BD:Blog:five-culture-shocks-you-wont-believe
BD:Blog
BD:Travel
Budget Direct

Five Culture Shocks You Won’t Believe

Looking for smarter
Travel Insurance?

Get a Quote

Five Culture Shocks You Won’t Believe

Living overseas is exciting – and can be full of uncomfortable surprises

Culture shock is a term that refers to feelings of uncertainty or distress experienced when coming into contact with a new country and its culture.

Although this emotional rollercoaster can occur in a minor way during normal overseas holidays, it really hits home for those who spend lots of time in a new country.

Culture shock can affect business people (and their families), international students, expats, EFL teachers, digital nomads, professional athletes, volunteers and anyone else who spends an extended period in a new nation. If you’ve ever worked or lived overseas, you’ve almost certainly experienced culture shock to some degree.

Culture shock is a normal reaction to unfamiliar surroundings and is nothing to be afraid of.

Culture shock is a normal reaction to unfamiliar surroundings and is nothing to be afraid of. Recognising the symptoms and understanding the typical stages will help you deal with it.

Everyone is affected differently, but here are some common reactions:

  • You feel fear, anxiety, vulnerability and disorientation in your new country
  • Because you must learn so many new things at once, you feel information overload
  • Although normally outgoing, you feel insecure and shy
  • Your sleep patterns are disrupted and you’re more exhausted than usual
  • You’re lonely, sad and distrustful of those around you
  • You’re frustrated with the language barrier and inability to communicate
  • You’re paranoid about your health and personal safety
  • You’re irritated with poor quality, different or non-existent technologies

Most experts agree that culture shock creeps up on us in five separate stages. Some travellers can get through all the phases in a couple of months, while others might take a couple of years to feel completely comfortable. The whole process tends to follow a predictable pattern:

A. The ‘isn’t this amazing’ phase

Also known as the honeymoon phase or rose-coloured glasses phase, this is where you think everything is just fabulous. You’re thrilled with the sights, the sounds and the buzz of it all. You’ve finally arrived! It’s exhilarating, exotic and you can’t get enough.

You’re positive about first impressions but have no real experience with the culture.

Happy traveler

Alas, like all honeymoons, this one will also come to an end.

B. The isolation and frustration phase

The Internet is unreliable, the street outside is noisy at night, you don’t speak the language and you’re homesick for your own bed, your favourite foods and your friends back home.

Welcome to the ‘what have I got myself into’ phase, where initial excitement is replaced with anger, confusion and difficulty in adjusting.

There’s a tendency to withdraw from the new culture rather than embrace it. In this phase, many people seek out fellow expats (if there are any) for a sense of familiarity rather than mixing with the local community.

The best way to make it through this trying stage is to get super-serious about learning the language and to immerse yourself in the best of your new culture.

C. Adjustment and integration

Though you may still resent certain aspects of the new culture (food, social habits, language, etc.), you’re finally settling into a normal routine. You’re solving problems more confidently and finding that life overseas is making more sense. Negativity is slowly being replaced by confidence and you’re more accepting. You are gradually transforming into a bicultural being.

If you’ve seen those documentaries where the Peruvian jungle dwellers capture, cook and eat tarantulas and then clean their teeth with the fangs, you already know there are some pretty strange eating habits around the world.

D. The ‘just like a local’ phase

It’s taken awhile, but you finally feel like yourself again. You’re totally relaxed, independent and comfortable with life abroad.

Because you’ve ‘been there, done that’, you can appreciate the reality of the country’s culture and fully absorb what it has to offer. You’ve survived culture shock!

Flexibility, a positive attitude and a sense of humour are the best antidotes to culture shock, but adjusting can still be really hard. Many cultural differences are minor but others can be downright glaring. Here are five serious culture shocks that will challenge you to the limit:

1. Food

If you’ve seen those documentaries where the Peruvian jungle dwellers capture, cook and eat tarantulas and then clean their teeth with the fangs, you already know there are some pretty strange eating habits around the world.

Perhaps to someone experiencing Australian life for the first time, our consumption of seafood at Christmas, yeast-extract breakfast spreads, supermarket kangaroo and hot chips smothered in mayo would seem bizarre too.

Bug (1)

Here are four global delicacies you can be forgiven for not sampling:

Balut

When Filipino street sellers rush up to your bus window offering balut, be aware that it’s a partially developed duck embryo boiled alive in its shell.

Casu Marzu

This famous Sardinian dish consists of a pungent sheep’s milk cheese containing insect larvae – either dead or alive (your choice).

Wasp crackers

If you’re in Japan and see something that looks like a chocolate chip biscuit, beware. It may be a wasp cracker – a biscuit full of digger wasps. The bad news: these wasps sting. The good news: they’re dead.

Khash

In Eastern Europe and the Middle East you might encounter this delightful dish consisting of the stewed head and feet of a cow. There’s nothing quite like a meal that stares back at you.

One of the hardest things for Aussies to get used to in many foreign countries is horrible air quality.

2. Smog

In most parts of Australia we take fresh, clean air for granted. Our skies are blue, our nights are starry and our children don’t have to wear face-masks to play outside. This is not always the case overseas, however. One of the hardest things for Aussies to get used to in many foreign countries is horrible air quality.

Cities like Beijing and Mexico City have a justifiably bad reputation for air pollution, but there are worse places for smog.

According to the World Health Organisation, 9 out of the 10 worst cities on earth for air pollution are in India and Pakistan. Top of the list is Delhi, which WHO classifies as ‘very unhealthy’ for air quality.

3. Toilets

Toilets around the world can be a source of immense comfort, extreme trepidation, light-hearted amusement or utter confusion. Occasionally they can be horrifying.

You might find a grim-faced, middle-aged woman sitting inside the door of the public restroom (men’s or women’s) who sells you the only toilet paper available within a 10-kilometre radius.

In other countries, toilet paper is highly optional. There is only a bucket and water tap or a deadly-looking garden hose nozzle for ‘tidying up’.

Some foreign toilets have no toilet seat and others are designed for squatting instead of sitting. In Nepal, a rectangular hole in the ground might be all there is; in Japan you can treat yourself to an electronic toilet with a temperature-controlled seat, soothing music and powerful jet sprays for the ultimate in cleanliness (make sure you’re sitting down when activating these).

In poorer global towns situated along riverbanks, your waste might drop through a hole in the floor to the sluggish water below.

And beware of nocturnal trips to outdoor loos in rural parts of Africa – if the leopards or hyenas don’t get you, the black mambas will.

4. Unfamiliar Customs

A large part of culture shock is learning to cope with foreign habits and social expectations. Simple greetings can be a minefield: do you say ‘hi’, offer a handshake, kiss one cheek, kiss both cheeks, bow from the waist, clasp your palms together or simply raise a hand in greeting?

In many countries it’s considered impolite to refuse an offering, whether it’s food, drink or a social activity.

In many countries it’s considered impolite to refuse an offering, whether it’s food, drink or a social activity.

How will those Fijians react if you refuse their kava?

How you will be welcomed in India?

What will you do when confronted with a communal bowl of rice where everyone is digging in with their fingers?

What extra clothing must you wear at the local temple?

Is it okay to pat children on the head?

Do you need to bring a gift to a house party?

What’s the proper way to flag down a taxi?

Taxi (2)

Prior research will give you a good idea of what to expect in any new country, but some things really can’t be learned until you’re there. The important thing is to respect local customs and never do anything that might get you in trouble with the authorities. An activity considered perfectly normal in Australia might be illegal in a foreign land.

For example, did you know that alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia and you can be imprisoned if caught drinking it? That’s a far cry from our typical Sunday session at the local Aussie pub!

5. Language

When we travel to English-speaking countries, the language variations seem quaint and harmless. We’re amused when an Alabama shop-owner drawls “This weather’s making me as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

We’re intrigued when we pass through different parts of Britain and encounter a dozen distinctly different accents in the space of a month.

We like the way the waiter in Jamaica says “Yeah, mon” when we ask a question. Sure, it’s not English as we know it, but it’s close enough.

There’s only one sure-fire way to tackle language barriers and feel more comfortable with the locals – and that’s to take a language course either in-country or before you leave Australia.

But when we arrive in a new land and don’t speak Mandarin, Turkish, Swahili, Portuguese or whatever’s required, simple communication becomes incredibly frustrating. Smartphone translation apps and back-pocket phrasebooks can help, but it’s still a struggle.

The most mundane tasks become a long-winded ordeal: asking for a product at a chemist shop, trying to find out where the nearest toilet is, negotiating to rent an apartment, deciphering a restaurant menu and all the other little things that are a part of normal life.

There’s only one sure-fire way to tackle language barriers and feel more comfortable with the locals – and that’s to take a language course either in-country or before you leave Australia.

Your accent might still be atrocious, but if you can communicate the basics it’s not hard to build your vocabulary from there.

Attend a language school, read books, listen to audio tapes and practice the language as often as possible with your new neighbours and friends. It’s not easy, but you do get better over time if you put your heart into it.

Kabuki-Cho district, Shinjuku,Tokyo, Japan.

Benny Lewis, author of the bestseller ‘Fluent in 3 Months’, suggests listening to local radio stations, speaking sentences out loud as often as possible and learning the most practical phrases first as useful ways to increase fluency.

Another handy trick is to write a simple one-minute intro about yourself, have a native speaker help you translate it into the local language and try it out on people you meet.

What is reverse culture shock?

In some ways, the most unbelievable culture shock of all is the one you’re least prepared for: an inability to readjust to life in Australia after you’ve had a lengthy stint abroad. This phenomenon is called reverse culture shock and it’s quite common.

One of its main symptoms is the overwhelming feeling that you have changed substantially but your friends at home haven’t – and life seems a lot more boring than when you left.

One of its main symptoms is the overwhelming feeling that you have changed substantially but your friends at home haven’t – and life seems a lot more boring than when you left.

If you’ve spent the last two years riding bullet trains in China or enjoying the dazzling Internet speeds in South Korea, you may be frustrated by slower Aussie versions.

You might find you desperately miss the more relaxed lifestyle in Paraguay, the pastries in Berlin, the coffee in Colombia or the nightlife in Prague.

Australia is your home, but you’re finding it hard to fit back in. Don’t worry: this type of culture shock doesn’t last as long as the overseas kind and you’ll be feeling ‘true blue’ again in no time!

Read More

If you are going overseas soon and will be on the move often – read our article ‘Packing Hacks For Clever Travelers‘.

Has reading about being overseas inspired you? Get more inspiration here at ‘Diving In Malaysia‘ and ‘Eating Hawker Food in Singapore‘.

Be sure to get the best travel insurance for you while overseas, and get a quote with Budget Direct.