ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Travel and Places»
  • Travel Activities & Ideas

The best way to deal with culture shock? Turn it into a learning experience.

Updated on June 9, 2012
Morning commuters in Munich.
Morning commuters in Munich. | Source

Germany, 2010.

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."

Source

"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?"

The Duomo Florence, Italy.
The Duomo Florence, Italy. | Source
A bustling street in Udaipur, India.
A bustling street in Udaipur, India. | Source

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.

Source

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.

Some favorite travel books from my home library.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      My first - actually only - experience in a "foreign" country was London for a week and then another week on the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury and Somerset. I was traveling alone, not with a tour. That week in London I barely understood anything said to me in Brit English, so I simply nodded and smiled a lot. Was barely better on the IoW, but I was finally getting the hang of it by the time I got to Somerset. Was quite proud of myself, though, that I'd mastered English money before I left London!

      The biggest "shock" - and the sight MOST offensive to my Brit blood AND sense of curiosity - was the McDonald's just inside the grounds of the Tower of London! C'mon! If ya can't survive without the Golden Arches, STAY HOME!

      Great hub! Voted UP, useful, awesome and interesting! ;D

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 6 years ago

      Great points. How did you overcome the language barrier? I found it extremely discomfiting when we cruised over the border to Mexico. I couldn't wait to cross back to the US.

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 6 years ago from France

      I agree with you on being open minded. I really feel sorry for people who travel and expect everything to be within their "normality". For me a big part of travelling is tasting new foods, trying new experiences, trying to speak the foreign language and interacting with the locals. You are right saying that it is when you start making questions that you really start to understand the others and their rich culture.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)