10 Tips to Get Out of Culture Shock Alive

All summer OM will feature posts and stories from black millennials traveling the world. Read Leah Shaw’s last post about quitting her job to teach in Taiwan.

By: Leah Shaw, July 14, 2017

Food, lifestyle and fashion may take some getting used to but is worth it for a full experience. Credit: Leah Shaw.

Food, lifestyle and fashion may take some getting used to but is worth it for a full experience. Credit: Leah Shaw.

Travel, by definition, means to make a journey of varying length. We all travel for different reasons—to experience nature, push our physical boundaries, learn about a different culture, explore our dream destination or simply for a change of scenery. And an unpleasant, but real part of that journey is culture shock—the feeling of disconnect and isolation when an environment is different and it shocks us to the core. Often these feelings have to do with a deeper difference in interpersonal relations, customs and mindset. Though not everyone experiences culture shock, or does but to varying degrees, it’s always best to prepare for it, plan for it and find your way through it when it comes. It’s a necessary, and temporary step to integration and connection with a new environment. So, the next time you’re feeling estranged in a new location, try these tips. And hopefully the next time you see a squat toilet, you won’t run away shrieking.

  1. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #1: Do your research The best preparation is to do your homework and know what you’re getting into beforehand. Read up on the history of the people, common foods, methods of transportation, etc. Get varying perspectives from travel blogs and informational websites, encyclopedias and cultural exchange groups to have
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    Leah Shaw tries local ways of transport. Credit: Leah Shaw

    an idea of what to expect when you land. Then make a list of foods to try and places to see. It will be exciting to experience what you’ve read about!

  2. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #2: Try to learn the local language and customs If you are travelling to a place with a different culture, make an attempt to learn the local language and customs. While in Taiwan, I learned to lay my chopsticks on top of my bowl in between bites, and always took my shoes off when entering someone’s home. These little bits of assimilation will connect you to your new location, and help you understand why locals live the way they do. And don’t be afraid to try out the vocabulary you’ve learned as you travel—not only will locals appreciate the effort, but it will help you feel like you belong just a little bit more.
  3. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #3: Change your perspective, change your mind When I moved to Taiwan, the single best thing that helped me adjust was being open-minded. They use squat toilets? Ok. Rice or noodles for breakfast, lunch AND dinner? No problem. Want me to work 50 hours a week? Sure. Though there is such thing as being too open (a.k.a when you start to compromise your personality and values), it will help you process reality a bit easier. Realize that this is someone else’s normal. You will adjust too. Be ready to embrace newness.
  4.  How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #4: Shock therapy The best way to get over something is to dive right into it right? Go ahead and dig deep. Find out everything that could shock, surprise or sway you and guess what? You might even come to enjoy an aspect of the culture that surprises you. The worst that can happen is that you realize you don’t like something and don’t try it again. The best thing? You won’t be so shocked the next time you discover a new aspect of the culture and may even adopt it as your own.
  5. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #5: Do a tour, and then break from the itinerary
    Tours can be super helpful as a fast and knowledgeable way to download information about a new location. Tours also offer the opportunity to meet other travelers who may be going through their own form of culture shock. So, go on a tour—then break away from the group. Get to know the environment on a deeper level. Find a local hotspot, strike up conversation with a native and be prepared for a new perspective.
  6. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #6: Make connections The worst thing you can do when feeling disconnected and isolated in a different environment is to actively keep yourself in that space. Instead, make the effort to go out (even if it’s to a local market or a walk around the neighborhood). Smile at people, give positive body language and be friendly. You never know who you may meet that can shed light on the culture, and may turn your experience around.
  7. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #7: Bring a piece of home with you Bring an item or memory that reminds you of a familiar place or time. For me, it’s old pictures, music and even TV shows that remind me of a different time. Part of establishing a new normal, is having a piece of familiarity to help you feel connected to yourself and past experiences. By holding these relics close, you will have a sense of comfort in a foreign environment.
  8. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #8: Let your past empower you So you’ve landed at the destination and made it to your accommodations. You planned, put your money where your mouth was, battled jet lag and maneuvered airport
    Leah Shaw tries on local fashions, embracing the new country. Credit Leah Shaw

    Leah Shaw tries on local fashions, embracing the new country. Credit Leah Shaw

    security. Congratulations! You made it this far and that’s further than most so you probably have a little more in you. Guess what? You will adjust and adapt. Be patient and forgiving and most of all, give yourself time.

  9. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #9: Accept even the unexplainable
    The cliché If you can’t beat em, join em is popular for a reason, right? Weirded out by odd holidays or funny food smells? Educate yourself and then jump right in to the experience. Nothing will shock you after that!
  10. How to Survive Culture Shock Tip #10: Embrace your wild side Be open to the adventure you left home for. This includes the good, the bad and the unexplainably uncomfortable. Travel is exciting, but it’s also demanding. If you’re afraid of change, don’t. But if you want to experience life through another lens, you will have to reach for new levels.

It’s super easy to run when new experiences make us feel weird, but embracing the not-so-perfect moments is what will really shape our experience. It’s also worth noting that the more you travel, the more you’ll uncover that no matter how different cultures and societies seem, we all have one thing in common: we are all human. People still go to work in the morning, value family and friendships and experience love and loss. On your next trip make it a point to uncover the humanity behind the customs and culture. Peace will find you, and along the way you may just uncover a new love for stinky tofu.

10 comments

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