Traveling Deeper: Coping with Culture Shock

April 19, 2019
Emma StiefelExplore

In our previous “5 Things to Know Before You Go” series, we shared tips about how fellows can prepare for living in each of Year On’s Explore locations. Fully immersing yourself in a foreign culture, however, involves much more than packing the right things or trying new food. In this series, “Traveling Deeper,” we share advice from Year On staff about how fellows can truly make the most out of their time abroad.

One of the hardest parts about moving to another country is overcoming culture shock and adjusting to the ways a different set of societal values manifest in everyday life. An Indian who moves to America, where egalitarianism is popular, may be shocked at how casually employees address their bosses. An American moving to India, a culture with a stricter social hierarchy, may be surprised by how much respect those “at the top” are given. Kyle, the Year On Community Coordinator in Dharamsala, India, witnessed this first hand. The landlord of the property Year On fellows live in is the richest man in the village and therefore at the top of the local social hierarchy. “Ramesh is king,” Kyle said. “And you have to accept that if you want to live on his property.”

Both Americans like Kyle and Indians moving abroad in the examples above are experiencing culture shock, and they might find it very frustrating at first. But once you understand and adapt to a new culture, you’ll appreciate it much more and find that it can opportunities for you to grow.

A quick disclaimer before we continue: talking about cultures inevitably requires making general statements about how they differ from each other. In the example above, for instance, I describe America as egalitarian and India as hierarchical. These statements may be true in a broad sense, but it’s important to remember that cultures are complex, ever-changing, and made up of individual people. You might work for an American company with a rigid pecking order or make an Indian friend who completely ignores hierarchy. Essentially, just remember that cultures are complex things made up of complex individuals, and nothing written here is meant to encourage stereotyping.

Photo Credit: Lydia, Year On Community Coordinator in Moshi, Tanzania

Culture shock can be divided into four stages: an initially euphoric “honeymoon” phase, then hostility and homesickness, followed by a period of gradual adjustment until you feel comfortable with your new culture. It’s doubtful that Year On fellows will make it all the way through these four stages in the time they spend abroad in the Explore phase, but you’ll most likely go through the first two and, hopefully, some of the third stage of starting to understand and appreciate your temporary home. It can be hard to move out of the frustrating second phase, but you’ll enjoy your experience abroad much more once you do.

One way to overcome hostility towards a new culture is to frame adjusting as a way for you to develop personally. Lydia, the Year On Community Coordinator in Moshi, Tanzania noticed that Tanzanians tend to be more laid back than Americans. “The priorities here are different,” she said. “It’s more about relationship building and being at peace with your neighbor.” Living in Moshi could therefore be a great way for fellows to challenge themselves to overcome some of the more anxious tendencies that are prevalent in America.

Another mindset that makes moving to a new country easier is doing your best to refrain from comparing everything to where you’re from. Instead, Lydia said, it’s more helpful to “adapt to what the norm is there, instead of judging your new neighbors based on U.S. standards.” Kahlia, the Year On Community Coordinator in Huanchaco, Peru, was happy to see her fellows go from describing every different thing they saw in terms of how it would be in the U.S. to accepting things they found unfamiliar and saying “Oh, that’s just Peru.”

The simplest way to say all this, of course, is to just keep your heart and mind open. Living abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people, and it can completely change the way you see the world if you let it. So hop on that plane prepared to embrace and learn from the seemingly strange practices you find once you land. Most importantly, don’t forget that all the people you’ll encounter in a foreign land are humans, just like you — you may very well be more shocked by the similarities between you than the differences!

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