Before you embark upon any big trip, you can guarantee that everyone you know will ask how safe the country you’re visiting is, whether or not you’ve packed mosquito spray, and if you’re worried about getting food poisoning.
While these are all reasonable concerns, there’s one thing many people suffer with abroad but never really know how to prepare for: culture shock.
What is culture shock?
Like the name suggests, culture shock refers to the feelings of disorientation and uneasiness you sometimes feel when visiting a new country or immersing yourself in a new culture.
The chances are you’ve probably experienced culture shock at some point or another, but may never have really understood why you were feeling the way you were. It can manifest in a variety of different ways, depending on the person and the situation.
Culture shock is more than feeling homesick; everything from unfamiliar table etiquette to language barriers can make you feel confused and out of place in a new country, and may even cause you feel resentful or angry.
These feelings of resentment and confusion can be especially frustrating when mingled with the anticipation of your trip. When you’ve dreamed for so long of losing yourself in little side alleys and falling in love with delectable dishes no travel blog could have prepared you for, it can feel disappointing to realise that actually, you’d quite like to jump back on a plane and head straight home again.
But, like everything else, these feelings will pass. Here are my top tips for helping the process along:
Expect culture shock
When I moved to Vietnam, culture shock initially floored me. Within an hour or so of arriving at my hotel in Hanoi, terrified beyond belief at the prospect of living in this entirely new world for a whole seven months, I had locked myself in my room and hidden under the covers.
I think jet lag was partly to blame for my feeling so overwhelmed, but it was also because I just didn’t expect to feel the way I did. If I had known about culture shock, I would have been able to rationalise my behaviour a little better.
Don’t expect yourself to feel 100% normal the minute you arrive in a completely different place, as this will only put extra pressure on yourself.
Understand that it will pass
Don’t expect yourself to feel the effects of culture shock forever. You will soon adjust to life and travel in your new destination and will hopefully love your time there! Take it easy and be kind to yourself – nothing lasts forever.
Do your research
The more you know about a place before you arrive, the less confused and anxious you’ll (hopefully) feel as you try to settle in. Having an idea of the customs you’ll be expected to follow and any major cultural adjustments you’ll need to consider will make it 10 x easier to accept and embrace life in your new home country.
Take it one step at a time
Culture shock won’t pass in a day. In fact, even after you’ve been living in the same place for months on end, bouts of confusion and resentment may pop up from time to time. Taking it one step at a time is the only way to put everything into perspective and manage how you’re feeling.
When culture shock first hit me, I felt completely overwhelmed. I called my mum in a panic asking her to book me onto the next flight home. She told me to breathe and take things one step at a time, which I did.
Whenever you notice yourself feeling nervous or overwhelmed, set yourself mini goals. If you can get through the coffee you’re drinking, great. If you can make it through the next hour without hyperventilating, amazing. There’s no rush to feel okay, so take it steady and focus on getting yourself through the day in tiny, bitesize pieces.
Make friends – and open up to them
Whether you’re residing in a new place for three weeks or three years, making friends with positive and like-minded people is a great way to settle in. Forming friendships can instantly help you feel more at home by giving you a support network to rely on. The chances are your newfound friends will have had their own experiences with culture shock, so you’ll be able to open up about how you’re feeling and ask for their advice.
Find excitement in the little things
Try to remember that everything is all part of your travel experience, including the bad stuff. Even on the days when you’re feeling a bit shaken up, try to find excitement in the little things, such as getting a bit lost and stumbling upon a new part of the city. These are all things you’ll miss when you’re back in your home country, so try to see everything as an adventure while you can.
Make your new accommodation feel like home
After a day of exploring or working in your new city, you’ll want to head back to your room and put your feet up, just like you would at home.
If your accommodation is lacking in charm and character, then you’re unlikely to feel settled there, and homesickness and culture shock might rear their ugly heads. To combat this, try and make wherever you’re staying feel a little more homely.
Even if you’re staying in a hostel or hotel, keeping a few photographs of your friends and family around can make a big difference. Spritz the furniture with a scent that reminds you of home, and put fairy lights up to give the place a bit of ambience. These small steps really can go a long way towards making you feel more at ease.
Keep a journal
I like to record everything, especially when I’m on the go, and this usually tends to take the form of a diary or journal. Writing about my day helps me to decompress and analyse how I feel, which can be a really useful form of self-therapy. If you enjoy writing, then keeping a journal could be a great way to work through the culture shock you’re facing and make everything feel more manageable. Even a couple of bullet points might help, so don’t worry if the idea of writing a diary seems completely out of reach.
If you have any tips to add, I’d love to hear them below!