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Embrace The Culture Shock When Travelling

June 19, 2018

The experience of being placed in a new culture can be a disorienting experience. Here’s why it’s worth taking the plunge.

Have you ever had the pleasure of experiencing culture shock?

No doubt, in your years of travelling, you’ve been somewhere that was completely different from the world you grew up in. Most of the world is made up by cultures you likely know little about. However, you can travel to a place and not get a sense of how the lifestyle differs from your own. That doesn’t make you an ignorant or rude traveller. For many of us, vacation means relaxation and spending time with loved ones. Hanging out in a resort hardly offers a glimpse at what the actual culture is like. But when you allow yourself to be immersed in a new place that is when you can experience what they call ‘culture shock’.

What is culture shock?

The idea of culture shock is that you are introduced to a new culture so radically different than your own, that it is a genuine shock to the system. Some have described it as an out-of-body experience, others have said it is like visiting a new world. Some say that it is impossible to experience culture shock in a place like North America because our culture is depicted so much in media around the world. But really, culture shock is something that can happen to any traveller from any destination, visiting any other destination in the world. And despite what some might perceive, it’s a well worth experiencing.

There aren’t a bunch of people saying culture shock is a bad thing, but it is sometimes seen as something travellers want to avoid. Search ‘culture shock’ on the internet and you’ll see plenty of articles dedicated to tips for getting over culture shock or ways to ensure you don’t get culture shock during your next trip. However, you may also find a few helpful articles suggesting that culture shock might be a good experience. Having experienced it myself, I can tell you that I absolutely agree.

A unique experience.

For one year of my life, I moved to South Korea to be an English teacher. It was a bit of a spontaneous decision and I knew it was going to be a very different experience than I had ever had. I had travelled plenty in my life up until that point but as they were all leisurely vacations, I couldn’t say I ever experienced culture shock. I really didn’t know what to expect moving to a place where I didn’t speak the official language, where I looked like an outsider and where so many aspects of daily life were foreign to me. Not having expectations maybe made the whole thing more of a shock.

Now, I don’t want to present it as if I was all on my own. I worked at a school with other English teachers, including other Canadians, and there were many other Westerners in the area, but the experience was still surreal. There was hardly a waking moment that I wasn’t reminded that I was in a new place. And it was incredible.

When you are in a situation like that, your brain is working in a way that you rarely ever experience. I was always in a state of adapting and it presented everything as a big puzzle I was slowly working away at. It wasn’t just the language barrier, though that was a major hurdle. Perhaps coming from where I did, there’s a privilege you take for granted of always being understood by everyone around you. Losing that was a challenge and at time I felt I had alienated myself. But it was also somehow energizing having the ease of communication suddenly taken from me. Again, this left me with no option but to adapt and learn.

Something that was an immense help was the amazing South Korean people. As much as I sometimes felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb, everyone was always very welcoming and gracious to me. I cannot think of a single instance where someone was openly impatient with the foreigner who was operating at half the speed of everyone else. They taught me helpful things and brought me along to share their culture with me.

Though I made efforts to make friends, learn to language and put together somewhat of a normal life for the short year I lived there, I never felt the need to get over the shock of it all. I made routines, got along on my own when necessary and fell deeply in love with the food. But I never lost the feeling of being in a new place that I had only scratched the surface of.

The experience taught me so much about myself, challenged me in ways I had never been challenged and gave me new perspectives of how people live. Was it uncomfortable at times? Maybe, but I always saw the bigger picture of what the experience would mean to me. Visiting new places is supposed to be an experience like no other, so don’t avoid the culture shock, embrace it and enjoy it as much as you can.


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