Everyone talks about it. For some it’s the deciding factor on travelling or not. But what exactly is culture shock? And should it be as big a concern as people think? Have a read to find out.
Before I came to China I had people all around me asking how I was going to deal with the culture shock when I arrived. I used to tell people ‘I’ll be fine; I don’t think it will affect me’. In the end it was true, however at the time I had no idea what it even was. I think I was just telling people I’d be ok so they didn’t worry.
Now you might also be thinking ‘clearly it’s just being shocked at someone else’s culture’; I couldn’t disagree more. People leave their jobs abroad and stop travelling all the time because of culture shock. This would simply not be true if it was just seeing or experiencing some shocking things.
You would be on the right lines though. The way I would describe it is;
‘When you experience something outside of your own culture’s norms, which to you is shocking, whilst all people around you view this as completely normal. This can then lead to a feeling of isolation.’
To me, it is the isolation and the loneliness associated to culture shock that is the truly damaging aspect. I see shocking things in the UK all the time; however everyone around me is always as shocked as I am. This almost completely negates the ‘shocking’ aspect long-term.
Imagine if you were all alone among hundreds of people and you just have to pretend that it’s completely normal. Then multiply that 10 fold as you tend to see things that are shocking quite often when experiencing another culture that is so different to yours.
You lose the support structure that is in your own culture when everyone agrees with each other. Without that people can start to feel like they are the odd one out and long to feel normal again. If you live abroad for a long time, you can even experience reverse culture shock when you return home. Coming home to “normality” can take just as long to adjust to if you’re used to dealing with a whole new culture.
This all sounds very dramatic but I see this literally all of the time. So many foreign teachers in China have bailed and gone home in a matter of weeks. All because of what I described above.
Luckily for Jade and I neither of us ever really experienced culture shock at all. Jade was a bit homesick at the start but that had nothing to do with culture shock. This could be because our personalities aren’t too susceptible to the effects or simply that there are two of us and we always have each other to moan to about shocking Chinese traditions. A lot of things did change when we moved to China though – check out a list of things that you realise when you move abroad!
- In China toddlers don’t wear nappies because they believe it isn’t healthy (nappy rash, etc). I’m not going to argue with this because it certainly is more hygienic that sitting in your own faeces. This means that all the children have a hole in the back of their trousers. Again not at all that shocking when you think about it, ease of access is certainly a good idea. However when you are walking down the street and their mum is holding them dangling over a public bin and shit is just falling out of them into the bin a meter away from you, maybe you might feel shocked. Especially when there is a public toilet 5 meters to the left….
- Again in China (it’s the only place we have lived for a prolonged period of time) people love to spit. Maybe when I say ‘love’ it’s an exaggeration but they certainly put a lot of effort into perfecting the art. Anyway people spit all over the world, not all that shocking. However when people spit only in the middle of the path, regardless of who is walking there, it seems rude. Every single day spit lands close to my feet multiple times. But everyone is doing it, it’s not aimed at me, it’s not a personal thing, they just spit in the middle of the path because that’s normal.
There will be so many examples people will be able to give you about culture shock. These are just a few of many.
The advice I would give to you is have a think about how things might affect you if you are alone. The vast majority of people who left their jobs and returned home were solo travellers/workers. So if you think it might affect you think about taking someone along. Also all over the world there are large communities of like-minded people to you, wherever you might be from. If you are feeling isolated because of culture shock, find these people and communities. Trust me, if you do then you will almost certainly carry on adventuring.
Do you agree with this summary of what is culture shock? Have you had any other experiences you might be able to warn others about? If so please let us know in the comments below.
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