When traveling, especially internationally or to more remote destinations, culture shock is bound to happen. Sometimes it is just the smallest feeling of discomfort, and at other times can lead to complete panic and an intense longing to get on the next plane home. While it is completely normal to experience these feelings of culture shock, it is also important to not let it ruin your trip. Keep these tips in mind next time you are traveling to help turn your anxiety into excitement.
Research the destination before you leave home
If you dive into the trip completely unprepared and not knowing what to expect, you are literally setting yourself up to be shocked by the culture. Search the internet, read a guidebook, or talk to travelers who have visited the destination before. Find out about customs and etiquette, ask about what kinds of clothing locals wear, learn about greetings, read about transportation and how people get around, and, most importantly, safety. Basically, just gather enough information so that you can be prepared for your experience abroad and have a better chance of blending in.Take baby steps
If possible, I have always found it helpful to begin international trips in the more touristy areas and then work my way to the more rural regions. You could also try staying in a comfortable hotel, at least in the beginning, just so that you have an escape while you are getting adjusted to your new surroundings. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually begin to get away from these comforts and immerse yourself in the culture more fully.
Learn some key phrases
Many times, becoming fluent in another language just to go on a trip that lasts a few months or less just doesn’t make sense (although, if you have the time this never hurts). It can be helpful to learn a few key phrases, however, to at least feel comfortable making small talk and knowing what people are saying to you. When in Ghana, Africa, for example, the locals would constantly shout “oburoni! at me. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought they were angry at me or making fun of me. However, I learned early on that this word, which literally means “foreigner”, is their way of trying to make conversation with you.
Keep a journal
While it may sound a little corny, it can be helpful to write about your experience for a few reasons. One, its generally therapeutic to share your thoughts and feelings, and writing it down in your own personal book can allow you to be completely open. Moreover, I’ve personally always found keeping a journal helpful in shifting my mindset from being nervous about my new surroundings to being excited. Getting everything down on paper and seeing just how many unique experiences you have in one day alone can help make it clear the opportunity you have to immerse yourself and learn about a new culture and place.
Try new things, even if you’re afraid
While it may seem scary, actually participating in cultural experiences abroad can show you firsthand just how not-scary it is. Try a new food, even if it is something you would never eat at home, learn how to play a local instrument, or attend a cultural festival. Even simple tasks such as hailing a taxi or asking for directions can seem daunting, but you should try anyway. For example, while in Ghana I did most of the talking to locals in terms of asking where to eat or where to go, mostly because my travel companion was terrified to interact with the locals. She really wanted to have a dress handmade in the village, and when she asked me to help buy the fabric for her, I refused, hoping to get her to talk to the seamstress herself. After a bit of begging and pleading on her part, she finally forced herself to choose a fabric and ask the woman for the price. Afterwards, she felt a lot more confident about interacting with locals and experiencing the culture.
If possible, make contacts before you go
With all of the company information, social media platforms, and networking websites out there, it makes it easy to connect with people and companies from all over the world. This could be as simple as signing on to volunteer with an NGO in your destination, or contacting hospitality companies in the area. Ask around travel forums or post on CouchSurfing to see if anyone will be in the same area as you at the same time or has ever been to that destination and can provide information and other contacts. Even if you can’t find someone to meet up with in the country, it is nice to speak with people who have been there and learn about their experiences.