances in ways that are consistent with our personalities and general responses to stress. Know yourself and your stressors and coping mechanisms enough to recognize when it’s happening to you, and then take a deep breath and settle in for the ride.

Plants take time to adjust to new pots. They only start to relax and put out their roots into new space when they are healthy and thriving. So take good care of yourself so you can thrive.You’re not somehow coping poorly under normal circumstances, you’re actually coping pretty well under abnormal circumstances!

Culture shock can also come back periodically in waves, maybe every six months or a year, not only at the beginning. And just like a wave in the ocean, all you have to do is duck under or ride it out. It can’t take you down permanently, because it’s only temporary.

Struggling doesn’t mean you’re failing. It means you’re fighting.

Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

14 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Wow! I loved every word of that. That is deep wisdom from living! Great words of encouragement, advice and consolation. You are a truly beautiful person inside and out. Thank you for sharing such deep, kind and encouraging words call of us. πŸ’•πŸ’•

    Liked by 1 person

  2. β€œThe more ordinary things you find to love, the less you will hate where you are.” – Yes! Appreciating the ordinary things helps! I find peace in washing the dishes. Makes a place feel more like when you’re doing an everyday chore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow! I’ve heard good things about Taiwan, but it’s also a very different culture than the one we were raised in. What brought you there, and how long ago did you leave?

      Like

      1. Left in 2005. I enjoyed the culture shock. To a degree. But it is so different and I enjoyed that. Seeing how other people lead their lives as well as what they believe. The systems of belief there are so different to what I grew up with and then it became frustrating as hell which if why I loved your post. I went there because a friend ran a school there and invited us for summer school. Loved it so much I stayed. For five years!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Everyone I’ve met who has been to Taiwan also loved it! I so wish I had the opportunity to see it while I was still living in China. I was also craving culture shock! Sounds like you had a positive experience; I’m so glad you got to get away and live your dream.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Culture shock is the inevitable phase for a successful expat life. Although its a difficult stage, it also reminds you that you’re acclimatizing, and once it passes- which it usually does within a few months- you learn to adapt. I have a love-hate relationship with the culture shock phase but have learnt to accept and appreciate what it teaches me. A great post with useful tips, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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