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 but 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.
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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.
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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 with 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.
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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 from 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!
Important dates are sometimes difficult – spending birthdays and Christmas abroad can be tough!
- 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 than 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.
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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.
Always interesting to read about other peoples thoughts on travel and culture. I recently returned from 7 weeks travel throughout India and indeed, I did experience culture shock, but also was amazed by the experience and seeing how others live around the world!
Did knowing that you were coming back after 7 weeks help? I’m glad you had a good time though!
I’ve been an expat in Vietnam for a year now and the first few weeks were challenging — culture shock it is.
Yer I remember the first 2 weeks in China. The challenge is to not say something to someone becasue you know they are not trying to be being rude!
I think culture shock comes from having expectations about how and what people and countries are/should be. Once we train our minds to be open to learning to accept differences without reacting…it all disappears.
I agree to a certain extent. Opening your mind to other cultures and practices is extremely important. But I really think there are some things that are just wrong, not just in my own culture but in general. When a kid is going to toilet in a bin in the middle of a nice restaurant that has a toilet then I don’t think it’s other people that should be accepting.
This article is very thoughtful and reminds me of all the things I don’t even think twice about anymore when I go to a different country (i.e. the spitting on the ground). I noticed that I am a completely different person when I travel. I don’t know if it’s because I always felt like I was juggling between different cultures growing up or because I experienced extreme culture shock at a young age when my dad brought me back to the motherland (Vietnam).
I also never thought about culture shock from the perspective of isolation and loneliness and find that thought to be interesting.
I agree, I see so many things on a daily basis that I don’t even turn my head to any more. Travelling definetely teaches you to understand that all people are different.
I think I have suffered the most from culture shock when I was in China. I was just not prepared for how different to the UK it is. I felt like everything I had ever been taught in the UK about manners I had to forget to be able to deal with it out there. Yeah the holes in the kids trousers was weird and the spitting I hated!! I would go back though, this time though I would be more prepared and I did have an amazing trip 🙂
I know exactly what you mean. After all of the differences we have stayed for 2 years and maybe one day we will come back. It’s amazing what you can put to one side when you’re travelling.
I have traveled so much that I think I cannot experience culture shock anymore except if I travel to Mars! A pity, I liked the feeling of “everything is new, different, surprising, cool . . .”. and now I enjoy the culture shock through my boyfriend’s eyes (he has traveled less than me)
Haha, I hope you make it difficult for him, or is that a bit mean!
I love this post as it’s so relatable to my life. For my case, I got culture shocked by the culture that i was born with as i am now so influenced by western culture since I’ve been living in America and Europe since i was 15. I feel so alone every time I come back home to visit Asia and I don’t have anyone to be on my side except my friends back in Europe
Wow thats a unique situation. Have you written about that? I would like to have a read about your situation, see if it coincides with my idea of it.
You did an excellent job of putting culture shock in words. Living in Panama part time, my husband and I have both been incredibly shocked by things on so many different levels. Even 5 years later, we are still shocked by some of the things we run into, people, places, and situations.
Thanks! It’s amazing that after 5 years you’re still seeing and experiencing new things. Makes me want to go to Panama!
Culture shock is a much used but less understood term. Your post definitely peels of the layers and exposes it for what it really is. Yes anything which is alien to our own limited culture and exposure comes as a shock. However the more receptive and tolerant we are, easier it is to accept other cultures and lesser the shock.
I think you’ve used the right word there, tolerate. I would say that I tolerate a lot of aspects of living in China. I know I will never start to do and take part in some of the things I see. But I love living here and the expereince has been amazing. I think maybe some people find it difficult to accept they may never be completely at ease with certain things.
I enjoyed reading about your experience. We haven’t been to too many places yet, but actually can’t wait to experience culture shock when we go on our round the world trip next year. I feel we have a lot of things to learn about from other cultures that will be quite interesting.
Look forward to experiencing other cultures, don’t look forward to culture shock. It’s a very different thing. Experiencing other cultures is great, you always want to minimize the amount of shock on yourself however.
Great post. I taught in Japan for a couple of years and I was fortunate enough that my culture shock really only lasted a couple of days (though I remember it well!) but it was common that new teachers would show up and not last the month because of it. It can be tough!
I’m glad it didn’t affect you too bad either. It’s such a shame some people don’t stick it out. Culture shock almost always goes away.
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