How to Combat Culture Shock when Living Abroad
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson.
Going on a big trip, preparing to move or live abroad for a considerable amount of time can seem quite intimidating at first – especially when it is your first time to go on a big trip. It can seem even more daunting when you have decided to travel and live in a country so far away from where you are from or where the culture is like nothing you have experienced before.
To take away this fear, read up on some practical tips on what to expect, how to prepare and what to do upon arriving in your new country.
1. Be prepared for culture shock
Anxiety, homesickness, or questioning if you made the wrong decision are all very normal parts of culture shock. These feelings can already start a couple of weeks before going on a long trip. You may start to have feelings of wanting to back out and not going on the trip anymore. Not everyone experiences it, but most people do in some sort of form. For some, it is just for a couple of days or weeks, but for others – especially if not prepared - it can also sometimes last for several months.
Expect culture shock and what to look out for when you might experience it. Look back on the good experiences and be aware that it shall pass and the feelings you may experience will not last forever. At the end of your trip or stay in a foreign country, you will see that it was all worth it and you will have no regrets!
2. Bring comfort items from back home and use Skype!
What you can do to ease culture shock, when it strikes, is to bring personal items from back home. These can include photos of friends and family, clothes, blankets or even cuddlies. You should have something with you that you will feel comfort in. That way, when you are feeling down and you look at these items, they may help you overcome homesickness and bring back some happy memories and feelings. A good tip here, is to bring some food you love from back home and where you are not sure if you can get it abroad. Especially when you are sick and not resting in your own bed at home, you will want some comfort food or drinks to make you feel better.
Another very important point to not be dismissed, is that luckily in today’s world we all have the chance to stay in touch with our loved ones no matter how far apart we are. Take advantage of Skype and all your social media channels to keep in touch with friends and family back home and to also keep them updated with your new experiences. Yes, there are time differences and it can be challenging at times, but that is all workable. And it is going to make you feel a whole lot better.
3. Be able to adapt
Reasons that you may also experience culture shock, become frustrated or have bad days in your new country can be the little things you are not consciously aware of. These could be things as simple as different light switches, different heights of table and chairs, different water pressure giving you a hard time rinsing your hair, different temperatures, different TV channels and simply everything as every little thing is different!
This does not come across as a big deal at first, but when little things start to add up and when you feel lonely and sad and you do not have anything to grab on to and seek comfort in, it is these little things that will become a big deal and possibly cause bad moods and fights. Be aware of it and try to adapt early on. Embrace the differences – because you basically don’t have a choice if you want to enjoy your stay and not go running home straight away.
Observe how everyone else is behaving, how they use things, how they eat and mimic them. Try to fit in, try to adapt to the new lifestyle and feel blessed having this opportunity to experience another culture and with that, enriching your world view.
4. What is different is not wrong
This point kind of goes hand in hand with the previous one. Because everything will be different, it does not mean it is wrong. No, it is only different. We actually all know this and it seems such an obvious and simple thing to say, but, you will have moments when deep down you somehow think, this just is not right and that is not how it is supposed to be done. It takes a lot of time and effort to get to a point to fully accept that things are simply different.
So just because you do not do something a certain way, but thousands or millions of other people are doing it that way, it cannot be that wrong as that is how they do things there. It is just a different way to live in the same world we all live in.
5. Do not ignore your feelings
Confront your emotions and find somebody to talk to about them. If you have roommates, new friends, a host family, bring up your feelings, talk about them and for sure, your new friends will give you advice and suggestions on how to cope – even if it is just by explaining how things are done in your new country and how things are maybe meant differently.
One of my biggest struggles in Asia was that I often felt people are not being entirely honest with me and that there is a lot of talking behind my back. When sitting down with new friends from that country who explained to me that people do not want to offend or upset you by saying ‘no’ or disagreeing with you in front of others so you do not lose face, it gave me a better understanding for the new culture and for how I should behave in this part of the world.
6. Make friends
In order for you to enjoy your stay abroad, you need to get to know people and you need to make friends. If you have people you can spend time with and share experiences with, then for sure your whole experience is going to change. As mentioned in the previous point, it will help you understand the culture a whole lot more – especially, if you make friends with locals. Let us not even get started with all the language benefits you will reap!
It will also make a considerable difference if you are lucky enough to even find friends who speak your native language. (But you will not always have that much luck.) If you do, you will be able to talk about the same issues you are going through as you will have people who understand exactly what you are talking about. You will actually be able to talk to someone, use phrases, use your usual body language, have fun and joke around without having to worry about culture or language.
7. Establish a routine
A lot is going to change in your life when you move abroad and you will also be on a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Instead of being freaked out by all the new things happening in your life and all the new experiences you make and do not have the time to digest, get into a routine. By knowing what to expect the next day, or the next week, it helps you to look forward to something and to bring some sort of normality to your new life.
Not just that, if you decide to join local clubs for fitness, music, or whatever you like doing, you are very likely to make many friends and have even more reason to look forward to your activities.
8. Prepare yourself for climate change
I am not talking about global warming here, but about the new climate of the place you will be staying at. The temperature, the humidity, the whole climate might be different. Check out the climate ahead of time and if it is so different from what you are used to, I would recommend to not even bother bringing your clothes from home. I would suggest buying clothes that you can get in the country of your stay as they will know best what to wear and how to wear it. Aside from that, it gives you a good reason to go shopping and experience the shopping culture of your new country!
Good and bad days
As much as you will want to prepare for your trip, be aware that even with the best preparation possible, you will have good days and you will have bad days. Some days are not going to be easy, you are going to be homesick, you are going to get annoyed with things that are different, you might get fed up with the weather, you might miss your favourite food or being able to pop over to your best friend’s house to chat. Be prepared for that and know that it is totally normal.
But do not forget that the majority of your days, will be days, that are so amazing, so full of fun and new experiences that you will completely forget about all the homesickness, or all the things you miss from back home.
After getting over the first chunk of culture shock you will have absolutely amazing experiences, memories and will not regret having pushed through with your plan of going to a foreign country. So do not back out because of your fear of culture shock. Just be aware that it might happen and that it will not last forever. The experiences you will gain from living abroad are all worth it!
Do you have more practical tips to add to this list? Please add and share your experiences in the comment box below!