CULTURE SHOCK. You’re lost, standing baffled in new surroundings with a heavy pack on your shoulders, unable to tell left from right, up from down, phone booths from trash cans or rip-off artists from friends.
But this image of sudden shock isn’t quite accurate.
In reality, culture shock is a much more nuanced phenomenon that can take months to develop and overcome. Culture shock will flip your emotions topsy-turvy. It will affect you in completely unexpected ways.
More than simply being surprised at unfamiliar social norms, weird new food or foreign modes of conversation, culture shock will impact you long after you become familiar and comfortable with the day-to-day customs of a new culture.
Culture shock tends to move through four different phases: wonder, frustration, depression and acceptance.
Of course, like all things that happen in our complicated little brains, it’s never really that simple or easy. Each of these stages take time to run their course, and how deeply one affects you is never set in stone. Even the order of these 4 stages can be unpredictable.
Jet-lag and wonder
The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive and far from bewildering. This is often called the “honeymoon phase” – when you’re so fascinated with the language, the people, and the food that the trip seems like the greatest thing you’ve ever done. You’re having an adventure!
On shorter trips this honeymoon period can be a huge boon, as the rush of foreign stimulation makes a vacation all the better, and having a set return date can ward off the less enjoyable aspects of culture shock.
Anyone who’s visited another continent has felt this rush of excitement the minute they got off the plane, and will no doubt never forget it.
Guidebooks about Southeast Asia play on this fairly often, inevitably starting with a vivid description of Bangkok – the overwhelming smell of fish sauce, the muggy tropical air, the traffic straight out of hell – all things that contribute to the sense of having touched down on another planet.
Settling in…to frustration?!
This is a difficult stage of culture shock, familiar to anyone who has lived abroad or traveled for a long time. You don’t understand gestures, you get laughed at, and you horribly offend a little old lady without knowing why.
The usual response is anger. I often tell people that culture shock is walking out the door, being greeted by a neighbor, and wanting nothing more than to shout obscenities at them.
It is a visceral reaction that permeates every part of the experience, from misunderstanding shopkeepers, to losing your keys or missing the bus. Frustration comes and goes, disillusion comes on like a monsoon and the pangs of homesickness can become debilitating.
The first time I went to Asia I got it bad. After a month and a half of backpacking and two months teaching in Saigon, I was ready to go home.
The city began to weigh on me in ways I couldn’t have forseen. Struggling against the smog and noise felt like trying to keep my head above water while wearing lead boots. The food, the people, the language – nothing was exotic anymore. I just wanted a hamburger.
Depression: feeling stuck
Ah, the big one. We’ve all felt a little down before, but rarely when we’re so far from home.
Depression on the road is a feeling of hopelessness and longing, like nothing will ever be okay again until you hop on that plane home.
The worst part about this brand of moping is that it’s difficult to see the link to culture shock – the feeling can sometimes seems disconnected from travel, and often even homesickness. It can take the form of simple, implacable malaise.
It’s hard to be so far away, especially if you’re all by yourself. Frustration can bring on homesickness, but depression adds the dimension of feeling like you just have to get out.
Acceptance: home away from home
After weeks and months of blindly struggling through a thousand different emotional states every hour, acceptance finally arrives like a warm bath at the end of a hard day.
Acceptance does not necessarily entail total understanding – it’s nearly impossible to ever claim complete understanding of another culture – but instead involves the realization that you don’t have to “get” it all. You find what makes you happy and content in your new surroundings.
For me, this realization happened a few months after I moved to Saigon a second time. I began to find my place in the motorbike horns, cigarette smoke, and other expats floating through the fray. When Vietnamese started sounding more like a language than a fax tone and I ceased getting hopelessly lost on the potholed roads, the whole experience began to feel like a coherent whole instead of a random collection of aimless madness.
And there lies the crux of culture shock: the bad stuff, like feeling lost, hopeless, and out of place, will run its course no matter what happens.
Going the distance
Even though you can’t avoid culture shock entirely, there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself.
The first step, of course, is to recognize that what you’re going through is culture shock. If you can come to terms with wild mood swings and sad times, and recognize they’re part of the inevitable process, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself that the bad feelings will pass. And they will.
Secondly, it’s crucial to learn the language as you go. Culture shock, at its simplest, is an inability to integrate, and the biggest barrier to that is generally language. The more able a traveler is to laugh, cry, and seek solace with the locals, the easier it is to deal with ups and downs.
Though it can be one of the toughest parts of traveling, culture shock is just as integral to the experience as food, people, and scenery. By recognizing it for what it is and doing your best to cope, you can easily prevent culture shock from ruining an otherwise fantastic journey.
This article was originally published on November 20th, 2007.