The beauty of traveling, is that it exposes us to a whole new world of experiences we could not simply get from reading a book. It forces us to get outside of our comfort zones through trying new things and through this process we learn the beauty of diversity.
It is natural to feel overwhelmed at times when in a new place or unfamiliar situation. It’s important to learn the signs of “culture shock” and how to best handle them, so you can not only get the most out of your trip, but behave as a respectable guest in the country you visit.
1. Do some research before you leave:
Doing some research ahead of time is one of the best things you can do to limit culture shock. Instead of feeling totally overwhelmed on your first day getting off the plane, you will know what to expect and have mentally prepared yourself for any notable differences.
Read up on the country you are going to:
- What is the official language? Are there other dialects spoken?
- What is the time difference?
- What will the temperature be like?
- What is the population size?
- What are the common religious practices; will these affect how you should conduct yourself?
- How do locals dress? How is this different than what you might wear at home? Are there diverse gender norms?
- Do you need a tourist visa?
- What is the food like?
- Is it advised to drink the tap water? Do you need any immunizations?
- What are common ways to get around? Does your destination have a subway or metro system? Or should you plan to take taxis? Is it accessible to walk around?
- What is the local currency and exchange rate? Are there ATMs available?
- Are there common tourist scams to be mindful of? Are there any travel advisories or special safety precautions you should be aware of?
2. Go prepared:
After you have done some research, do some planning! For example, if you are going to Tanzania and you know the local language is Swahili, plan how you will manage to navigate the language barrier.
If you have read that the Wi-Fi is limited in your destination, or there are frequent cuts in power, plan how will you troubleshoot through periods without electricity or Internet. For example, you could bring a headlamp for black out periods and unlocked phone so you can get a local SIM card with data – useful to access a translator app, to get directions/ find an address or phone number, or as a resource in cases of emergency. If you require Wi-Fi for business or school, you could consider a portable device or usb hub, and a external charging dock.
If you are a picky eater or have food allergies, you should plan ahead of time what you can and cannot eat abroad. Perhaps bring some familiar things from home that you know are safe for you to consume if you find yourself in a pinch (e.g. jar of peanut butter, energy bars, protein powder, multivitamins).
3. Make a Local Friend:
Knowing someone who is familiar with local customs and fluent in the official language can make a HUGE difference. Not only will they teach you about their culture first hand, but they will likely want to show you around and give you tips on the do’s and don’ts of your location. It’s also really comforting to know someone local if something goes wrong and you require assistance getting help or medical attention.
However, if you do not know anyone in the country you are going to, you could reach out prior to your arrival. There are many online travel communities where you can meet local people or other expats living in your destination who would be happy to show you around or provide advice.
Websites like meetup.com and couchsurfing.org are a great way for you to put out the feelers and also find out what local events are going on. You can also search for regional Facebook groups to get connected or to get the insider scoop.
4. Meet other travellers
There is the old saying that “two heads are better than one”; if you are traveling solo, you might find that you feel more confident navigating a new culture and language barrier while linked up with another backpacker. It also gives you a chance to vent or debrief about things that may be troubling you without feeling like you might offend a local person or appear ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’ for asking certain questions.
Staying at hostels or guest houses, using social media platforms and online travel communities are great ways to meet other travellers while on the road.
5. Fuel your body
As simple as it sounds, minimizing dehydration, staying energized with healthy foods and seeking relief from the sun and heat as needed, can go a long way towards ensuring you don’t feel overwhelmed. Any situation will seem far worse when you are hungry, thirsty or overheated.
Further, you will be able to problem solve and think outside the box better if your body has the energy it needs to run efficiently. This is important in problematic situations such as missing a train or bus, navigating around a language barrier, way-finding through confusing streets, learning a new transportation systems, or in attempting to absorb a lot of information at once.
I typically carry water with me at all times in my daypack, as well as snacks, sunglasses and sunscreen.
6. Take Breaks
Jetlag and sleep deprivation from long haul flights can contribute to overwhelming emotions or feelings of irritation and frustration during your first days/weeks in a new place. Mentally translating a new language can also make basic tasks feel incredibly difficult, leading to increased cognitive fatigue.
This can be compounded by the effects of the sun if you are coming from a cooler climate, so listen to your body and allow yourself to rest when you need to; there will be plenty of time to explore and you will likely enjoy yourself much more once you are fully rested!
7. Practice self-care:
If it is your first time away from home or in a country that is quite diverse culturally, practice self care! Recognize the signs of culture shock and find ways to combat it before getting stressed out or homesick.
For example, while backpacking solo through India, I often felt myself becoming over-stimulated with all the sights, sounds and smells that I was not used to experiencing all at once. If I didn’t find strategies to intervene, I would eventually feel overwhelmed or irritable. I found writing in my journal to be a great way to feel calm or listening to my ipod a way to chill out. I also found exploring early in the morning while the temperature was still cool, and then resting during the hottest point of the day worked best for me. The point is to find what works for you!
8. Get some perspective
Recognize that at the end of the day, you are a guest in this new place. Traveling is a wonderful privilege, not a right – so remain humble by acknowledging yourself as a visitor with the unique opportunity to explore the world and discover another way of life. If you treat everyone you encounter with respect and greet each situation with an openness to learn, you will likely receive warmth and compassion back – regardless of language, race or culture.
9. Get Involved
Get involved in the local community and attempt to soak up some cultural knowledge. Go to a museum to learn about the history of the area and its people; discover the hidden gems on a walking tour; take a cooking class to prepare and sample authentic cuisine; attend a festival; shop at the local market; talk to local people and ask questions; get a language tutor; explore what ethical volunteering opportunities exist. Get out there and just take it all in!
10. Have fun with it!
Most of all, have fun with it! Being in a new country should be exciting and fun, not stressful! Try to remind yourself of the reasons why you came in the first place and just go with it. In having a more open and relaxed attitude, you will find that you are actually enjoying the experience of learning about the new culture through immersion instead of being “shocked” by it.