By: Ruben Quinteros
Anger. Of all the emotions associated with culture shock, anger was the one I expected the least. I had never experienced culture shock in any real way before, and I had traveled enough to think that I was somehow uniquely immune. Maybe I was just peculiarly cosmopolitan, open-minded, or adaptable to new experiences. Two weeks into a trip to Myanmar, it seemed like I had been correct. Of course I felt the occasional pang of loneliness or problems with communication, but overall I felt comfortable and at ease.
But one morning about fourteen days in, I woke up a little groggy. I hadn’t had the best sleep the night before because the air conditioner in my room needed to be fixed, so it was an extremely hot night. Before I got into the shower, I wished I could just wash the toothbrush off with the water from the sink rather than using a bottle of water due to fear of bacterial contamination. In the shower, the small army of mosquito bites I’d received from the beginning of monsoon season really started to itch. The real breaking point came on my walk to the National Archives.
Traffic in Asia is notorious for being feverish to say the least, and Yangon was certainly no exception. An interesting quirk of this was that car horns were used as signals so that other drivers and pedestrians would be aware of their position on the road. Therefore, beeping was relatively constant, unlike in the United States where they are often used as a jarring and hostile last resort just before a possible accident. Every single car that passed me beeped at me to let me know that they were there, and as car after car did it on this day, an incredible frustration built up in me to the point that my hands were clenched into fists by the time I arrived at the Archives. I didn’t realize why I was so upset until my frustration brought up the thought, “I wish I was just at home right now”. I wasn’t mad at the drivers who were kindly reminding me of their presence, which was safer than not; I was experiencing culture shock.
Culture shock is not really a “shock.” There’s not a singular moment that makes you want to immediately flee on the next flight home. It’s a disorientation, a frustration, and a discomfort. And, like any of those feelings, it can be dealt with and eased, especially if you are only traveling for a short time and experiencing a minor case. With no further ado, here are four tips for dealing with culture shock:
Of course the first thing to do is to not freak out. This especially includes beating yourself up about having homesickness or culture shock in the first place. Feelings of discomfort are perfectly natural outside of your comfort zone, and regardless of where you go, you will be outside of your comfort zone in some way. Don’t let the frustration take over and obsess about it, but also don’t try to fight it either: embrace it! Get to the bottom of why you feel this way. However your “car horns” manifest, they will continue to annoy you, but if you understand what’s happening, you can laugh at your brain for its need for familiarity and move on.
Reach out to Family and Friends
Your family and friends probably want to hear how you’re doing anyway, and talking to them will certainly help. Having someone to vent to is nice also (though, for their sake, I’d focus more on the positiveness of your trip!). Sometimes just talking to someone familiar is all you need to feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle the world again; it reminds you that you do have people that care about you and that home still exists. While you’re away, enjoy yourself! You have the rest of your life to be home. If you have the benefit of being in a group, engage with your co-travelers: they may be feeling the same way! Study abroad programs like Abbey Road do an excellent job fostering a sense of community, so if you feel like you get lonely or isolated easily, a study abroad trip may be the right choice for you.
Do Something That You Like
On a similar note to talking with friends and family, don’t be embarrassed to do something you like. Whether you are a tourist, a student, or a business traveler, you will probably spend most of your day in your unfamiliar surroundings, seeing things you’ve never seen before and doing things you’ve never done. It’s not embarrassing at all to spend your night cooped up in your hotel room or Airbnb watching movies, television, playing video games, or reading. There is no need to spend every waking moment doing everything you can. You’ve already traveled to another country; it’s unhealthy not to take some time for yourself to relax and do what you like to do.
Don’t Isolate Yourself
On the other end of the spectrum from not making any time for yourself, you may feel the opposite impulse to isolate yourself in your hotel room and do nothing. Once you begin to experience culture shock in earnest, you may feel the urge to simply retreat to whatever comfort zone you have until you can escape back home: This usually ends up being your hotel room, because at least you can make it “your space.” While spending a little extra time there when you’re feeling overwhelmed is completely understandable, you will regret missing out on your travel experience, and more importantly, isolation will only make your negative feelings worse. The best thing to do is to stay the course. Keep doing whatever you’re doing, whether it be working, studying, or being a tourist, even if you have to drag yourself out of your room in the morning. You’ll feel better once you do it!
There’s no shame in culture shock. You haven’t “failed” traveling. You’re not uncool or narrow-minded. This happens to everyone to some extent. Stay the course! Traveling is one of the greatest experiences a person can have, and culture shock will not “ruin” that experience unless you let it. And when your trip is over, getting home will feel that much better.