Dealing with Culture Shock
So you’ve made the move. You’ve packed up all of your worldly belongings (or whatever will fit into 2 suitcases and a too-heavy backpack), said your goodbyes (maybe with some tears and letters and promises to call every week), and hopped onto a plane to fly halfway across the world (or somewhere far away in the world) to make it on your own, maybe learn a little about yourself, and have an amazing time!
At some point, however, once the initial feeling of adrenaline and shock and disbelief that you actually did this wears off, you might suddenly find yourself attracting curious stares, and giving more than a few curious stares yourself. If you’ve moved somewhere where you can’t tell your left from right, and some of the everyday occurrences just seem downright bizarre, and calling home and (gulp) turning right back around and going home seems like a good option…you might just be suffering from culture shock. Culture shock can happen at any time, but usually it strikes in the first few weeks or at that magic 3-month mark when you’re missing home just a little bit.
Some signs that you have culture shock:
- you suddenly start calling home ALL THE TIME; so much so that even your mom is telling you to cool it because, after all, she has a life
- small cultural differences that didn’t bug you make you want to turn into Godzilla and HIT EVERYBODY: the sidewalk spitting, the no washing of the hands, the ajummas elbowing you, the stares, the random handshakes from strangers, the bad driving…any of this sound familiar?
- you start wondering why you even did this in the first place; being in a cool, new country can’t really be all that great, right?
- FOOD: what you wouldn’t do for a decent burger, or a Timmies, or a sandwich shop, or some KD (mac n’ cheese to you non-Canadian folk), or food labels that you could read.
- you start FB creeping all of your friends at home, wondering why they haven’t talked to you in a while or suddenly start imagining that they’re all becoming closer without you there
- you don’t want to leave the apartment, sometimes it’s just easier to stay in and not try to navigate in this foreign place
- boredom blahs, you don’t want to go out, but all of a sudden you’re marathoning Buffy reruns, eating pizza, not exercising and wondering why you seem to have a constant food baby…and it must be because you’re bored, and there’s just “nothing” to
If any of this sounds familiar, then there’s a good chance that all of the newness is finally catching up to you. And no, this doesn’t mean that being away is “not for you” or that you need to be on the next flight home; nor does it mean you’re culturally insensitive or incapable of opening yourself up to a new culture and way of life. Simply put, you’ve been out of your element for a little while, you’re missing home, and it’s suddenly just a little too much…and that is OK. Really.
What ISN’T ok, is letting yourself stay inside and develop a second food baby or refuse to explore this wonderful new place you’re in because you’re feeling a little down. It’s at this moment, more than ever, that you need to get out and get it, whatever “it” may be. But, since I’ve been there and I know how much easier it is to eat a tub of rocky road instead of trying to think of what “it” is, here are a few pointers to get you started:
- Join events or social groups: I guarantee you, there will be a ton of facebook groups dedicated to the expats in your community, and even more specific ones relating to different hobbies, events, etc. in your area. Join a group and let your social calendar fill up! (but don’t just join the group, you actually have to be a living, active member on it…none of this imgur lurker crap)
- Get OUT of your apartment: seriously, even if it’s just to buy a pizza or another tub of ice cream, get dressed (and no, sweatpants do NOT count) and walk outside. Who was it that once said, “to discover new lands you have to have the courage to lose sight of the shore”? You’ve already lost sight of your shore, don’t find another one in your apartment…that’s like going out to sea and anchoring in the shallows.
- Establish a ROUTINE: whatever it is, make your days count. Do you exercise? Do you read/write/play an instrument/draw/etc? Fit some time into your day for those things, and DO them. Don’t collapse onto bed with your ipad and start playing candy crush instead…and don’t pretend you don’t do it. We’ve ALL done it, so make a routine of things you want/have to do and stick to it.
- Find a hobby: and make it part of your routine. In Ulsan, there are a lot of groups that will go biking, volunteer, etc. together. If you need some motivation, join one of these groups or get a hobby buddy; that way you’re out of the house, doing something fun, and meeting new people all at the same time. Sometimes, it’s easier to do things with someone because you have someone to hold you accountable.
- Do/See 1 new thing a week: visit a new temple, go on a walk along that mysterious river, try a new restaurant, take a day trip somewhere, see a foreign language film, etc. Seeing something new, or doing something new, will keep your spirits up and will give you something to look forward to each week; not to mention that it will let you see more of your new home, make you feel more comfortable with your surroundings, and give you some sweet pictures.
- Brush up on the CULTURE: feeling out of place? desperately aware that you’re a foreigner? This is a good time to research cultural practices/norms and try to do them, the people around you will appreciate (and maybe make you feel more welcome?), and you’ll feel less like a ostrich in a rice paddy.
- Prepare for the 3-month blues and FUBAR (fucked-up beyond all repair) days: if you know you’re going to get homesick, or just have those days when you need a pick-me-up, have reserve “tastes of home” on hand. Store away some letters from friends and family, connect with people who have been there and done that, get a friend to send a care package, and indulge in some of that expensive foreigner food. Sometimes, all you really do need is a little comfort from home to set everything right, and making sure you have it on hand for those emergency days will make bouncing back so much easier.
- Learn the Language: nothing is worse than trying to navigate around a city where you don’t speak ANY of the language, and they don’t speak any of yours. I’m not saying that you have to become fluent overnight, but learning a few key words and phrases will go a long way to easing the transition and making your time away more enjoyable. If you’re not up for becoming a wordsmith, stick to the basics: greetings, directions, numbers, money.
- Be OPEN: things away from home are definitely going to make you say “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” at some point, or at a lot of points. If you’ve done all of the above, you’ll be in a better position to be open about the new experience, and will be able to take the things that make you raise your brow in stride…soon, as you start to feel even more at home (and you will), you’ll not only lower that brow, you’ll end up missing the quirks when you’re gone.
Most of all, enjoy the time you have away. All too soon you’ll be back home wondering whether or not the entire thing was just a dream, and feeling like you never really left at all…at that point, you’ll probably experience reverse culture shock, and be reminiscently happy that you became so comfortable halfway across the world that coming home was it’s own cultural experience.