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The Culture Shock Blues

by Globetrooper Todd | 16 Responses
Culture Shock Blues

It sounded like a great idea at home: travel to a developing country, see how the locals live, learn a thing or two about life, eat great food, make new friends, and return home a better person for it all.

Fast forward a few weeks, and there you are unpacking again in another rundown hostel, exhausted. After a luke-warm shower (if you’re lucky), you stare into the faded mirror, wondering why on Earth you thought you liked to travel.

But just hang in there, it’ll be gone in a day or two. It was bound to happen anyway. We build lives where routine rules and then we’re surprised by the discomfort of uprooting it all. It happens to most of us; you’re not alone.

Our First Dose of Culture Shock

Lauren and I first experienced the culture shock blues in Egypt. We were almost robbed outside the airport, we had nowhere to sleep the first night, and we were constantly swarmed by aggressive touts. It was tiring to the point that we questioned why we travelled.

A couple of days later, after meeting a few locals and bumping into other travellers, we adapted. We brushed off the touts, walked with more confidence, reveled in the exotic food, took pictures, made friends, found loads of adventure… it was suddenly what we originally expected.

How Do I Prevent Culture Shock?

Stay at home! Yes, seriously, that’s the only way to prevent it. But you’re not travelling to prevent culture shock. In fact, you’re travelling to self-administer the shock. You want the shock. You need the shock. But you don’t want to be shocked all the way back home.

How Do I Deal with Culture Shock?

1. Learn the Language

You pass an old woman sitting in the street. You can see it in her eyes; she’s wishing you’d go back to your self-righteous Western country and take your stupid democratic ideals with you. (Of course, you’re just being paranoid and she’s not thinking anything of the sort.)

You muster the courage to mutter the words, ‘Buenas Tardes’. Suddenly, she looks up, her eyes stretch open, she grins from ear to ear and says, ‘Ahhh, Buenas Tardes Amigo.’ All it took was a kind gesture in the local tongue.

Learn the language

Learning a new language in a new country - Crossroads Foundation

You wouldn’t expect everyone at home to smile. In fact, you probably wouldn’t walk along smiling either. But now that you’re in a new country, you’re vulnerable and expect everyone to be your best friend. It’s not entirely unreasonable; just deliver a few local words with a big smile and most people will welcome you, making it all a little easier.

2. Get Out and About

Sitting in your hostel or hotel just prolongues the shock. Get out there, explore the streets, find some adventure. Start small, just buy a bottle of water, then maybe sit down for a small lunch. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, find somewhere to get a haircut. It’s a great way to assimilate and explore local tradition.

Getting a haircut

People all over the world need haircuts - Kevin Coles

The culture shock blues often spawn from a fear of safety and communication. Getting out and about faces those fears head-on. But safety concerns are sometimes really warranted. So start by exploring in the daytime and with someone else, if possible. Keep your wits, but don’t be too standoffish. Be willing to talk, even with touts, but keep your ears pricked and mind alert.

3. Meetup with Other Travellers

After one or two days, you’ll be totally relaxed in your new environment. But in the interim, why not meet up with other travellers who are already comfortable? They’ll share their best experiences, teach you some of the language, and just make you feel a lot more relaxed. You can find travel partners on Globetrooper or on forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree.

Meet other travellers

Meet other travellers, they'll be going through the same blues as you

As much as we’d like to think the best interactions abroad are with locals, often they’re with other travellers. That’s because you tend to have more in common with other travellers. It has nothing to do with your socio-economic status, family values or political beliefs, it’s simply because you’re all travelling. Of course, not all travellers get along, but you’re certainly more likely to find friendship in people with similar interests, no matter where you go.

When You Just Can’t Handle It?

A string of bad experiences can just be too much for one person to handle. As tough as you think you are, when you’re mugged or assaulted or ridiculed, you just need time to regroup. So if you find yourself thinking about returning home (and you know deep down you don’t want to), find a place to take some time off.

Depending on your finances, spend a couple of nights at somewhere more relaxing. Get your own room, order some room service (I recommend the Club Sandwich), treat yourself to some fine wine, put your feet up, talk to your family over Skype, and just take it easy. You’ll be ready to hit the road again in no time.

Featured image by The Lint Screen

Posted in Adventure Travel | October 5th, 2010

16 Responses to The Culture Shock Blues

  1. Great tips! Culture shock can be tough to handle, even for experienced travelers. Actually I’ve discovered that the more I travel, the more I am in a state of permanent ‘shock,’ particularly when I return home. “These serving sizes are huge!!” Haha

    • Hehe, yeah, I know what you mean Andrew. Lauren and I have gone back to ordering our own meals now. In Australia and Canada we used to just order one meal to share and still leave some behind.

  2. I think these are great tips too – its good to know that these sorts of feelings are normal and that lots of people have them. When you feel like this you can sometimes think that you are the only one feeling it – you look around you and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves but all you might want to do is go home. So sometimes its good just to take stock and try and push through it.
    Its also a good idea to know that if something awful does happen the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has some great info on what a Conuslar Officer can do for you overseas. The Australian embassy can also put you in touch with with a 24 hour consular emergency centre or they can transfer you to Lifeline – obviously this is when things are really bad but good to know that there is someone to help in these circumstances.
    I still get homesick when I travel too long and I’m in my 50’s…..bit sad I know but there you go I’m a creature of habit.

    • Hi Heather, thanks for the kind words. I’ve heard many seasoned travellers recommend dropping into the Consular Office just to see a friendly face. They say sometimes you get a unique insight into a country by talking with people (from your own country) who’ve been there (in the foreign country) a while. We have yet to do it, but it looks like we’ll need to visit the embassies soon to get an visa to visit India.

  3. Great post. Contains good tips for the newer travellers as well as reminders for those veteran backpackers.
    Whenever I am in a foreign land for an extended of time, I just buy the local mobile phones and charge cards. And the first thing that I do is put the US embassy on speed dial as well as numbers of my local contacts.
    Weird, but with just that, I feel less isolated.
    Also, I try to find the nearest internet cafe (some places I go to just don’t have internet) and touch base with my facebook friends. That help a ton.

    • Hi Magnuspah, We’ve been really surprised how many places have wifi in Peru. We caught an overnight bus from Northern Peru to Lima and even it had wifi on board. The only place that didn’t have wifi was in Aguas Calientes, which ironically is the most touristy of all spots we’ve been. The place with the best wifi was a 2-star hostel in Huanchaco; Skype picture was crystal clear on both ends. I think Skype helps a lot in relation to your point about the phone and feeling connected.

  4. Great tips! I think your tip about getting out there is especially important, since when you least feel like it is when you most want to do it and joy can come in the most unexpected ways. For me, it was ordering a really cut cut of meat from the deli in German, instead of getting the so-so packaged stuff. It’s amazing how something so small can boost your mood and give you confidence to try other local things.

    • I should have definitely included that as point #4: Buy Yourself Some Comfort Food :) I’m a little ill (again) in Peru and it’s a great excuse to eat alfajores (to complement the ginger tea, of course).

  5. Todd….find a “tejas” and let it melt in your mouth…..will make you feel better.

    • Thanks for the tip dave; I’ll definitely keep an eye out.

  6. I find traveling to be a bit like Christmas. I should be enjoying it, at least that’s what most other people seem to be doing, but I don’t always enjoy it.
    In fact at times Ive wished I was at home, other times Ive had the time of my life.
    It all just seems a bit to much of a roll of the dice at times.
    Last time I went away, it was soon after a close relative had passed away and I ended up in Cambodia at the killing fields, what a downer. Now when I think of travel I just can’t get excited about it…. @$&^

    • Love the Christmas analogy. :) I really think that travel isn’t for everyone. If you’re content with home, then why change it? It’s a good thing to get out there and try it like you have, but if you’re just more comfortable at home, then why fight it. I don’t think it’s necessarily more noble to travel, even if that’s what we’re led to believe. For me, it was the opposite. I knew there was more out there and just had to explore it. I was restless, uneasy and unexcited with staying in one place, just like you are with travelling. On the other hand, maybe you just need a better group to travel with. For me, it’s all about the people. I really couldn’t care much for statues and relics, even though I’m meant to care.

  7. Learning the language is the most difficult, but surefire way to connect with locals. Great article, and right on-the-ball tips.

    • Thanks Christine. Love you latest haircut post. I’m due for another too, but might leave it for another country, Bolivia perhaps.

  8. Great post! I do love culture shock, but sometimes it gets to be too much and I just take some relaxing days, make some calls home and refresh myself before taking on the world again!

  9. Excellent post with great tips! I’ve experienced culture shock many times and love the exciting side of it. But I’m also familiar with the other and more challenging side, too, which can be quite intense.

    I’ve found it helpful, when possible, to get to get to know some locals and spend time with them. This can make things less shocking–and a lot more fun!

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