Dealing With Culture Shock

Train arriving at Cairo's Sadat station

To visit a country is only to skim the surface.

You can never truly grasp a place in a few days. Sometimes understanding can take months, even years. When visiting a new country, the differences are something you appreciate, the differences are why you’re there, they’re part of the experience, you may even say they are the experience. Staring at the queer fruits and vegetables in a market you say, “Wow, we don’t get these back home!” It excites you. Everything excites you. The voices, the people, the food, the streets, the sky, the mountains. Everything.

Later, you leave, go back to the comfort of your own fruits and vegetables. Back to your own voices, your own people. Back home, to what you know and love. Back to comfort.

Culture shock happens when you try to change that home, even temporarily. When you try to make a transition between the new life you’ve started and the old life you’ve left behind. You can visit a country for a week and believe it’s the greatest place on earth. You can stay another week and the cracks might start to form. You can stay for a month and you’ll go crazy.

Those fruits and vegetables that were once so exciting fill you with resentment. Your mind struggles with the way things work in this new place. You don’t know the new systems. The magic has worn off. Nothing excites you. Everything around you is just a reminder of your old home, everything you are used to. You miss the way things were. You miss your familiar life. You miss your fruits and vegetables. You’re homesick.

In the past I worked with the notion that culture shock didn’t exist when going to a country much like your own. I’ve been to America a few times. People spoke the same language, ate the same vegetables and acted in much the same way. Their culture is the same, I thought. But, I was naïve.

A culture is more than what’s on the surface, a culture runs deep. Even when the language is the same, the systems are different.

Chances are you’ve never noticed there are systems at all. Everything around you has always been there, you’ve lived in a place so long that you subconsciously know how things work. You instinctively know what to do in any situation. You understand your world.

Culture shock is understanding nothing. It’s being blind in a world where everybody around you can see. Life becomes a challenge. Riding the bus becomes a scary experience. How do you pay the driver? How do you queue? How do you get off the bus? How do you stop the bus (do you put your hand out, or does it just stop?) Everyday situations, in a new country, become obstacles, something you must overcome.

When you are faced with hundreds of new challenges each day, when buying a pint of milk becomes a task which you must consciously think about, that’s when you get frustrated, and culture shock sets in. But you can learn.

Here’s a skill you probably take for granted. If you have coins in your pocket, you can look at them in your hand and within a moment you will know roughly how much money you have. It’s something you’ve learnt at one point or another, but you never think about it. It’s almost always been there. But you must learn it again. You have to learn it all again.

The easiest way to get from A to B, where to go if you need toothpaste, who to ring if your car breaks down, what brand of tea is best to drink, where to go if you break your tooth, how to haggle at the local market.

Guides can tell you where to go, maps can show you how to get there. But there is no map to use for living. The smallest details are the most important and those are the details people never mention, because they never seem noticeable. But you will learn.

Some things come quickly – learning how to cross the street, mastering the bus, finding out how much those coins are worth. Other things come slowly – learning to talk like the locals, mastering your routine, finding out how to cook with those crazy fruits and vegetables.

Eventually though, there’s nothing more to learn. Life is no longer a challenge. Every little skill you’ve mastered is pushed back into your subconscious. You can look at the money in your hand and know what you have. You can feel comfortable knowing where you are.



Photo is “Train arriving at Cairo’s Sadat station” by modenadude. Published under the Creative Commons license.

21 thoughts on “Dealing With Culture Shock

  1. It’s a lot more subtle sometimes than you’d think. I’ve lived in the US for 22 years (from Canada) and there are behaviors and attitudes that still make NO sense to me, even though I intellectually understand them and why people do them.

    It’s like asking a fish “How’s the water?” You have no idea until you’re out of it…or have something very different to compare it to.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about the systems being different thing – I moved to Australia from England 3 years ago. Its the same language, drive on the same side of the road, we all know Aussies – 1/2 the tv shows in England in the 80’s and 90’s were Australian dramas and in London, every street corner has an Aussie ‘doing Europe’. But get here and try to buy a stamp in a news agent – nope. How to apply for a driving license..? Shop opneing hours, food brands, parking regulations, etiquette, bus routes, train tickets, where to get a taxi etc etc – the little things – all completely different. Its taken a while but I stilll feel funny when I go shopping on my own – like I’ve been ‘let out’ unaccompanied. Hope things are going well so far! 🙂

    1. So did Australia end up being anything like Neighbours / Home and Away. All attractive people and surfing etc? I’ve been thinking of going to Australia after Canada actually, but the spiders and snakes are putting me off.

      Cheers for the comment.

      1. not that much like Home and Away and Neighbours really – but sometimes lingo is the same. And yes, people really do say ‘fair dinkum’ 🙂
        Dont worry about the spiders, they’re mostly harmless 😉

  3. After living in Morocco for 3 years then moving to France and next Germany for another 3 years I returned to America. The culture shock was as extreme as when I first arrived in Morocco. Vegetables were wrapped in plastic no friendly vegetable man to pass the time with and haggle prices. Fish was not fresh caught. But the simple things like making a phone call…okay this was before cellular phones. I almost went into a panic standing in front of the phone booth trying to remember how to make a call and guess what amount of change to put in. And when did they put two different size prongs on light sockets? No one hugs or kisses on the cheek, they ask how you are but walk away before you can reply now everyone just texts so why bother with face to face contact?
    What I wouldn’t give for a 3 part kiss on the cheeks and the long questioning about family and health before any discussion of business and the parting never being good bye but until the next time. Oh and a real cup of coffee or mint tea….mmmm Yotaki Beautywalk

    1. This is funny, because just a few days ago I was talking with a friend about the horrible time we had while travelling in Morocco / the Middle East. Everything there is just so far from British living that it gets very frustrating, very quickly. After 3 weeks in the Middle East, I would find myself getting into a rage about the smallest of things. Usually because a shop keeper had ripped me off on an essential item, I got so sick of haggling. And the noise and the hassle, all the time. It was too much for me. That was extreme culture shock.

  4. Don’t worry about spiders and snakes in Australia. You really have to go looking for them to encounter one, the dangerous ones anyway.
    I spend half my life in Australia and the other half in Italy. It takes a long time to navigate a new country. Finding how to do even basic things can be difficult. Sometimes that is fun and other times it drives you nuts.
    I have to remind myself that I have chosen to be a foreigner in Italy and I must adjust, but it is not always easy.

    1. I love how you say “the dangerous ones anyway”. It doesn’t matter if they’re dangerous or not, they’re all equally terrifying to me!

  5. I enjoyed this piece, thank you. I’ve spent the past 22 years living in various places where I could not say a word without everyone around me knowing that I was a foreigner. My first move was from the U.S. Midwest to Western Europe (primarily England). My accent was clearly American. I finally moved back to the U.S. Midwest and brought with me an English accent. Just enough that people wanted to know where I was from. But, my biggest culture shock was moving the the U.S. South. There is still a crazy amount of resentment toward “the North” for their aggression toward the south in the Civil War. And the culture itself just took me off guard.

  6. Reblogged this on Erin Flew the Coop and commented:
    Das Bloggen was nice enough to like one of my posts and it led me to this post of theirs. I first encountered culture shock when moving to London and was really surprised it hit me as hard as it did. Of course it helped that I had Europe and Ryanair at my fingertips to be able to get away on an adventure for the weekend. Living in Thailand though, I feel like we’re in a constant state of culture shock straddling our previous and present circumstances, the cultures of both of them, and how to find the proper balance between them.

  7. I am so grateful I read your post! It actually made me see where I am at now. I changed countries; and I never thought I am going through a culture shock up until I read your post! Every time I step into the street I know I look “different” and they all think I’m a tourist, although I speak the same language (with a different dialect, of course). And every day I bore my husband with stories from my homeland, from my previous life (which I didn’t really think was that great up until I started living here – and after the excitement wore off!).
    Every time I want to do something, I have to consciously think of what could be the most appropriate thing to do – so I won’t attract unwanted attention. Yesterday I realized that women pay cab drivers a certain way, I happened to “look” this time when a woman was stepping down from the cab I was about to take… and this explained why those cab drivers, who never seemed too respectful, treated me the way they did – I didn’t go by the known social code, and therefore they thought I was easy target!
    Thank you so very much for writing this. Whatever/whoever made you write this post had helping me in mind, and I am positive about that!… because they made you think about garlic, and made me write about it!!!

  8. Culture shock can happen in your hometown, too. In fact it’s happening more and more with the influx of immigrants that are pouring into the U.S. Turkish people talk about culture shock between them and their next door Islamic neighbors. They are shocked at their customs. It’s happening all over the world. I have to hand it to France, though. For the most part they really do try to keep to their vive le difference attitude. Even that, however, may not work. I enjoy all of those differences- although I do prefer to stick to my own customs longterm. As you already stated, we travel for that very reason. We need a change and that’s why we leave home for a time. For a time… that’s the key word. I understand Dorothy’s clicking heels and saying, “There’s no place like home.”
    Good post. Thanks for your visit. You’re welcome any time.
    The Castle Lady

  9. just discovered your blog, great post! it’s so true when you go to a new place everything is exciting, when I went to Canada on exchange for four months, I would get excitied about seeing a 7 Eleven, or Wendys or a yellow school bus haha because it was all stuff I knew from TV (the day I saw an actual Chuck-E-Cheese…yeah pretty much failed to restrain myself). but then eventually I went from wanting to immerse myself in the culture to quickly comparing things to the UK, like ‘aw why is Canada like this? in the UK we do this’ etc. I would still go back to Canada though, the UK doesn’t have Tim Hortons 😛

    1. I’m afraid Timmy’s hasn’t converted me. Maybe it’s because I don’t like coffee. Or maybe it’s because their doughnuts are pretty crappy. The only positive thing I can say is they’re cheap!

  10. Reblogged this on One Round Rock and commented:
    Here’s a great little article about culture shock written by a different Dan. He’s right when he says it’s all those small things in daily life that you don’t think about that you suddnely can’t do that gives you culture shock. It’s like learning how to be an adult all over again!

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