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The best way to deal with culture shock? Turn it into a learning experience.
Germany was colder than I thought it would be. It was late May, but as I stepped out of the Munich airport into a chilly rain, I was grateful to be wearing a jacket.
It was my first time out of the United States.
It all looked familiar enough. I was surrounded by clean, modern architecture. The signs were printed in German, but most of them had English subtitles, and that satisfied my mind's subconscious search for the familiar.
I boarded the train for the city center and continued to take in the details of the people and signage around me. The German language struck my ears as an incomprehensible barrage of z's and k's. Even familiar things, like bus stop advertisements for Apple's iPhone, were suddenly strange and, dare I say it, alien in their effect on me.
I was traveling alone, and the feeling of isolation only increased as I made my way through Munich's extensive hauptbahnhof. To increase my cognitive dissonance, I watched in amazement as my American debit card produced twenty euros from an ATM. Wonders seemed to never cease.
I stepped out of the train station, and Munich dealt me its coup d'grace. The buildings looked like castles! I was barely out of the door, and everything already looked like the postcards!
Standing alone in front of the station, I coughed into my sleeve in the cold morning air. All I could think to say was "bloody hell, I'm in Europe."
"Creeping discomfort" versus being "struck between the eyes."
That morning in Munich was my first experience with a foreign culture. I have traveled often since then and experienced more extreme cases of culture shock. Nothing strikes a traveler between the eyes like waking up in India to the smell of burning dung, or trying to relieve one's self behind a shack while monkeys the size of children glare significantly from all directions.
No matter where you go or how you travel, the differences between home and parts abroad will have an effect on your mind in various ways.
In Germany, I felt the creeping discomfort of being near people who looked very much like me (predominantly caucasian and well fed), but whose speech and written language made communication and even casual contact very difficult. In situations like those, the feeling is perhaps not best described as "shock," but as "unease." It's just enough to throw you off.
In places as remote as rural India, the culture is much more abrupt in its affect on a Western psyche. Day-to-day activities spark endless, unspoken questions. "Why don't they wait in line? Why do they stand so close when they speak to me? Why is everyone holding hands? Why did they look at me like that when I ate a cracker with my left hand?"
Sometimes it's nice, sometimes it's not, but there is always room to learn.
It is simple human nature to want to compare what is known to that which is new. Sometimes a new culture will induce a "honeymoon phase;" during such a period, the simple novelty of a place makes every experience feel fresh and positive. I felt that way when I traveled in Italy; every day was a learning experience. I love to learn, ergo, I was endlessly happy. Setbacks which would have infuriated me at home, such as missing a train or bus, somehow seemed much more acceptable when I had such a palatable country in which to pass time. It wasn't until I had been in the country for several weeks that I was able to see past the marble and the art galleries and be objective about life.
By contrast, my first brush with India was fraught with annoyance as my linear, Western mind groped for support against what I perceived as frenetic, southeast Asian chaos. I felt rushed, harried, and painfully conspicuous as the white guy on the street. But that, in its turn, became a unique learning experience.
Through forcing myself to confront my own reservations about such a markedly different culture, an impoverished nation ended up teaching me much more about life than I ever learned in the shade of polished Renaissance colonnades. Relationships with people who owned fewer material possessions than I, but expressed infinitely more happiness in their everyday lives, were infinitely more valuable to me in the long run than seeing the work of dead painters hanging in vacant palaces. India is now the country to which I return most often, and the more remote and primitive the area in which I stay, the more I enjoy it.
The universal secret to dealing with differences.
In the words of Atticus Finch:
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
This sage advice is applicable in almost every area of life, not the least of which is travel. The secret to dealing with culture shock is being open minded.
By all means, take the opportunity of a trip abroad to compare and contrast your point of origin with your destination. But do not judge.
When you judge an unfamiliar person, place or thing by the standards of an entirely different paradigm, you not only do a disservice to your new locale or acquaintance, but you limit your own mind. If there is one thing the world needs less of right now, it is narrow-minded individuals. This is holds true at home and abroad.
Conquer culture shock by talking to people.
When traveling, give yourself time to settle into a new place. Do not pass quick judgments on it based solely on the ways it is different from what you already know well. Rather, use your time to ascertain why things are the way they are.
How do you do this? By talking to people.
When a traveler self-alleviates culture shock by asking questions, that is where learning truly begins. The best education doesn't come from books or rushing from landmark to landmark on a snapshot safari--the best education comes from conversations, and the greatest discoveries are always found not in the questions which are asked outright, from what residents say between your questions, when you just stay quiet and listen to what people have to say.
Where can you find good people to talk to? The best places to find English-speakers are usually places like museums and small restaurants, where the residents are willing and proud to talk about their country, but not trying to sell useless items to tourists. Some of my best conversations abroad have been with museum docents and waiters. Was their English perfect? No. Did they appreciate someone with genuine interest in their culture? Yes. And we always parted as friends.
There's a great big planet waiting to be explored. Don't be surprised when you find out it has experiences beyond what you know. Do your research and prepare yourself for what you will meet, but do not be so arrogant as to think that your dog-eared Fodor's is all that is necessary.
In the end, traveling is all about getting away from the familiar in order to expand your worldview. Stay out of your own way and allow yourself to be taught.