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Culture shock is the ultimate travel headache. Take the airline losing your luggage, plus your host brother loving Nickelback, plus breaking your new shoe on those damn cobblestone streets, and culture shock is worse than that. However, it is a necessary thing that everyone goes through when becoming immersed in a new region. If you don’t go through culture shock while studying, interning, volunteering, or teaching abroad, it probably means you’re not immersed enough, so in a weird way, you should be pumped that you’re feeling down because it means you’re doing something right!
Despite it being a right of passage, experiencing culture shock can really throw even the most stable people and experienced travelers off, and it can be tricky to tell if there is a more serious issue underneath. Some symptoms of culture shock can even mimic depression and anxiety, making it difficult to tell if there is a bigger problem or just something that will eventually pass. So, how do you tell the difference and figure out if you’re having an episode (if you’ve been diagnosed), developing a disorder (if you haven’t been diagnosed), or if you’re just dealing with the culture shock stages—confused, sad, combination of hormonal/exhausted/brain-on-overload?
What is culture shock?
Imagine coming from rural, cold New England (and having never really left New England), kissing your parents goodbye in the midst of a snowstorm, then arriving 14 hours later at of one of the busiest, dirtiest, and hottest airports in the world where everyone around you is yelling at their screaming children in a language you don’t understand, and pushing up against you on all sides (Buh-bye personal space). This is the very first encounter with the confusing, elusive, and straight up obnoxious thing that is culture shock. Buckle up!
Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation brought on by experiencing an unfamiliar culture, lifestyle, or set of attitudes. In other words, when you pack up your life, fly halfway around the world, and try to immediately immerse in a totally different culture, you can obviously expect to feel completely out of place and stick out like a sore thumb. To expect anything different would be delusional. When you travel or move to a new region, your daily routine, attitudes of people around you, and overall environment are completely different, and the process of recognizing, comprehending, and eventually adapting to these differences is the foundation of culture shock.
In our comfortable environment, our behavior, tone of voice, hand gestures, body language, and social cues all come from the culture we’re born into. We take the automatic understanding of these things for granted because we don’t have to pay attention to them – but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there. In a new culture, we have a heightened sense of awareness to these parts of life because they are so unfamiliar and confusing to us. Everyone expects to feel out of place linguistically or physically if they’re in a different country, but most people don’t expect to not understand basic parts of life like hand signals, how to wait in lines, or how to greet someone. These subtleties, which can be so unexpected that it feels like you’ve literally hit a wall when you experience them, are the reasons why it’s called “culture shock” and not “culture hug and warm greetings”.
The culture shock stages
For some people, they experience culture shock symptoms right from touchdown at the airport, and then maybe not again until a month later when they are trying to buy feminine products at the corner market and the man behind the counter yells at them. Luckily for most of us, there are four definitive stages of culture shock that we travelers follow:
1. Honeymoon Stage (Initial Euphoria)
When you first arrive in a new place, everything you see and do will be exciting, foreign, and endearing. It is totally normal to get caught up in all the wonderful things your new home has to offer and see right over any potential annoyances. You’ll want to ‘gram every meal that looks slightly different than what you’re used to. You’ll find the morning traffic jams to be funny because your usual definition of traffic is being stuck behind a tractor. You might even have competitions with your new friends over who has the most mosquito bites from sleeping without screens. You’ll be charmed by every difference rather than bothered and quick to recognize any cultural similarities to avoid feeling too out of your comfort zone right away.
2. Anxiety Stage (Irritation and Hostility)
This euphoria will wear away quickly. You’ll become agitated at simple things being so different. Maybe you’ll get really lost in your new home because you can’t read the street signs. You won’t understand why you have to buy bus passes at the post office but the post office is never open. You’ll just want to grab a quick cup of coffee but forget that your new culture only does sit-down coffee, and secretly/guiltily wish there was a Starbucks nearby. You will hate that you feel all of this anger and sadness at what was just a few weeks ago so new and exciting, and you won’t know where to place it all, so you’ll probably find yourself sobbing into your webcam at your mom or girlfriend or cat who is 10,000 miles away about how you just want a large chai latte and to ride the city bus without accidentally ending up in another country, dammit!
3. Adjustment Stage (Gradual Understanding)
Eventually, everything will start to click into place. Things that used to be so foreign and confusing will become routine, and your life will have balance once again. Rather than feeling annoyed or disgruntled that something doesn’t go your way, you’ll understand why it doesn’t and make more of an effort to learn about these factors that make cultures different. You might even come to enjoy that something is different. Maybe you used to hate that salads were dressed with only spices and olive oil, but now you can’t imagine eating it drenched in Ranch dressing. You’ll start to enjoy being forced to sit down and drink your coffee because you always meet someone new. You are firm, though, that you’ll never be a Nickelback fan, no matter how much your host brother blasts them every Saturday morning.
4. Mastery Stage (Adaptation/Biculturalism)
This is the final stage in your transformation of “Becoming a Local 101.” You’ll feel a high sense of comfort in your new home, you can throw out your maps and talk to strangers with ease, and language barriers aren’t a problem anymore (except for screaming children because no one can understand kids yelling in foreign languages). You will still have moments of homesickness and confusion, but your new friends, host family, and daily activities will become part of your life, and you won’t be able to imagine doing things any other way. What were you thinking, not using a bidet before? So barbaric.
How should I deal with culture shock symptoms?
Push through. It is definitely easier said than done, but culture shock is not going to just go away if you hide out in your new apartment binge-watching Orange is the New Black. You have to throw yourself into uncomfortable situations and experience as much of the new culture as you can in the hopes that someday soon these situations will become comfortable. Meet people, explore everything, read and watch the local news, party until 6 a.m. just like the locals, and stuff your face with all of the Nutella or dulce de leche you can find.
Everything will click into place eventually, so in the meantime, ride the wave!
Knowing if it is Something More
If you’ve gone through months of ups and downs and feel like you’re just stuck on one of the phases of culture shock with no “aha” moments, there is a possibility that it’s more than just an adjustment period. Ultimately, culture shock is temporary and it simply takes time to adjust to something totally new. If you feel like you’re not adjusting or everything new is too much, maybe it’s more than a fleeting discomfort.
Depression and anxiety while abroad are more common than people like to admit. It’s hard to complain when you’ve spent the whole day lounging in the European countryside and get to go home to your castle-view new apartment, but for people with depression or anxiety, even the most amazing things can be drowned out by emotion. It’s easy for people battling this type of disorder to feel guilty, spoiled, or even confused for being down even when they’re “living the high life” abroad, so they keep their feelings to themselves and hide the problem, potentially ruining their time abroad.
Chances are, if you think you’re developing depression or anxiety while abroad, you’ve probably been feeling some of these things for a long time, but nothing has made them surface quite like going abroad does. It’s crucial to deal with the problem as you first begin to notice it and take self-care seriously while abroad, as they aren’t feelings that are going to be magically fixed (but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed with a little effort!).
Illnesses like depression and anxiety are different for everyone, but ultimately you will need to take similar steps to make it more bearable while abroad. Start by talking to your family back home, program director, or school guidance counselor and have them help you speak with your host family, find a suitable doctor and/or therapist while abroad, and work through any international treatment or insurance issues. You are not the first person to go abroad with baggage (in fact most people go abroad with too much baggage!), and there are people available and programs set up to help those who need it.
One final tip for handling the culture shock stages
At the end of the day, regardless of if you’re merely experiencing culture shock or if you’re battling a more serious issue, talk to someone. The best thing you can do is acknowledge the problem and get someone with more authority involved to help you work through it. You’re abroad in what probably is an amazing place and it would be incredibly unfortunate to spend the entire time you’re there feeling miserable and helpless. There are ways to conquer whatever the issue is, so don’t be afraid to be vocal. After all, you are part of the truly tiny percentage of people who throw themselves into a brand new culture, so there has to be some part of you that is confident and stable enough to put this on yourself.
You can do this, and while you might doubt yourself sometimes, you ultimately know you’re stronger. There’s a reason why you didn’t just stay home!