Experiencing new cultures or culture shock is par for the course when you’re traveling abroad. The idea of immersing ourselves in a culture vastly different than our own is intoxicating, but what at first feels like an adventure can quickly transform into an experience that causes us discomfort, uncertainty and even fear. There aren’t too many places or cultures that have made me feel this way, but when I touched down in Mainland China for the first time, the cultural difference was palpable. And while I’d never let a single negative experience colour my view of an entire country or culture, it was a good while before China revealed her true charm.
Everything about Beijing left me unnerved. The crush of the humanity, the cavernous roads, the eeriness of Tiananmen Square, the stoniness of city goers, the stifling pollution. I’d just arrived from Bali, a paradise in comparison, a kaleidoscopic ethnoscape of warm smiles, outstretched arms and laughter. But China was not Bali. Being the earnest adventurers that we were, not even a few hours on the ground and we had already booked ourselves in for a trek along the Great Wall. My travel partner and I decided to take our trusty DSLR into a Nikon store, highly recommended in one of the many guidebooks we had tucked away. After trudging around Indonesia for three months, we needed to slough off some Sumatran grit. Unfortunately, what was to be a routine cleaning resulted in the breaking of our beloved camera lens, right in before our eyes. Furious, we demanded the gentleman either repair or replace our lens, and after his outright refusal, an argument ensued. After twenty minutes of shouting, hand gesturing, and pacing, I took to the streets in search of a tourist police officer. Armed with a pathetic amount of Mandarin, and a crude map from the hostel, I searched high and low for help, in some form or another. After an hour of being shoved, shooed away like some stray dog, and the highlight, spat on by a broom wielding shopkeeper, I sauntered back to the camera store, my face streaked with tears, and my heart full of defeat. China, at that moment, had broken me.
This story is my own, but it’s not an uncommon narrative. I’ve collected a number of stories from travelers who’ve had their own difficulties in China. Some say the experience can be chalked up to significant cultural differences and others have sworn to never return. But China is not to be singled out, culture shock is something that we’ve all come across in our travels, the world over, Culture and while it’s easy to surrender to it and allow it to colour an entire experience, if we know how to better cope with culture shock, it won’t leave us so jarred.
Stages of Culture Shock:
Whether you’re stepping of a plane, train, or automobile, arriving in a new country is both an exciting and anxiety-ridden experience. A foreign language, exotic sights, sounds and smells, it’s a full scale assault, the differences are apparent, but you’re so caught up in the whirlwind of unknowns, you haven’t processed anything fully yet.
This can take time, or it can occur in between the baggage carousel and the taxi cab, the romanticism of your new destination is wearing off quicker than flip the page of your well worn guidebook. The “otherness” of this new place becomes very apparent, and your perception begins to change. The charming becomes the weird, and you find yourself pining after a sliver of your own culture. This is the beginning of culture shock.
The Final Adjustments
You’ve survived awkward hand- shakes, navigated your way through the linguistic minefield of a foreign tongue, hopefully without offending too many along the way. You’ve dabbled in the local cuisine, picked up on a few cultural customs and finally emerged from your isolation, realizing that the West doesn’t necessarily have it all figured out!
Do as the Romans Do
This quicker you can get to this stage, the better. This is where you start to feel at home in your skin, and realize that you are still you, the whole world isn’t out to get you, and it’s time to start finding out what this culture is really all about. Sometimes complete adaptation isn’t possible, and in all honesty, if you’re touring India on a neck-breaking 9 day tour, you’re perched on the edge of a tributary that feeds into a roaring river of culture. The key is to enjoy a culture for what it is, have fun, and bring back an armful of fabulous stories.
For some, travel is all about enjoying an exotic destination, ensuring all the creature comforts of home are within arms reach. For me, I feel like travel is about experiencing something different, an opportunity to leap out of my box, slough off the constraints of my culture and become the student. My advice to you is never paint a country with the same brush, and accept negative experiences as isolated occurrences, not the status quo.