You exit the airport for the first time. Everything looks so strange, and your head is spinning. You’re full of excitement.
Over the next few days, your condition changes for the worse. Your mind flips back and forth between disgust, anger and depression. Why did you come here?
You eat a Big Mac to raise your spirits.
It’s just culture shock.
So What Is Culture Shock?
Culture shock is a catchall term describing the mental adjustments you’re going through as you adapt to a new culture.
From language barriers to sensory overload to homesickness, there are a million reasons why you’d experience culture shock in a foreign land.
And unless you’re a grizzled, emotionless travel veteran (or visiting a resort), you will experience some growing pains in each new country you set foot in.
Based on my personal experience, the stages of culture shock are…
The Honeymoon Period
New relationships, cars and countries all have one thing in common—they’re a lot of fun for a while, and then you start having problems.
Your girlfriend uses the word “like” 5 times in every sentence. Your car payments mean you’re forced to eat ramen for dinner every day. And eventually someone’s going to snatch your wallet in sunny, perfect Italy/Bermuda/Pakistan.
But until that day comes, hot damn is Italy/Bermuda/Pakistan amazing!
There’s so much culture!
The food is 1000x better than the gruel you eat back home!
The locals are just soooo friendly!
The city just feels alive!
The piles of garbage on the corner are so urban and gritty!
We’ve all been there before.
That’s exactly how I felt (generally) during my first couple weeks in Saigon. I remember watching traffic whiz by in amazement through the dirty taxi window leaving the airport; how empty was my life until then, devoid of these legion motorbikes.
Every time new food touched my lips, I chuckled to myself that commoners back in America were still eating Pop-Tarts and chicken breasts. How enriched I was!
But all good things must end, and so too will your honeymoon.
The first time I felt an inkling of culture shock was on a Caribbean cruise in 2012. The first two stops were at dedicated cruise terminals, meaning the surroundings were a mashup of seashell trinkets and Margaritavilles, AKA America.
But the third port of call was San Juan, Puerto Rico. And you never forget your first proposition from a geriatric prostitute in an empty bar, no sir.
The festival of lights on the walk back to our ship was an irritating visual orgy of dancing monkeys, guitarists and dozens of police officers. For the first time on that trip, I wasn’t having fun.
Eventually, little things start to bother you.
I think the first time I was angry in Vietnam was the first time I got food poisoning.
“Fucking disgusting street food! Probably full of rat shit! Where is my Taco Bell?”
For the next few months, the frustration would come and go. One day you’ll be angry that a waitress can’t understand your accent. Next week you’ll complain on Facebook about how EVERYONE smokes.
Why can’t country A be more like country B?
Because they’re different.
But one day everything clicks. Your new culture isn’t new anymore.
I remember a week last May when I was brainstorming other countries that I could move to—Cambodia, Thailand, Mexico—I’d had enough of Vietnam.
But a week later, that list was gone. Vietnam was great. I mean, I am still here, after all.
You’ll find cafes that don’t allow smoking. You’ll understand that eating on the roadside every day increases your chance of getting sick…a little. Maybe. You’ll pick up enough of the local language to get by.
Or, you could isolate yourself in a group of other expatriates, eat at western restaurants and struggle to recreate your old life in a new country.
But why not just go home?
Reverse Culture Shock
“Dinner is $10? How many Michelin stars does this restaurant have?”
There are growing pains when you try to readjust to your home country, too.
I went home for a month last Christmas and felt like a stranger for a week.
The weather was too cold, everything was too far away, food was too expensive, the music was terrible, and worst of all…
I could understand every single conversation going on around me, even if I didn’t want to.
When you come home, you’re forced to accept that life has continued on in your absence—or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe everything is exactly as you left it, which can in itself be depressing.
I didn’t have any existential crises like that, though—my main gripe was with the shitty, expensive food.
But your mileage may vary.
Avoiding Culture Shock
Wish you could just wear your rose-tinted glasses forever?
Too bad, you can’t.
You can’t replicate your life 100% in another country—even in another city. If you try, you’ll spend every waking moment worrying about problems that aren’t really problems.
It’s hard for me to find fresh milk. That doesn’t mean Vietnam is a terrible place to live; just that I can’t eat cereal for breakfast.
What do you think?