Culture shock is not something that is talked about often, but it’s a very real thing. You may have experienced it when you traveled out of the country for the first time, if you studied abroad, or even when you returned to the United States after studying abroad. Often there is a lot of emphasis on culture shock that may occur when you arrive to the new country, but less about when you have to leave it. My hope is that this post benefits anyone who has moved to a different country, or moved back, and had a hard time finding their footing.
I thought a lot about culture shock during the beginning of quarantine and lockdown, the major exodus happening across the world as citizens were called home before borders closed. I have friends who had to flee Italy back to the U.S. and the Netherlands. Suddenly they found themselves at home and in a totally different situation than they had been for the past few months. My sister had to leave her study abroad program in London during this stressful time, and I have no doubt that the added uncertainty of a global pandemic made settling back at home in Minnesota that much harder.
I’m not going to focus on the pandemic in this post but rather cultural shock in the broader term. This is something I’ve thought about writing since I got back from studying abroad in Florence in 2017, and more recently from Rome right before Christmas last year. Instead of having culture shock when I arrived in Italy, I had it when I came home to the U.S. (so I guess it was really reverse culture shock). I think it says a lot that I fit in immediately when I arrived in Italy, but struggled the most “coming home.”
About a month into study abroad, I ran into a friend from my university in the states while out one night in Florence. She immediately began gushing about how no one tells you how hard it is to adjust to being abroad. How much she missed home, how sad she was, how hard it was, etc. I tried my best to console her and make her more excited about the opportunity as she relayed her feelings to me, but I couldn’t relate to her feelings at all. I hadn’t cried once about being homesick.
I hadn’t had the same experience she had, missing things and finding it hard to adjust. I had actually come to resent anything in Florence that was “American,” like to-go coffee and Subway, and I didn’t miss anything from home (except my family and friends, but even then I was getting by with a few video calls here and there). I was in a constant state of discovery, endlessly enchanted by the world, learning about cultures through everyday encounters, speaking a new language, and inspired by everything I saw. I didn’t care about finding a Starbucks or missing anything.
Reverse Culture Shock
Fast forward five months when I had to return home and WOW. Reverse culture shock hit me smack dab in the face, and hard. I had a horrible time adjusting back to life in America, mostly because I was unwilling. I didn’t want to adjust (and part of me still doesn’t). I loved the person I was, the person I became while I was in Italy. She was a freer, more independent and confident, carefree, and happier version of me, and I wanted to keep her forever.
While the shock has mellowed and subsided over time, anger still rises up in me when I wish things were different. I wonder if when you experience it has anything to do with where you’re supposed to be. Where you fit in, where you belong. Maybe the shock is only experienced when you leave this place that belongs to you as much as you belong to it.
Listen To Your Heart
I don’t really have the answers to how to beat culture shock, but I think the most important thing is to listen to your heart in these matters. I do know that what makes it easier going from one culture to another is realizing that the lifestyles are different. People live differently, they have to because daily life is dependent on so many different factors, and so you have to adapt in order to survive. Flow with the river instead of fighting the current. This is always easier said than done, but once I realized it, it made things a little easier for me, and I hope this advice helps you too.
The first step to trying to overcome culture shock is by acknowledging what’s happening, and why you might be feeling out of place. Recognize that the feelings of frustration and anger you might be having are a result of the culture shock. It’s important to understand why you’re feeling out of sorts, and that the source of it is the culture shock. If you’re preparing to study abroad or make a big trip, just be prepared that there might be some adjusting you need to do when you arrive, or when you come home.
Reflect on What’s Causing the Issues
I think a lot of times when I vent to a friend, or even write in a journal, I get down to the root cause of why I’m feeling upset or frustrated. If you’ve talked it all out you may be able to pinpoint what exactly has been hard for you, which will make it easier to move past it. Culture shock can be due to a number of things, like loss of familiarity with a culture, language barriers, different cultural norms that you may not be used to.
Once you’ve pinpointed exactly what’s bothering you, then I would suggest trying to make adjustments so that you’re happier. For example, if you’re frustrated about the coffee culture wherever you are, try learning about the history and the customs behind the new culture. It’s easy to make adjustments to how the locals lived once you learn more about their customs, and try them out a couple times. Create a daily routine you can find comfort in.
Remind Yourself Why You’re There
I think one of the easiest ways to cope with culture shock might just be reminding yourself why you’re there. You made the decision to travel or go somewhere based on a desire or a wish to see someplace new. Or maybe you went because you wanted to gain self confidence, or learn a new language. Whatever your reason for going and entering this culture, it matters. By remembering exactly why you’re there, it’s easier to overcome the challenges of a new culture.
Lean into the Culture
It’s really easy to overcome culture shock when you really lean into the culture, and let your curiosity overtake you. Embrace the food and the culture and everything about the new place that you’re experiencing. When I’m too busy having fun and learning new things, it’s easy to forget about whatever was making me angry in the first place.
Give Yourself Grace
In times of struggle, this is something I always try to remember. Be patient with yourself and give yourself grace. It’s okay to stumble and fall a couple times before you find your way. Don’t get mad at yourself. Remember that what you’re doing is hard and courageous and it’s not going to be perfect the first time around. Allow yourself time to adjust and be gentle with yourself. You can be your own biggest supporter, if you want to be.
Remember You’re Resilient
Another thing I always try to remember is that humans are so resilient! We have survived wars and natural disasters and so many other things over the years, we can survive another bump in the road. Humans can adjust to new things, we do it almost every day. So if you’re struggling with culture shock, just keep going. Eventually you will get used to everything and it will all be okay.
Have any other tips for overcoming culture shock? Leave them in the comments below!
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Maggie is the blogger behind The Artful Everyday, a travel and lifestyle blog dedicated to living intentionally and finding beauty in the ordinary. She loves the idea that we get to escape our normal lives when we travel, and that it allows us to be more open to the world and its cultures. Maggie lived in Florence while studying abroad, then was an au pair in Rome last fall. She is very passionate about traveling in Europe, especially Italy, and living abroad. Maggie studied Interior Design at the University of Minnesota, but is currently pursuing a career in writing.