Blogathon: #16 – Culture Shock

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I’m taking a bit of a break from the book reviews (I still have a few more to share with you) to go back to Up With People life for a moment. Specifically, one aspect that hits everyone who’s ever been on tour with Up With People (or anyone who’s ever been travelling): culture shock.

Culture shock is defined as the feeling of anxiety or unease of entering a new environment. This anxiety isn’t always of the “OH! I’M SCARED! ACK!” variety; often it is very subtle, showing itself in irritation, lack of energy, and sometimes illness.

When you’re going through culture shock, you’re having a difficult time adjusting to the culture around you. You may feel scared, lonely, frustrated, homesick, ill, inconfident, depressed, and obsessive – to name a few. You start falling for stereotypes, or create prejudices. You long for something familiar and are frustrated that nothing makes sense. Some feel that they want out – “let me go home”.

It’s perfectly normal and natural. Even well-established travellers feel culture shock once in a while. Sometimes it’s not even a different country – it may just be a different location, a different atmosphere, different groups of people.

It is said that there are a few stages of culture shock:

  • The “honeymoon” stage – you might feel very happy and pleased with the changes around you. “Wow! Look where I am! Isn’t this amazing?!”
  • The transition stage – culture shock starts settling in. Nothing makes sense, things that used to work don’t work anymore, you’re not sure what to do. “What the heck?! Why aren’t things going the way I want them to? This is HARD!”

  • The acceptance stage – the culture becomes more familiar. Things are easier to deal with. A rhythm is found. “Hmm, maybe this isn’t so bad after all.”
  • The integration stage – you find yourself belonging to this culture, gaining appreciation for it. You also notice the bad things about the culture, but you are able to deal with it better. “This is good, and this is bad, but I know how to deal with it.”
  • The re-entry stage – re-entry shock can be worse than initial culture shock. What used to be “home” doesn’t feel like home anymore. Things have changed while you were away – you have changed too – and now you’re not sure how to relate. “Where am I? What happened?”

Those stages can occur at anytime and can last for any length of time. The main importance is to recognize the stages, and learn how to deal with them one by one.

Our crew had strong instances of culture shock. In the US, those from non-English speaking backgrounds (including the Japanese) had a hard time adjusting. They didn’t feel like they were on equal footing with the rest of the crew, who spoke fluent English and adapted to American culture well. Then we got to Japan, and the tables turned; the Japanese students blossomed (really: some made dramatic changes in personality, their confidence grew by the bucketload) while the rest of us were struggling with not knowing Japanese, feeling exhaustion, and not understanding the culture. By the final week in Japan, many wanted out of the country. Europe balanced us out a bit – some did encounter culture shock, but we had already learnt from our experiences in the US and Japan and helped each other out when we had problems. Re-entry was quite a problem for some of us; I couldn’t deal with re-entry (and having to face relatives) so soon after the tour, and was very depressed and unsocial for a while because I didn’t feel like I had time or space to process what I have gone through.

If you have culture shock, here are a few things you can do:

  • Talk to someone – sometimes just talking (without any advice or whatever) helps a lot, as it lets the frustrations out, instead of letting them fester within
  • Get a hobby – find something to do. It’ll distract you initially, but it may also help you find a connection to the culture – finding other people with the same hobby, or taking up a hobby popular in that culture.
  • Get some exercise – it helps you stay fit and healthy and also helps destress the brain by releasing endorphins, which makes you happy
  • Take it easy – stressing out doesn’t help much. Take a deep breath, relax, and take things slowly as they come. No need to rush.
  • Be funny – a sense of humour really goes a long way. It helped me a lot; being able to laugh at myself helped break the ice between me and host families, or other people, and lightens things up considerably.
  • Accepting sadness – too many people try to bottle their sadness in. It’s natural to feel sad. Accept it, and find an avenue to release it – writing it down, talking about it, and so on. You’ll feel better for it, trust me.

There are many resources out there for culture shock. Try this “Amigos” website for starters. If you have any tips, please share!

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One Response

  1. Hopefully you are going to address the other end of the spectrum of the culture shock experienced by many UWP students. The “going back home shock”.

    So much is packed into a year (or whatever) with Up With People, going back home to where things haven’t changed, people are the same, and life went on without you is very traumatic. You are filled with energy, enthusiasm, and the knowledge that you can do anything, even things beyond what you once thought were possible. Yet the world you return to just plods along. Big homecoming culture shock.

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