Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or a first-time expat, stepping onto foreign territory can make you feel very vulnerable. Everything seems so bizarre and foreign that even little differences and insecurities can escalate into huge problems. We often create mountains out of molehills and begin to struggle with daily life, asking ourselves: Will I ever get used to this? Will I ever feel at home in this new country?
Indeed, culture shock has even been identified as a medical condition: it is the physiological and psychological stress experienced when a foreigner is suddenly deprived of former customs, familiar faces, language, routine and environment. When the novelty of the new country wears off culture shock usually sets in. The sensation may be severe or mild, last months or only hours and strike when and where you least expect it.
Symptoms may include:
• Sleepiness, apathy, anxiety, depression
• Compulsive eating or drinking
• Exaggerated homesickness
• Decline in productivity
• Recurrent minor illnesses
• Unwarranted criticism of the culture and people
• Heightened sensitivity
• Constant complaints about the climate
• Declining to take part in activities outside of the home
• Utopian ideas related to one’s previous culture
• Continuous concern about the purity of water and food
• Fear of touching local people
• Refusal to learn the language
• Preoccupation about safety and trust
• Increasing desire to talk with people who “really make sense”
Here are ten ways to deal with culture shock before and after it happens:
Be a tourist
Plan time to do the cheesy touristy things and find wonder in what the locals wouldn’t be seen dead doing.
Pick one thing everyday that you like about the culture
If you can do this then you know you’ve made massive headway overcoming your culture shock. And, if and when you return home – although you may not believe it now – there will surely be plenty of things that you miss!
Get an “insider”
Make friends with someone from the local culture who you can confide in when nothing seems to make sense and you need to know what’s culturally appropriate and not – he or she can be vital for your sanity’s survival.
Get a home culture buddy
Make friends with someone from your own culture who can empathise with your culture shock and make home not feel that far away.
Go for walks
Get out of the house and spend time exploring on foot in the fresh air. Feel awe regarding the new wonders and beauties of life around you.
Do something that makes you feel courageous every day
Adventure surrounds you in another culture. Taking courage can simply mean going to the local flea market by yourself. If you see it as an adventure rather than a chore you may actually suddenly find yourself having fun!
Do something familiar
Watch your favourite TV series, cook your much-loved food, listen to your preferred native language music … whatever makes you feel good! And continue celebrating native festivities at home with friends you can invite over.
Get a few pieces of home creature comforts sent in the post
Ask family or friends to send you a little package of home delicacies once in a while … Tetley teabags and Mcvities chocolate digestives can work wonders for the soul.
Pull out your pen and get it all down on paper. In months to come you’ll be amazed at finding humour in situations that were embarrassing or annoying at the time.
Do your research
Trawl the internet buy a country guide book, watch local movies, and learn the language. But be patient; overcoming culture shock can make you feel like a two-year old again, finding his feet for the first time!