The term culture shock is defined as ‘the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes.’ It is a term widely used but which few fully understand. Here, I’d like to share some of my personal experiences of culture shock and provide some helpful tips on how to deal with it.
My First Culture Shock Experience
This is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. No matter how much I travel, no matter how many times I experience culture shock in the future, I’ll never forget the first time.
In July 2014, I, a fresh-faced travel novice who had never explored beyond holidays in Europe, jumped on a plane from London, with a stopover in Abu Dhabi, and landed in Jaipur, India. Expecting to be met by Lynette, I reached the exit of arrivals and was met by a sea of staring locals, with no sign of her.
The heat, the dust, the sights and smells hit me all at once. Putting my very heavy (and in hindsight, oversized) backpack on the ground, one thought crossed my mind: ‘Shit, I’m in India. What now?!’ After an anxious two hour wait, I was elated when my saviour finally arrived to teach me the ways of travel.
I spent at least the first few weeks looking around in awe, taking in my surroundings and becoming familiar with the currency, the social customs and the very different food and beverages that I wasn’t used to.
How culture shock is handled varies from person to person; I have experienced it multiple times, varying in intensity. It’s part and parcel of travelling and it is necessary to help you go beyond your self-perceived boundaries and gain new experiences.
But what happens when it’s the other way around?
Reverse Culture Shock
Fast forward 5 years and, 16 countries later, I’ve become somewhat of an experienced traveller. In November 2019, while Lynette and I were living and working in Myanmar as English teachers, we decided to make a Christmas trip home.
We’d kept in regular touch with friends and family throughout our time away and had, on multiple occasions, thought about a visit. It had never before been that seriously considered though.
In what seemed like a whirlwind, we booked return flights from Yangon to London and made plans to spend two weeks in the UK over the festive period. The notion was surreal and didn’t really sink in until we were on the plane. It was strange to us simply because we’d spent so long away that the UK, although we knew that it was home, didn’t feel like it.
Usually, reaching immigration makes me nervous. Have I got the right visa? Please let me in to explore your country! Therefore, it was refreshing to breeze through immigration with my British passport, the immigration officer waving me through with a friendly “welcome home mate!”
We were met by Lynette’s parents as we’d be staying with them for the duration. I was immediately aware of how cold it was! OK, it was December in the UK; I wasn’t expecting it to be warm! Even so, after having lived in Yangon where the temperature is 30-plus-degrees almost every day, it was a physical shock!
The next thing that struck me was how clean, organised and quiet the roads were, everyone driving in an orderly fashion, no horns blaring. It felt very alien to us!
It took us a while to physically and mentally adjust to our surroundings: the time difference, temperature and weather, as well as seeing familiar places we’d left behind so long ago. On the first morning, I woke up and it was so dark and silent that I thought it was the middle of the night; then I saw that it was 7:30am!
I had seen my mum and stepfather once since we had been away; Lynette’s parents also came to visit us when we lived in Bangkok. But neither of us had seen any other family since 2014! Needless to say, seeing them again after all that time was amazing! Too much time had passed for a simple “what have you been up to?”, so it was more a case of just enjoying the moment.
We relished being in a much cleaner, quieter place that wasn’t a city. We took opportunities for long walks in the countryside. We realised that sometimes ‘A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it’ – George A. Moore. This has a different meaning for everyone. It’s down to you to interpret it as you will.
Another aspect of home we enjoyed and had missed was the food! Yes, we’ve eaten some amazing, tasty dishes and tried lots of different food when we’ve travelled but the taste of good old home cooking is hard to beat! We enjoyed bagels, casserole and jacket potatoes and of course, the immense food fest that took place on Christmas Day was incredible!
I remember how a meal out at a typical British pub was a culture shock in itself. The level of customer service we received and the polite way in which we were spoken to blew my mind. My mum had no idea why I was so in awe of the service. She stated it was “standard”, to which I corrected her, “UK standard!” Anyone who has travelled and received varying levels of customer service will relate to this!
Something else I found strange was the fact that I could comprehend all the conversations going on around me. This may seem odd but when you live in a place where you don’t speak the local language, to suddenly be somewhere in which you can understand everything is a weird sensation!
Shopping, with Western prices, was a surprise. I couldn’t believe how expensive things were! I’d look at the price of an item, consider the Asian comparison, and be horrified! For instance, in the UK, I used to pay £9 ($11) for a haircut whereas in Myanmar, I pay 0.85p ($1) for the same thing!
Reflecting on our Time at Home
We realised that in almost 6 years of being away, we hadn’t really thought about home. Returning definitely made us think differently about it, seeing it with a fresh pair of eyes as it were. There are certain times when you don’t think of home: when you’re looking at a wonder of the world, marveling at mountain scenery or enjoying a hot cup of chai on the streets of India. But at other times, home is the only place you want to be.
On reflection, our time back in the UK after so long was too short and rushed; days went by too quickly. Christmas is a crazy period anyway and our return only added to the chaos! Despite that, the festive season was a good time to be back; we could see people and spend time with them whilst enjoying the celebrations that we’d missed out on in previous years.
Coping with Culture Shock
Culture shock is very real. It can be scary, overwhelming and exhilarating. In order to cope, here are some tips on how to deal with culture shock/reverse culture shock!
- Adjustment: Allow your mind and body to adjust to the difference in time zone and temperature. How long this takes varies person-to-person.
- Don’t Rush: Avoid doing things too quickly. Again, allow yourself to adjust to your surroundings and get used to being where you are.
- Rest: If you don’t allow yourself adequate rest, your body will go into overdrive, rendering you useless for a period of time. When you’ve travelled so far across the globe, you’ll feel tired. Allow yourself to rest and recover.
- Stay Hydrated and Eat Well: Travelling on planes can be dehydrating, while rushing through airports can leave you with no time to eat. When you’ve been away from your homeland, it’s likely you’ll have missed many home comforts. Thus, you should take the opportunity to eat, drink and enjoy what you’ve missed. Ensure to drink plenty of water in the 24 hours post arrival.
- Enjoy your Time: If you’ve been away a while and not seen your family or friends, do all you can to be in the moment. Just sitting, taking time to chat and catch up with each other, is important. Equally, if you’ve just arrived somewhere for the first time and are feeling a little overwhelmed, try to remember to enjoy the experience and make the most of where you are!
After setting out on our travels, we didn’t return to the UK for over 5 years. In 2019, it was time to pay a visit and we enjoyed the time that we had. We’ll go back again but we’ll certainly never stop travelling!
Culture shock can be exciting, overwhelming and even scary but always remember… ‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.’ – Neale Donald Walsch. If you don’t push yourself to try new things, experience new horizons and challenge your perceptions of the world, you will forever be stuck in the familiar and you will never know the joys that lie beyond your comfort zone.
I’ll leave you with another of our favourite travel quotes, one that we can relate to and which resonates with those who choose a life of travel.
‘Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.’ – Anthony Bourdain
Are you a long term traveller? What’s the longest you’ve stayed away from home? Have you experienced reverse culture shock and how did you cope? Leave us a comment below and let us know!