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8 Tips for Dealing with Culture Shock
If you live abroad for any length of time, culture shock is going to happen. No matter how much you’ve always wanted to travel the world; no matter how much you love the place you’re visiting—sooner or later, something is going to hit you as Just. Too. Weird. Maybe everyone around you is always inexplicably apologizing – or perhaps you’ve landed in the sort of country where no one says sorry for anything! Perhaps everyone’s leaning on their car horns – or it’s eerily quiet and you’re starting to feel like a ghost. You can’t get your favorite beverage, the postal system makes no sense and no one knows how to cook an egg the way you like it. How do you cope when you feel like fleeing back home?
1. Remember it’s normal
All great travellers go through this. Marco Polo probably felt the way you do now. But did he give up? No! Culture shock isn’t a sign anything is wrong. It’s part of the experience and ultimately, it will make the memories of your trip more colorful and exciting. A world where everywhere was just like your hometown would be boring, and it’s not an adventure if every moment is comfortable.
2. Make your own space
Traveling light is great, but leave room in your suitcase for a few luxuries to personalize the place you’ll be staying in. “I take my action figures with me,” says Jared, an American (and sci-fi fan) living in Britain. “When I get to a new place I sit them on the nightstand or a windowsill. Then it’s home.” A poster, a favorite cushion, even a framed picture from home can make a big difference to how you feel. Build yourself a little sanctuary to come back to when it all gets too much.
But don’t spend too much time hiding away. This is your chance to discover some of the wonders of the world. Go ahead and live the tourist cliché – wander around with a camera, ride a tour bus – but keep exploring even between the big trips to the main attractions, too. Commit to going somewhere new every day – even if it’s just a quick turn down an unfamiliar street on your way home. Maybe you’ll discover a new hangout, a handy short-cut, or snap a great photo to remind you of your time abroad.
4. Say "yes!"
The best way to handle culture shock is to keep an open mind and embrace the surprising experiences as they come. Follow Shonda Rhimes’ and Danny Wallace’s lead and commit to saying “yes” to anything and everything. Accept invitations, eat weird food, do a favor for a new friend. You’ll connect with people, experience things you never knew existed and make discoveries about your new culture and yourself. (Obviously, use common sense – don’t say “yes” to anything you think is actually unsafe or let anyone exploit you!)
5. Set yourself a project
Learn to cook a local dish; memorize all the lyrics to a local song; get someone to show you the steps of a local dance…promise yourself that you’re going to master at least one aspect of your host country. Something to work on will give you a sense of accomplishment and keep you from dwelling on your worries.
6. Find (at least) one thing you really love
It could be a favorite place or activity. Hiking in the mountains; sipping coffee in that pretty square; wandering the museum…when things are tough, go back to that place or experience. That way you won’t forget that you came to this place to have wonderful times that you couldn’t have at home.
7. Go easy on yourself
Whether you’ve come abroad to work, see the sights or learn the language you’re not required to be an instant expert. Of course there are things you don’t understand. If you make mistakes in the language or fumble the etiquette, let yourself feel the embarrassment for a moment and then allow it to pass. Think of how much you’ve already learned, and how much more you’ll know by the time you head home.
8. Make friends with fellow travellers and locals
Sometimes you’ve just got to vent to someone who understands. Other migrants or international students will help you feel less isolated. They’ll know what you’re going through and sometimes they may have tips to get you through. But making local friends will add depth to your understanding of the culture and richness and warmth to your memories of your time abroad.