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Culture shock can happen to anyone, even the happiest among us!

So you finally did it! You splurged on the tickets, braved the long flight, fought the jet lag, thrilled at the new stamp drying on your passport, haggled with the taxi driver, and at last wearily set your bags down in your new room (without the promised view). You manage an exhausted yet triumphant smile as you pass out on the lumpy bed – you are now a world traveller!

Despite the fact that an hour later you are running on caffeine and some puffy creamy thing that you paid 2 Euros for from a surly bartender who stiffed you the correct change (you might be new at this but you can still count!), your excitement has not waned. You begin exploring your surroundings with an eager eye, yet you cannot help but notice a strange feeling creeping in. Something inside you just feels, well, off.

Brushing this unusual inner emotion away, you continue your new explorations. But as the days pass, things still feel not quite right. Is this going to affect your trip negatively, you wonder?

The situation above, while fabricated, is not uncommon. Culture shock is an experience that many travellers are not prepared for, do not know how to recognize, and therefore are unable to manage wisely. I have heard from many people who, on their early journeys abroad, said that they were uncomfortable  because of the strange “feeling” that followed them. Some have even said it ruined their entire trip.

Fortunately though, many travellers before you have experienced this, gradually learned to understand what it is, and can now share their insight in a helpful way. I am one of those travellers who has been dragged through the College of Culture Shock in the School of Traveller’s Hard Knox, but my free education has proven priceless in how I handle my travels – and maybe it can be of some help to you.

My first trip to Europe was in 2001. I was young, excited, and terribly misled about what to expect. I thought Europe would be everything I had seen in postcards, studied in history books, and dreamed about in travel guides, so I was not prepared for the confusion of hideous modern urban developments and most of all, that nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Back home in the states, I shared with friends my conviction that this feeling  must have stemmed from the country that I had been visiting. For some years after I firmly believed something was wrong with that country or else it would not have put off such a terribly uncomfortable vibe.

In the fall of 2005 I moved to Dublin, Ireland where I was to live for the next 9 months. Thrown into the culture and life of the city, I began to notice that same ugly feeling rearing its head all over again, the feeling that something was definitely wrong. I could sense it everywhere, and the worst part was that I could not shake it. I wanted to be free of  it desperately, just to feel for a moment that everything was right. But it followed me everywhere, as though I was trapped and imprisoned in an uncomfortable cloud of energy that I could not escape from. It truly felt like I was being stifled and I could not escape.

I began to naturally miss home, and there were nights when I am sure I looked more like a home sick school girl than a mature adult. So what can you do if you start experiencing similar feelings? Here are ten tips that I have compiled over the years which may prove useful to you or someone you know:

1) Educate yourself about culture shock before you travel. Read all you can and become well versed in recognizing the symptoms. That way if it happens to you, or someone with you, you can recognize it while it is happening and help yourself (or them). This ability will give you great power over it. I can now easily recognize culture shock if and when it begins to emerge, and I can grab it by the reigns and say “I control you, not the other way around!” And always remember it can happen anywhere you travel – even in an English speaking country.

2) Remember that culture shock can take many different forms at many different times. Not everyone’s experience will be the same. Some people can spend months in a culture before they start to experience such emotions while others can go through it immediately upon stepping off the plane. The intensity can vary as well. Travel is a personal experience and everyone processes it differently. So be kind to yourself if you experience it, or to anyone with you who is going through it.

3) If things begin to feel “off” or “creepy” remind yourself that this does not mean something is wrong with the country or place. It simply means that things feel “off” because to your mind, they are. Your mind is constantly processing information on levels that you are not aware of, and even the slightest cultural cues, if different from what you are used to or have seen before, can cause emotions leading to mild or severe culture shock. Being in a new culture, even if it is English-speaking, can confuse your mind on a very subconscious level. (This does not mean you should not use common sense – if you are on a dark street at 3 am [or any other unsafe situation] and you feel creeped out or that something is wrong,  for heaven’s sake get to safety!)

4) Try to remind yourself that this is an adventure. The challenge of an adventure is to experience all the different things around you with the spirit of a true world traveller – and that means bravely forcing yourself to adjust to all differences that do not compromise your morals, including the feelings that you are having.

5) When missing home, try to recall how much you dreamed about your trip. Remind yourself that you will eventually return home, back to your normal life. You have spent many years there and will for many more to come.  But this is a unique adventure, and adventures have real risks and hardships! Try to see yourself as an explorer and remember what the real explorers of old went through. At least you have a clean bed without rats for roommates!

6) Keep going. One symptom of culture shock is to shut down and hide in your room, so do not allow this to happen. It is hard if you are feeling unbalanced by the culture you are in, and it might be easier to You Tube the day away, but force yourself to get out and keep going.

7) Look for the positive. Instead of seeing the negatives, such as a dirty city, or things that you do not like, look for the good. Try to use your eyes like lasers, seeking out the positive around you and filtering out the negative. Try to remember that many people would be very happy to be in your shoes right now. You are a real explorer!

8) Try to speak the language if you are in a culture with a different form of communication. This can be a great help because many natives will be more receptive to a tourist trying to speak their language which can make you feel more welcomed. It also can make your trip more fun!

9) Avoid any forms of cultural arrogance. Sometimes you might want to just scream, “I want to hear English! I want to be on American soil! Why don’t they do things different here?” But don’t. Learning how to blend into another culture is a huge part of successful travel. First time Americans abroad can struggle with American pride, but trust me, you will only look to seasoned travellers like a toddler taking its first steps.

10) Remember that culture shock and missing home is not something that is easily conquered. While some people may breeze by without a whiff of shock, others can spend years of travelling before they overcome  feelings of culture shock and missing home. For me, it was the “keep going” attitude that did it. It took a long time, and many trips, but eventually I began to realize that when I go home I always end up missing travel after a while anyways – so why bother being nostalgic for home? And the feelings of something being wrong eventually go away as well. Now some places that I once felt uncomfortable in feel like home to me! It is all a matter of persistence and strong attitude. You can do it!

So there you are, 10 tips for successfully overcoming culture shock and feelings of homesickness. But remember, no list of tips can ever be an end in itself. It is experience and perseverance that always, in the end, win out. But hopefully these tips will help make you a little more prepared to make your trip (or the trip of someone with you) one you will look back on with a smile for years to come.

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