The Culture Shock Roller Coaster

Changing scenery, stepping outside your comfort zone, and experiencing different cultures is inspiring and life-changing … but there is a side of living abroad that is rarely portrayed on people’s Facebook profiles. It’s the side that is’t always glamorous; but it’s inherent in living away from home. It’s the mental process of acclimating to a new culture and getting used to a foreign country… I like to call this process “The Culture Shock Roller Coaster.”

Whether you are thinking of moving to a new country, traveling for an extended period of time, or just moving within your own country; you will always experience some version of culture shock. When you first arrive to a new country you will become a curious observer …  taking in the changes and absorbing the new culture. By the end of your “roller coaster ride” though; you will have an irreplaceable perspective gained through experience and appreciation. 

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No one is immune to the Culture Shock Roller Coaster. You can get better at acclimating to new lifestyles and you can become more tolerant of differences; but there will be an adjustment period with every big move in your life. I’ve found that the highs and lows depend on how drastic of a change you make. Your ability to adapt, the length of your stay, and the support systems you have in place will affect your ability to handle culture shock. Regardless of how abrupt your lifestyle change is, you will experience some sense of the 3 phases of the Culture Shock Roller Coaster:

Phase 1 – The Honeymoon Phase

“Everything is amazing here! Life is unique and different here! I could see living here someday!” … you may catch yourself saying these things while traveling to foreign countries. Personally, I view the honeymoon phase as the essence of traveling and for me, the experiences I’ve had in The Honeymoon Phase are Why I Travel.

Backpackers and Travelers typically seek out the excitement and adventure that comes in Phase 1. Most people don’t stay in one place long enough to get past this phase though; living in a new culture can be an entirely different experience! For those who decide to stay in a foreign place, they will eventually move to Phase 2 of the Culture Shock Roller Coaster.

The Honeymoon Phase is like going to the zoo and visiting the monkey exhibit. The “monkeys” are fascinating and they are fun to watch … but there is always a barrier between you and them.

2013-12-20 18.02.55When I moved from Tacoma, Washington to rural China there were many things that excited me. There were fireworks everywhere, traffic was comically chaotic, music blared from the residential complex next door while people danced and exercised in the evenings … I was extremely curious about everything!

China put my senses into overdrive and I enjoyed the chaos! There was always something to see, different smells filled the air, sounds erupted from cars, street vendors, and people… it was crazy! It was impossible to forget I was in China and I loved it. This mentality lasted about 1 month.

Phase 2 – Novelties Become Realities

Phase 2 will test your endurance and desire to be in a foreign country. This phase becomes more difficult based on how drastic of a cultural change you’ve made. If you are moving from the countryside to the city you may notice some changes in your new lifestyle; but people will still speak your language, food will remain similar, and customs will be relatively the same. Conversely, if you go to a different continent the differences may be drastic.

After one month in China I began to find that the fascination and enthusiasm I had in the beginning, was faltering slightly. The daily fascinations I once had with everyday life, was now becoming a reality. Traffic that used to be entertaining was now something that I needed to deal with in order to cross the street. Chopsticks were no longer a unique way to eat food, they were the way to eat. I was frustrated with being sick (almost daily) since I had been in China while my body adjusted to the food. The music that blared from next door was no longer cool and unique; it became slightly annoying to listen to chinese pop music every evening from 7-9pm. During phase 2, I found that I had to fight frustrations and keep myself from asking, “how do people live like this?” This phase is not always glamorous or easy… I struggled with it more than I thought I would. 

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Some are better than others at adapting to new circumstances. After backpacking through Europe I figured I could go anywhere in the world and get by fairly easily. That was a foolish misconception … Europe and N. America are extremely similar in regards to health standards, traffic regulations, quality of life, and daily lifestyle. There just wasn’t a significant acclimation process (as a western traveler). China on the other hand… was a drastic change for me.

During this phase you are no longer observing the “monkeys” in the zoo; now you are in the cage with them and living by their customs. It is a very different perspective from inside. You can’t help but look through the bars where you used to be and wonder why you chose to give up the conveniences and structure of your old life.

Phase 3 – A New Reality

Phase 3 is the phase where you stop fighting differences and start embracing them; It is the phase that makes everything worth it! During this phase, you may actually start realizing that some things are more efficient than the way you are used to doing them. You will appreciate the history, culture, and explanations of why things are the way they are. During Phase 1 everything fascinates you; Phase 2 you challenge the differences and; Phase 3 you begin to embrace them.

Now, the art of crossing an intersection in China is no longer daunting because the art of bobbing and weaving with traffic, has become second nature. Seeing kids crap in the streets is thought-provoking, but the novelty and surprise has worn off. Getting frustrated at the obnoxiously loud pop music next door is just taxing and futile. I no longer pay attention to it.

After 4 months in China, I realize that chinese people will bend over backwards to help me; as long as I give them the means to do it! In phase 2 I thought it was asinine that mailing a box back home should take over an hour. I was annoyed that completely simple tasks were never easy, not guaranteed, and seldom accomplished efficiently. What I’ve learned since then; is that image is a huge aspect of chinese culture. “Losing face” is not a viable option for chinese people. So when I need to go to the the post office now, I bring translated notes that explain what I would like. This way the workers don’t lose face, I get what I want more efficiently, and everyone is happier.

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This is the roller coaster ride that everyone goes through (at least to some extent) while living abroad. There is much to be learned and experienced with the final phase of this process. Through cultural awareness, lots of patience, and appreciating local customs, you will successfully ride the roller coaster and come out the other end a stronger, more adaptable person. Once you feel the cultural and historical profoundness in daily life; that clarity and appreciation will enhance your experience abroad. 

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2 thoughts on “The Culture Shock Roller Coaster

  1. I absolutely LOVE this article. This is exactly how we felt when we moved to China as well! You nailed the roller coaster ride of emotions!

    I love hearing from other people who have been to/have lived in China. It’s always the same: traffic was horrendous, crapping in the street was shocking, being sick was awful…but the people were fantastic :)

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Dariece,

      It’s always awesome hearing from travelers who have seen and experienced the same things! It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who has been on this roller coaster :)

      Thanks for the comment! I subscribed to GoatsOnTheRoad and I’m excited to follow along. Happy Traveling!

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