Culture shock is one of those theoretical words that is often used to forewarn people of the disorientation they might feel in a new place. However, I have found few people willing to admit that they have experienced it. Often people think it is a sign of weakness to admit they experienced it. Or if they had learnt about culture shock before they traveled, they think it is a sign that they failed in cross-cultural relations and do not want to own up to it.
But in my experience, being aware of moments where I have experienced culture shock actually allows me to reflect and learn from them. You can learn all the theory in the world about culture shock, but there is nothing like going through it yourself.
I spent one semester in Germany on university exchange. I had been in the country about a month before the semester started. I thought I was coping pretty well. But around the same time as classes started, I started to withdraw. I was mostly hanging around other exchange students, but when they invited me out, I would often decline. I think I can attribute it partly to the location of my student accommodation, which was quite far from the town compared to the other students’ dwellings. But this became an excuse far too often. I would spend a lot of time at home, usually on Skype to Australia. I wasn’t very adventurous in travelling to new places and I enjoyed my own company most….which as an extrovert, was quite unusual behaviour for me. As I reflect back now, I can see that I was trying to find something familiar to connect with. Everything outside was unfamiliar, so I avoided it.
This probably lasted about 2 months. I came out of it when I started feeling comfortable to say “yes” to invitations to go different places, to events with the other students and to parties. I suddenly felt comfortable in this new environment….but by then I had only had a couple of months left. I was sad that it had taken me so long to adjust. But at the same time, I learnt that I need to be aware of my environment and how it’s affecting me. It also revealed to me that people often don’t know when others are experiencing culture shock. No one ever approached me about it and suggested that’s what was happening. As they had no idea what I was like usually, they all assumed that I was the quiet, shy, stick-to-herself type of person.
Before I experienced this, I also thought that because I knew all the theory about culture shock, that meant I wouldn’t experience it. But rather than being a sign of weakness, I have a greater awareness of what it feels like. I would hope that it would help me know how to assist others going through it.
Have you experienced culture shock? How did you deal with? What have you learned from reflecting on your experience?