When I moved to the USA from the UK, I received training at an au pair school. One of the things they tried to prepare us for was culture shock. Culture Shock is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes” (Oxford Languages). Yet, despite learning about culture shock, I still wasn’t prepared to experience it.
Culture shock can manifest in different ways for different people. I couldn’t imagine experiencing culture shock in a country that I thought I knew so well. After all, I was an English speaker and I watched plenty of American movies to know what living here was like, right? Wrong. And to top it off, I was living with a family of Russians, so the main language I was hearing (and unable to understand) was not my own. I found myself becoming homesick. There many things to adjust to… from the food, to the way people behaved.
If you experience culture shock, don’t be surprised if you start to feel irritable. Perhaps there are systems that are frustrating (I felt like there were always long wait times or lines, stating at the airport when you arrive in the USA and have to go through customs). Perhaps you are tired of not being able to understand the language or are having a hard time keeping up with cultural references in conversation. Sometimes you may also begin to feel lonely. For me, these things meant that I began staying in my room more and really missing my family.
Some tips on how to handle this are:
1. Keep an open mind. Things are bound to be different than you are used to. Accept this and try to embrace it. Focus on the positive differences and find things that you enjoy to do. Practice the language. Maybe watch a few movies from that country or read some books. Don’t criticize or judge… instead find things that you DO like about where you are. Differences are what makes travelling interesting.
2. Accept that you will be homesick. Ask your family to send you some treats from home. Set up a time to call with them each week. You could even plan a trip to visit home, if you are living in a new country or are struggling to adjust. But also, try to make friends where you are. Familiarize yourself with your surroundings – find places you enjoy going to. Go exploring. Take language classes and practice speaking the language that you are immersed in. See this as an opportunity to improve yourself and to make new friends. Soon, the new will become the familiar.
3. Time. It may take a while to get used to a new place. Try new things. Familiarize yourself with what is local. Before you know it, you will get used to where you are.
Don’t worry. You will start to adapt to the new culture you have entered. Sometimes it takes a few hours, and sometimes it takes a few weeks. After hiding in my room for a while, I began embracing my new home. I took Russian lessons and practiced with the family that I lived with, asking them to help me. I went for walks and mini-adventures, discovering what this new place had to offer. I made friends with other au pairs, who were going through the same thing (I was lucky to be part of a group that were all going though the adjustment – it was easy to meet people since we had au pair meetings every month). And soon, this became my home too.
However, it is possible that you will also feel strange when you go back home. Your experience away may have changed you. You may have to get used things again if you have been away for a long time. For me, it is always nice to be back home. I live in the USA still, but I visit my family in England as often as I can. I love the familiarity of home. It is like a warm embrace. But what makes me feel weird, is when some things are different than they were when I lived there – when the familiar is no longer familiar. For instance, they changed the money in the UK so that now it looks different from when I lived there.
Culture shock can be a little jarring. But when you travel or live in a new place… you may discover things that are wonderful. Perhaps you will find a new hobby or a new favourite food. You may meet amazing people or do things out of your comfort zone. You could end up with crazy adventure stories that make you more interesting. Or you may experience something life-changing. Remember, if you find yourself struggling to adjust, it will get easier with time.
Have you experienced culture shock? Tell us about your experience in the comments.