How to Deal With Culture Shock
Just a few short weeks ago, I stood by the Lotte World Mall near Jamsil station in Seoul awaiting my mother’s arrival for the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, known as Chuseok. It is one of my favorite holidays of the year, not only because I get a full week off, but also because the whole world is open to you for travel. I had originally intended to make a trip to Shanghai in China during the aforementioned break, but when I heard there was a possibility that my mother would be coming to see me after a year and three months spent away from her, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
When the bus arrived, I was shocked to see that not only had my mother come to visit me, but my younger sister came as well. As much as having them with me filled me with delight, I couldn’t help but also be slightly concerned, knowing how different South Korea is from America. Even on a brief one week, or in their case, two-week vacation, it was impossible to not go through some sort of culture shock. Sure enough, they did. From the food choices to the transportation differences, it wasn’t until week two that they started to feel comfortable. But eventually, they did. I believe that’s because they dealt with the culture shock in a healthy way, and I believe you can, too.
Culture shock doesn’t have to be a bad thing; as the title implies, it’s just about the general shock. Typically, after the initial surprise of the new environment, the adaptation phase begins. The idea is to get to that part of the process as quickly as possible through mental preparation and faith. If the idea of stepping foot on unfamiliar, foreign turf leaves you with a sense of fear, I’m here to tell you it will all be okay if you:
Know Before You Go
It took me five years to work up the nerve to get on a plane and move to South Korea. Cautious by nature and highly investigative, I wanted to read as much as I could about the good, the bad, and the downright ugly before I purchased a plane ticket to anywhere on the other side of the world. It might not be comfortable to research negative aspects of a country you’re excited about going to, but instead of coming from a place of fear, try to come from a place of curiosity. Try to understand the political, financial, and social dynamics of the places you’re looking to go to. Then, make a decision as to go or not go. The point is to not go into the decision blindly. If I hadn’t researched how I’d be paid for my job, how to pay bills at an ATM instead of through online banking or checks (they aren’t really used in South Korea), or the size of my apartment, I very well may have had a heart attack upon arrival.
Make a List
Make a list of pros and cons, especially your deal breakers. Make another list of things you want to gain from your experience and why the location(s) you’ve selected is (are) especially attractive to you. Weigh your options, then make your choice. When you evaluate decisions of this nature in a logical way, have an idea of what to expect socially, financially, politically, etc. This way you’re more apt to feel able and comfortable to navigate the new environment you’ll be in.
Keep Your Mind Open
Even if there are a few things that you don’t like on your list, if it’s a minor thing, such as apartment size, consider thinking past it. Or, maybe you’re like me and are a vegetarian but are going to live in a place where the staple diet relies heavily on meat dishes. Trust me, I feel your pain. Travel isn’t always the most comfortable experience. It isn’t always about the luxury hotel rooms or yacht cruises–especially for those of us poor, young, ambitious, working folks just trying to make ends meet. Fancy amenities are not likely to be part of your experience, but maybe it is better that they aren’t. You will never have an eye-opening travel experience until you learn to live like a local, understand local culture, and embrace it. It is only then that you can go from culture shock, to understanding and adaptation.
Just Do It
Maybe you’re already in a foreign country reading this now, unable to cope with your “mistake” of moving. Maybe your whole family expects you to fail in your endeavor, whatever it may be, and come running back home. Perhaps you’ve stumbled across this article because you can identify what you’re feeling to be culture shock, but have no one to talk about it. You are not alone.
I didn’t leave my apartment for three months when I first moved to Seoul except to go to school. I was afraid I’d get lost. I was afraid to try to talk to people because I didn’t know how, and hearing Korean words sounded so foreign to me. Everything was intimidating to me and I felt so small.
You know what, though? I wasn’t the first person to feel that way and I won’t be the last. The point is, you already are where you are. You’re going to have to eat at some point, talk to someone, and learn how to get around town, so you might as well learn now. Sure, you might be embarrassed, but you’re only delaying the inevitable by not doing so.
Do you have tips for handling culture shock? If so, we want to hear from you. Leave us a comment below with your best tips. Happy travels!