I write this from thousands of feet in the air, speeding over states, cities, and families in an airplane bound for Mexico City—my home for the past 6 months. I find it a little easier to think in airplanes; daily problems shrink with the scenery, perspective expands with the horizon.
This post-holidays flight back across the border was a clear but difficult decision for me to make.
When other friends would return from trips abroad and complain about the sometimes debilitating “culture shock” that they experienced, I misunderstood them entirely. I legitimately thought—until 3 months ago—that culture shock was just that: being surprised or shocked at another culture. Big deal. Experience the newness and move on, right?
For those who haven’t experienced any of this before: that isn’t culture shock. That’s uninformed tourism.
Instead, real culture shock is a little more difficult to explain and it’s way, way more serious.
It starts with the big stuff—sure—like unfamiliar languages, significant etiquette differences, or unfamiliar surroundings. But it’s absolutely possible to experience shock without any such differences. After all, you prepare for the big things, such as language or etiquette.
Really, culture shock is found in things so tiny and insignificant that it’s impossible to truly prepare for them. It’s little things like how much space people leave between others in line. It’s people walking in the middle of the sidewalk instead of on the right or left side. It’s seeing flat roofs instead of slanted ones and houses without backyards. It’s using unfamiliar currency and feeling sluggish with cash at the register. It’s going grocery shopping without any familiar brands. It’s foreign traffic signs. It’s being constantly on edge because you don’t know safe areas from dangerous ones, whether this dish is going to give you indigestion, or where to turn for medicine when you pick up something too nasty for Advil but not serious enough for an ambulance.
It’s none of these things independently. It’s all of these things together.
They seem so little and so insignificant that you wouldn’t give them any real attention, but they steadily chip away at comfort and confidence. They gradually slip the welcome mat out from under your feet—not quickly enough to be thrilling, but just slowly enough to feel like you’re always about to trip.
Over time, this lack of stability has very real mental ramifications and usually bottoms out in a sort of unofficial-but-super-real depression more commonly known as “culture shock.”
The worst part is, when people ask what’s wrong, you don’t have an answer. Everything that comes to mind is unsatisfactory and frankly, lame. What are you going to tell people? “You seem tired and sad. What’s wrong?” “People are walking in the middle of the sidewalk!”
Lest unseasoned (or blasé) travelers reply, “Don’t let that stop you from soaking up the experience!” Let me make something clear: you can’t. One of the symptoms of culture shock is a disorienting sensation of disconnect from reality. No matter how hard you try to experience your surroundings, it feels surreal and distant—you may as well be watching someone else living your life through a GoPro.
Other symptoms include excessive sleeping, stress eating, mood swings and uncontrollable emotional reactions (embarrassing example: I broke down in tears during a teacher in-service because we were talking about hugs) —and that’s just from my experience, not to mention that of hundreds of other travelers.
Or, to summarize all of that far more succinctly and poignantly, I’ll borrow the words of a friend’s friend: “It’s like being forced to stay on your tip toes all day, and only getting to walk on your feet when you get back home.”
Culture shock is real, it’s depression, it’s debilitating, and it’s darn good at throwing a monkey wrench into a perfectly exciting experience.
My 2.5-week escape to the States for Christmas was helpful, but I’m certainly still in the throes of the shock. Admittedly, my case is probably worse than most; I’m here by myself with only my sweet but still unfamiliar host family, and circumstances have left me with a nearly nonexistent social circle, limited spare time, disconnected from my faith life, and a very promising relationship now 2,000 miles away that’s only as comforting as Skype dates can be. All that said, I can’t supply answers, but I can offer suggestions for coping the way I have (if you can call it that).
Make your space.
Fight back against the disorientation by giving yourself space to reorient yourself. If you have your own room, decorate it as well as you can for the duration of your trip. Bring photos of family and friends, set up religious icons, and prominently display a book you like. On a personal note, I find LEGO’s to be quite stress-relieving (and cheaper here!), so my shelves are covered in completed LEGO kits. They remind me of who I was with when I constructed them and they offer a little entertainment when I’m bored or depressed.
This is coming from someone who literally never exercised before going abroad and still doesn’t do anything that would bring me near a gym: just MOVE. The endorphins that your body releases when you do little things—like walking around your block—really, truly do make a difference. Find what works for you. In the absence of a dance studio, I find myself walking around Mexico City’s gorgeous parks. (PokemonGo has been incredibly motivating in this regard—I’m always just 2k from hatching an egg!) Maybe it’s swimming or hiking or going to salsa cafes. Find it and do it.
Plan to have fun.
A dear friend of mine lived in the Philippines for a full year and essentially hated it. Culture shock hit her hard and severely tainted her trip. Her main advice to me as I embarked for Mexico was to plan something to look forward to as often as possible. Monthly is good, weekly is better. This helps distract from loneliness, sadness, boredom, and helps create opportunities or orient oneself to new surroundings. Besides, the more familiar you are with your new home, the more invested you’ll be in enjoying it.
Escape to home when you need to.
Bring a favorite and familiar book, movie, or album to enjoy when you’re really struggling. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve already read/seen/heard, it just has to be familiar. For example, I started reading the Legend of Drizzt Do’Urden just before I moved to Mexico. It’s a series with more than 10 books. I left off on book 5 and recently picked it back up. While each book is certainly new territory, its setting and characters are familiar. (Millennials: May I suggest Harry Potter? It seems to be a popular choice when us muggles are in need of a home.)
Pick up a musical instrument or improve with one you already know.
Don’t worry if you aren’t musical. The point of this isn’t to perform for people; it’s to have a creative outlet that also provides emotional release. I accidentally discovered that ukuleles fit really well into my arms, are surprisingly easy to learn, and create soothing music with almost not effort. I practice for 30 minutes a day, and I’m relaxed, focused, and increasingly at home during that time. Find one that you’re interested in, commit, and invest.
Find people with your native language and hang out regularly…
…even if you’re trying to immerse. Spending 6.95 days a week surrounded by the other language and 30 minutes talking to fellow natives still counts as immersion. When I came to Mexico, I thought it would be in my best interest to avoid English speaking communities. I was wrong. While you shouldn’t surround yourself with a ton of English speakers if you hope to immerse, you also shouldn’t isolate yourself in totally unfamiliar territory. This, I believe, caused the bulk of my depression.
Tell people about your shock.
No one can help if you don’t let them know what’s going on. Not everyone needs to know, of course, but getting support from a handful of loved ones can make all the difference. My dad was shocked to hear that I’d slipped into an intense depression because all I told him about were the fun places we visited and the fantastic food. But now that he knows, he checks in on me, he emails me pictures from when I was little, and does what he can to be available when I need to vent about people standing too close to me in line.
It’s hard to admit to debilitating culture shock, especially when it seems like everyone else who goes abroad has a blast. The reality is that nothing is as perfect as Instagram makes it out to be. Besides, culture shock happens in different degrees. Your friend who went to Austria for a week was only there for a week—it’s unlikely that his 7 days of shock is comparable to your 7 months. Your cousin on her study-abroad Ireland trip might be there for an extended period of time, but she’s also surrounded by an entire group of classmates in a country that shares her language. Don’t be surprised if she returns unacquainted with travel-induced depression.
Culture shock can feel like the end of the world, especially when it hits early and the months ahead seem unbearable. But if there’s anything these past few months in Mexico have taught me it’s that feelings of complete despair can be turned around, and home can be found literally anywhere if you’re willing to look for it. As the locals have never said before, but will when I’m done with them: When life gives you limónes, eat tacos.