Funnily enough, culture shock is rarely experienced by backpackers and seems more associated with those who practice slow travel: the foreign exchange student, the expat, the youngster on his first working holiday. Backpackers always talk about reverse culture shock, the coming home blues when nothing has changed and nobody wants to listen to your stories, but are not prone to go through culture shock once they get to their destination. There is a simple reason for that: a backpacker is generally surrounded by people who are in the same boat, (s)he is in effect on holiday and moves around a lot.
People who are working or studying abroad are generally not surrounded by individuals doing the same thing. Instead, they are dealing with the locals and their culture. This is a lot more challenging and can therefore cause a culture shock in the initial stages of the trip.
But what precisely is culture shock? What does it entail? The word “culture” encompasses everything human-made in one place, as opposed to nature. Looking at the United States – a country often said to be lacking any culture – we see that a variation of the English language, a certain kind of architecture, the generally outgoing character of the American and big items make up a large part of the American culture. But it is also in the little things. When Americans toast they don’t necessarily look each other in the eye, whereas the German insists on that. The outgoing American is often taken aback by the directness of the Dutchman and the Dutchman is often overwhelmed by the positive and welcoming approach of the American, which he then puts off as shallow. The reserved Englishman may consider the Vietnamese man who rocks up at his restaurant table to sell goods an invader of the privacy, whereas the Vietnamese are hardly aware of this concept.
It all comes down to our background, the environment that has shaped us, the culture that we grew up in. On your first long trip you will inevitably encounter a change of cultures and at first you will find it a challenge to cope with that. You may find yourself feeling lonely and lost in this new world, you may be anxious and have a hard time focusing. There is a sense of being misunderstood, which frustrates you and may cause homesickness. Home, after all, is where the friends live who have always understood and supported you. Homesickness may even reach the level where you actually start packing your bags again.
In reality, these are all signs of culture shock. Now, memorize the following sentence: Culture shock is the worst reason to go home. It is the defeatist approach, giving in to a lack of determination and willpower to overcome the initial stage of your time abroad. Why would you have come all this way and then go home only because this little voice in your head says that you are different?
Of course you are different. You are the foreign island in a domestic ocean. This demands a strong mind. You can’t be a prince(ss) and run to your suitcase while crying to your daddy on the telephone, begging him to change your airplane ticket. Did you want to fly business class, too? It can be incredibly hard to be a foreign exchange student at 16 years of age, or even a 23 year old on his first working holiday, expected by locals to cope with this whole thing as if you wander around new cultures on a daily basis. You don’t, and yet the people who are around you aren’t mind readers who know what’s going on; most aren’t internationally experienced at your newly-obtained level and may think that you are experiencing your foreign school year the way they experienced their last vacation in the Bahamas.
Culture shock, therefore, is a solitary struggle. But it is a struggle that you can win. Easily. In fact, you can make it so easy for yourself that you shouldn’t even experience it as a shock, let alone as a struggle, but merely an, indeed, experience.
The internet contains a lot of information on this subject – such as the whole dividing of culture shock into the honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery phases. They basically describe your moods throughout your adventure. At first you are a kind of Alice in Wonderland, looking at everything with a smile (the honeymoon). Then you start to notice the differences between your own culture and this new one, and this causes frustration (the negotiation phase). After a while you have learned so much about your new culture that you start to become a part of it (the adjustment phase). And, suddenly, you’ll find that you have mastered everything that there is to master about the new culture and have effectively become a local with a backpack (the mastery phase).
The honeymoon, adjustment and mastery phases are unavoidable: you will be enthusiastic at first, and later on you will – almost automatically – adjust to your new culture. That is something one can hardly call a “shock”, rather, it’s a transition. But in between there is the negotiation phase, and that phase is the defining element of culture shock. The frustration, the anxiety, the discomforts and the homesickness all occur during that phase, and so that is the part we need to try and tackle.
To do so, we must find out more about the cause of these negative moods. A lot of it has to do with language: initial enthusiasm wears off really quickly if you keep having trouble understanding those around you, and vice versa, and what to think of people laughing at your accent?
All the small things you were always unconsciously competent in, now seem to exist only on a different planet. For example: there are different ways of holding up fingers to indicate an amount. In the Netherlands, people show their index finger, middle finger and ring finger to indicate three, in Germany (next door to the Netherlands) the ring finger is replaced by the thumb. And in China they only need their pinky and thumb on one hand to indicate six.
Even facial expressions can be misunderstood. And what to think of mannerisms? A common, innocent joke among your friends back home could be taken as the biggest possible insult in your new environment. That, by the way, is a classic example of when people start to long for home: when they miss their native humor.
And so on.