How to deal with culture shock — 6 best tips
As a European, the biggest culture shock I can remember was coming across maggot cheese in Sardinia.
A delicacy in certain parts of the Mediterranean island, I just couldn’t stomach it despite the raving local reviews.
But, as unusual as the delicacy was, it was nothing compared to the culture shock I experienced while traveling in Southeast Asia.
A whole other world
With postcard paradise landscapes, blue skies and a sunny climate, many countries in Southeast Asia are a traveler’s dream.
However, beneath the dreamy façade and swaying palm trees lies another reality: the one of mass poverty.
The kind of abject poverty I’d only seen before on the news was heartbreaking to see in person.
While seeing new and unusual foods can be shocking, the scale of poverty and hardship is harder to swallow.
What is culture shock?
The clue’s in the name when trying to explain what culture shock is.
Oxford Dictionary defines it as:
‘the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.’
I would probably exchange ‘feeling of disorientation’ with ‘emotions’, but apart from that, the definition sums it up well.
Though it’s possible to experience culture shock in your own country, all of mine have happened while traveling.
Culture shock storytime
I was 19 years old the first time I experienced my first real culture shock.
It was during a trip to the Philippines, on our way to visit a local market called Quiapo. As our car waited for the traffic lights to turn green, I noticed a frail, elderly man approaching our window.
He tapped on it gently, before holding up his hands to ask for something to eat. As our driver turned down the window to give him something, I noticed that he was also blind.
Immediately, my thoughts turned to my own grandfather, and even my father. How would I feel if one of them was doing this at 80 years old, and, even worse, with a disability?
I quickly tried to retrieve some money from my bag to give to him before the lights changed. But, it was too late.
Our driver turned up the window and drove away. My heart sank as I turned to see the old man still standing there, with the traffic moving around him.
The only thing I could think about was whether he’d be safe.
Scenes like this can hit you harder when seeing it in person
“…concentrate on being the kind of traveler that others want to emulate.”
One of many — how to deal with culture shock
The incident was one of many that I’d see during our trip. There was the time we saw a toddler pushing a baby — who was naked — in a shopping cart.
We didn’t see any parents or adult figures around, just 2 very young children.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a similar incident occurred, this time with a young girl, about 4 years old.
While browsing one of the market stalls, I felt something tapping against my leg.
Clueless and helpless
I looked down to see the most adorable little girl with deep brown eyes staring up at me.
She repeated the same word a few times, which of course I didn’t understand.
Instead, I gave her some money and watched as she walked away to a man waiting nearby. She handed him the cash before they walked off together.
We never found out whether the man was her father, or whether he was part of a scheme to take advantage of western visitors.
Such stories, unfortunately, aren’t one-off cases.
While nothing can truly prepare you for these kinds of incidences, there are ways you can deal with it.
Poverty exists in every continent, but the levels differ greatly in poorer countries. If travel to a less privileged country is on your list, these 6 ways will help you deal with potential culture shock.
I got more than I expected during my time in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam — how to deal with culture shock
1. Research your destination before you visit
When planning a trip, especially to a new destination, how much background reading do you do?
Reading up about traditional foods and cultural practices will keep you one step ahead.
What’s more, internet apps like Google Earth help you to see the places before you visit.
Again, it’s not the same as being there in person. However, it may help to lessen the shock factor when you arrive.
Doing ample research beforehand may help to lessen the culture shock
2. Be open-minded
I’ll be the first to admit, that there were times when I didn’t handle my culture shock well.
During that same Philippines trip, I remember passing by a row of homes made from corrugated iron.
They were carelessly built near to luxury condominiums, and all I could think of was, why?
To my 19-year-old self, I thought these homes brought down the look and feel of the nice neighborhood.
It never occurred to me that these people built there because they’d simply no choice. Naturally, I’m embarrassed by how I thought back then.
Acknowledging the reality and hardship in poorer countries, helps you to be more open-minded about the circumstances behind it.
You may not be able to change the situation, but having a shared understanding makes you a better traveler.
Be open-minded to new experiences when traveling to less privileged countries
3. Be kind and respectful
It goes without saying, that a little kindness goes a long way.
Rather than fill this section with quotes and platitudes, concentrate instead on being the kind of traveler that others want to emulate.
If you’re introduced to a dish that’s unfamiliar and let’s be honest, unappetizing, be polite about it.
Smile, say that you’re allergic to an ingredient, or that you’re full, but just don’t be rude.
Bad experience — how to deal with culture shock
On our travels in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we passed a street food vendor selling a local curry noodle soup.
Upon seeing that we were visitors, he called us over and insisted that we try some.
As big a foodie as I am, I’m slightly nervous about trying certain street foods when abroad.
A serious case of food poisoning in Tanzania left me bed-bound for 3 days, putting a dent in our trip. Because of this, I politely refused his offer, placing my hand on my stomach to indicate I was full.
Though we didn’t order any soup, we didn’t leave empty-handed. We took 2 bottles of water, paid him double the price and let him keep the change.
Your kindness makes a big difference
4. Be honest about how you feel
When you first see cases of extreme poverty or hardship, it’s normal to feel a range of emotions.
Sadness, disgust and hopelessness were just some of those I remember feeling.
While I’m not proud of it, it’s okay, and important, to be honest about how you feel.
It doesn’t make you a bad person, it’s just a hard-hitting reminder that you come from a different place.
Face your feelings of culture shock, however raw they may be
5. Do your part
There’s plenty you can do to give back, and it doesn’t mean simply handing out money.
You can support small vendors, like the people who sell ice cream or snacks at the side of the road.
Their goods not only cost less, but they’re also more likely to taste more authentic than the larger chain stores.
Another way of helping is to give food.
The story of the elderly man walking through the traffic wasn’t about money, he was just hungry.
For children, anything sweet is always welcomed. In Thailand, we brought diapers, coloring books, pens and pencils for children at the local orphanage.
The faces on the carers, and the children, are something that I’ll never forget.
There’s a cliché that the poorest people are the ones who give you everything. And, from my experience, I can tell you that it’s 100% true.
Help out in your own way, like buying from smaller vendors than chain stores
6. Show gratitude
Do you know anyone who’s come home after traveling (to a poorer country) and say they feel more grateful?
Again, it may be a cliché, but you do feel more grateful after seeing others with far less.
However, showing gratitude shouldn’t be reserved for when you arrive home and you’ve had time to reflect.
You should continue practicing it when you visit less privileged places, as well as when you’re back home.
Being grateful and counting each blessing helped me to deal with my culture shock. Not in a condescending way, but one that kept me humble no matter the situation.
Have you ever traveled anywhere and experienced a culture shock? How did you deal with it? Let me know in the comments below.
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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience, a demographic (late 20s onward) that enjoys glamping over camping and staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels. Flashpackers also like to indulge in the local food and wine, cultural activities, as well as a spot of wellness on their travels. Want to know more? Read on....