Coping with culture shock is something most women abroad will have to go through at some point. Don't worry though: the shock will wear off, you'll get used to the differences, and in time you'll even look forward to them.
That said, much of what you see and experience overseas may be unfamiliar and while some of the differences may be amusing and interesting, others may dismay you and - shock you.
The answer is to develop coping skills - though some instances are much easier than others.
Fried insects - yum?
Even if we're used to eating internationally some of the things we're served abroad may come as a surprise. The brands may be different and that's surprising enough, but usually it goes far beyond the wrong color wrapper. Perhaps you've made it through frogs' legs and garlic snails, but how to deal with deep-fried snake or crispy grasshoppers? I drew the line at snails the size of tennis balls in Nigeria - yet I love their smaller, garlic-drenched French cousins. Wherever you go and however foreign, you'll 'almost' always find something you're familiar with - even if it's only rice or fruit. I say almost because there are times - rare, I admit - when nothing will suit your palate, and you'll just have to go hungry until the next town. One of the joys of travel is the sampling of new foods, because food lies at the heart of culture and often underpins many other characteristics of a people - if you haven't read it yet Jodi Ettenberg lays it all out in the Food Traveler's Handbook, very much worth the read. If food isn't part of your travel experience, this page on food tourism might convince you otherwise.
We are fortunate that English is widely spoken around the world. Widely, but not everywhere. So a major part of coping with culture shock is realizing that sometimes we can't even manage the simplest things on our own - like going to the post office or buying buying something in the market... The best way around this is to learn a bit of the language - even a few words will help keep that culture shock at bay. And don't think your English is everyone's English - some accents are so thick you may wonder if you're speaking the same language.
When it comes to coping with culture shock this is one of my pet peeves - and greatest challenges. While some societies tend to see punctuality as an asset, in others the concept is far more flexible. Tomorrow may mean next week, and next week may mean, well, who knows. A good way of avoiding frustration if you're a punctuality maven is to either expect others to be late, or decide ahead of time not to care. However frustrating, you won't change national culture - so you might as well change the only thing you do have control over: your own expectations.
Many Western countries have started cutting back on polluting emissions and city traffic and have breathable air as a result. But if you're traveling to the developing world you may be in for a surprise in many of the megacities. Standing on a polluted street corner on Bangkok at rush hour requires a face mask; when I decided to live there many years ago it took me two weeks to simply learn how to breathe in the city. If you have breathing problems, check with your doctor first and choose your season and destination wisely.
Cleanliness that seems normal and expected at home may be out of reach abroad. You may take things like clean drinking water for granted, but millions have no access to these luxuries. A shower might turn out to be a ladle dipped into a barrel of rainwater, and you might have to squat to go to the bathroom. Cleanliness standards in poor areas will be even worse given the lack of clean water. On the other hand, some societies pride themselves on being so pristine people wouldn't dream of stepping outside without first taking a shower. No matter how hot and muggy, they always look as though they've stepped out of a magazine page.
Being a woman
Being a woman in a Western country is relatively straightforward. We tend to be treated equally and in most cases our gender isn't really an issue. Where it is, there is usually legal and social redress. I wish I could say it was the same everywhere. In some countries though we are almost invisible - coping with culture shock will be a much-needed skill (and many women simply don't adapt, ever). Men may talk through us, especially if another man - a tour guide or colleague - is present. In the most conservative regions of the world we may not exist at all, shrouded from head to toe in a world ruled by men. Women travelers who can't or won't put up with restrictions inherent in a specific should stay away; there's no point in railing against customs you can't combat from within a country. And let's not forget, in some countries harassment of women is a way of life - if you choose to go you'll need to learn to avoid unwanted male attention.
In many countries discrimination, while it does exist, is rare or avoidable. Unfortunately this isn't the case everywhere. Being African in some parts of Eastern Europe requires huge fortitude. In Japan you might not get a lease if you're a foreigner. In China you might have to pay more. Being a Muslim in many countries means you'll attract mistrust. Being gay in dozens of countries can land you in jail. Discrimination remains very real and there's every chance that wherever you're from and whoever you are, you'll experience it at some point - although, I hope, less and less. We all have stereotypes about people and cultures; the trick is to avoid them as much as possible and this is where your skills in coping with culture shock may be most tested.
The most mundane customs and habits can be surprising. Walk into an elevator in Switzerland and everyone says hello. In some countries admiring something even casually means the owner feels obliged to give it to you. Americans are at ease talking about money - most others aren't. Modesty is a cultural concept - in some countries wearing shorts and a T-shirt would be considered insulting while in others it's the norm and perfectly acceptable.
Regular everyday things
Coping with culture shock is often more about the little things than the big ones. The lack of toilet paper. Phones that work differently. Strange smells. Unusual wildlife. How cheap - or expensive - things are. Sizes that are too small. More people packed into smaller spaces. Noise levels. Tap water (or taps that work). And so on.
Many of these differences are the reason we travel. Imagine your surprise at discovering new foods. The kindness of strangers. Amazing landscapes. Unusual art and compelling cultures. New cloths. Antiquated but colorful transportation. Unfamiliar philosophies and beliefs. Festivals and music. The joy of communicating with someone from another culture. Unexpected and unscripted adventures. Freedom. Openmindedness. Sunrises and sunsets. Washing in a tropical rainstorm. Fresh tropical fish in the sea.
Culture shock will eventually end and you'll actually seek out the differences. After all, we don't travel so we can experience what we already have at home. If we did, we could save a lot of money by simply staying put!
If you travel, chances are you've experienced some kind of culture shock. I know I have, with both positive and negative outcomes.
Where were you? What shocked you? How did you feel at the time, and how did you cope with it?
Please share your insight, experience and understanding with us - we'd love to hear from you!
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Culture Shock - when travel isn't what you expect!
My sister and I were on vacation in the Yucatan. We were going to attend the night show at Chichen Itza. There was a huge group of Venezuelans that were …