A friend recently asked me to write about culture shock. Although I’m not much of an expert on it, I have experienced it several times. The most memorable were these two instances:
1. A few years ago, when I volunteered on an organic farm for the first time— our host was a bit of a hippie and the volunteers were incredibly liberal. I realized that there were so many things I took for granted (e.g. humans should not try to make themselves extinct) that my friends there did not.
|"Why is everyone speaking German?"|
2. Last summer, when I flew overseas— the Shelter Hostel in the Netherlands was much like other hostels I’d visited, but when poor planning left me a bit stranded in Hamburg, Germany, I freaked out.
There have been several others of lesser degree— for instance, seeing for the first time the fallout of racism against Native Americans, or switching from the culture of Latter Day Saints to Irish Catholicism— but I’ve handled them gracefully and adjusted quickly. So, from both positive and negative experiences, I have a few suggestions.
In advance, make sure the logistics of your trip are confirmed and easy to follow. When the mechanics of a trip flow smoothly, you can focus more on the experiences instead of trying to process everything at once. (See my tips on trip-planning here and here.)
Do some homework. Learning about a culture before you get immersed in it is always helpful, whether it’s a foreign country or just a worldview you’ve never encountered. Also be sure to take stock of what you believe before you leave on a trip, particularly if you have strong views. Are you ready to see these views challenged and tested? Will you be willing to change your mind?
When immersed in a different culture, figure out a familiar place to take a break. This can be difficult/impossible in many places in the world, but you can do your best. Try a hostel, a historic spot with a lot of tourists, a city park, or a nature trail. Don’t make my mistake: in Germany, one of my loneliest moments was walking into a McDonald’s in search of Wi-Fi. It looked just like a McDonald’s back home, but everyone was still speaking German, so it felt really eerie, a mockery of familiarity. Walking in the Hirschwald Naturpark a few weeks later was much better.
|Walking is also timed-tested Lisa stress relief.|
Keep an open mind. “Open mind” is one of those phrases that makes me flinch, so let me clarify: you do not (nor should you) completely accept and be happy about everything you encounter. However, you shouldn’t completely dismiss something just because it’s new. I would’ve never discovered how much I liked hostels if I hadn’t given the first one a shot. I would’ve never had such great conversations with my farming friends in Washington if I had refused to associate with them because they smoked pot (even though I always passed the pipe without partaking).
Try to understand. Don’t give up if you don’t “get” a new culture right away. Accept it on its own terms, trying not to impose too many preconceived notions onto it. (See my blog on comparing.)
Always look for the good. No matter where you are, and no matter how crazy things are around you, seek out the positive and the admirable. You don’t have to believe that something is true or even right— you can still see beauty in something, no matter how broken or strange you may find it.
Stay in touch with home. Call home and write letters when you can. Take along something that reminds you of home: a family photo, a bottle of lotion that you used every day at home, a sentimental item of clothing (but remember, nothing you would be too devastated about losing). Bring along a book and some music that you’ve liked for a long time. Don’t forget a Bible, or, if you’re not a Christian, a book that inspires you and reminds you of your worldview.
Express yourself. Being in a foreign culture can be really stressful. I work through my thoughts through words, so I find that calling home and journalling are the two best ways to release any pent-up emotions or stresses.
Allow yourself a little break-down. If you’re like me, even if you express your emotions a lot, they still manage to explode. If this is inevitable, then you need to learn how to make it a controlled explosion. Wait until you’re somewhere emotionally safe— a good hostel, with some friends, or an open stretch of road, for instance. Let it all out. Remind yourself it’s okay to be homesick. It’s okay to feel bad. When the explosion dies down, take some deep breaths, drink some tea (or, in my case, hot cocoa), return to what you were doing, and see this as a fresh start.
Remember, it’ll be a great blog later.
Next week: Dealing with culture shock when you come home.