Coping with Culture Shock
You’ve taken the plunge and accepted that job (or grad program) abroad—congratulations! Your exhilaration about the opportunities ahead and your eagerness to dive in to a new life will ease your transition and keep things exciting—for a while.
But what happens the first day you feel homesick, frustrated, or totally overwhelmed in your new home country?
That’s culture shock, and it’s normal. Being abroad can feel like “descending into the rabbit hole,” as travel blogger and English teacher Cassandra Gambill puts it. “The rules of the game have changed. Mailing a letter, purchasing produce, and other seemingly simple tasks suddenly become fodder for messages home followed by a string of exclamation marks.”
Culture shock affects everyone differently. Transitioning into a completely new way of life can sometimes lead to negative reactions: depression, an urge to isolate yourself, irritation with your host culture, or trouble sleeping. But the good news is, it won’t last forever—it just takes time, patience, and a good dose of optimism. “Immersion somewhere new will always be a mixed bag of experiences,” says freelance writer Janel Torkington, who’s lived in places as distinct as Indiana, Bangkok, and Madrid. “But I think you can be selective in terms of which ones color your perspective.”
If you’re feeling down in your new culture (or, really, during any major transition!), here’s our advice on how to navigate and counter those negative emotions:
Give Yourself Space
You’re likely going to need some space to yourself—both physical and mental—to process the changes you’re experiencing. How you accomplish this will depend on where you are. If you’ve moved to a cosmopolitan city, make it yours! Take an afternoon to yourself to explore a new neighborhood, stop in at a welcoming café, or check out the local entertainment. If you’re living in a more remote location, some alone time with your journal or blog can give you time to think things through. (Friends and family back home will appreciate hearing your stories, too!)
And while discovering new places with a friend is always fun, traveling solo can open you up to opportunities you wouldn’t find when moving in a group. If there’s something you want to do, but no one you know is game to join you—just go by yourself! I’m an equestrian enthusiast, so, while living in Madrid last year, I took a weekend to get out of the city and visit the Royal Academy of Equestrian Arts in Andalusia. On the tour, I met a student from Colombia who spent most of the weekend exploring the town with me and regaling me with tales from the summer she spent riding bullfighting horses in Portugal. Had I been surrounded by a group, I doubt we would have even met.
Get Involved (and Get Social)
If all you do is work or study, and you make no effort to experience life in the culture you’ve moved into, you’re missing out on some of the most exciting reasons to go abroad in the first place. Find a way to pursue your passions in your new neighborhood—take a dance class, perfect your knowledge of the local language, join a community sports team, learn to cook the local cuisine. A huge move across the globe is the perfect time to explore new interests.
Getting involved in extracurriculars is also a great way to make new friends, both locals and fellow foreigners (who will understand where you’re coming from when you do experiencing homesickness or other travel frustrations). Try finding conversation exchanges, often hosted by book shops, cafés, and bars—you’ll meet new people, share travel tips, and practice your new language, too.
Prepare for Your Return
Surprisingly, when you return home, you can experience the same upheavals and “shock” as when you left. Some people, like Torkington, avoid this reverse form of culture shock by continuing to move on to new places. But if returning home is part of your plan, keep in mind that you will have changed by the time you get back. Your experience abroad will have altered your perspective, sometimes in ways you don’t even realize at first. “Don't expect nothing to have changed in the time you've been away,” explains Torkington. “Your old place will simply no longer fit as snugly. This is a good thing.”
You might feel distanced from friends and family who show only slight interest in your experiences—or be at a loss when they ask, “So how was Spain (or Thailand or Dubai)?” You’ll find you can’t even begin to summarize three months or an entire year into the single conversation they expect. And after months of shopping at an outdoor market or at boutique grocers, you might find yourself overwhelmed by something as simple as a whole aisle full of potato chips. Just be patient, and know it’ll take time for you transition back to your old home.
While you’re adjusting, look for ways to capitalize on what you learned while you were out of the country. Maybe that’s volunteering to teach English to immigrants or sharing your newfound favorite foods with friends here. Your experiences abroad are now a part of you, so do whatever you can to keep those memories alive.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Quino McCreery.
About The Author
Little brings Emily more of a thrill than taking a so-so sentence and making it shine or giving an alright paragraph more of a punch. She’s a self proclaimed word-nerd whose penchant for language took her from barista-ing in a bookstore café during college to serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a high school just outside of Madrid after graduating with a double major in English and Spanish. Since returning to the States over a year ago, Emily has worked as Associate Editor for The Daily Muse and established a Spanish language social media presence for one of Southwest Michigan’s leading credit unions. Recently married, she, her hubby, and their crazy cat, Angel, call the shores of Lake Michigan home.