When people talk about culture shock there is often so much underlying fear. People are afraid of the unknown and afraid of being uncomfortable. When you travel nearly everything is new, things you don’t even think twice about are morphed and unidentifiable to you; this can be scary. To a certain extent, you must not only expect these feelings but welcome them with patience and an open mind; they mean that you are learning not only about new cultures and people but about yourself. We must remember that this is exactly why we travel, to experience newness, to push ourselves, to learn a vast array of new things.
I feel that a common misconception about culture shock is that it is representative of the place you are in, if you experience culture shock you must be somewhere with specific customs, and alternative ways of existing that are “strange”. In reality, though, culture shock has much more to do with the individual traveler. What are your preconceptions of the areas you are traveling to? What are your expectations for your journey? How will you feel when your expectations don’t line up with reality? These are all really important questions to ask yourself before you go somewhere and things to think about the first few weeks of arriving.
Culture shock can look like a million things and for me, every time I travel somewhere new by myself, I sink into a deep pit of depression and anxiety. When I arrived in Montevideo, I felt very lost and very confused about what I was doing here and if I made the right decision to come to this place despite ruminating over my decision for more than a year. There was nothing so distinct about Uruguay or the people or the city that gave me this strong reaction though. Surprise surprise, it was culture shock! It takes time to adjust to new lifestyles and structures even if they aren’t that different from yours. It’s so important to give yourself grace and trust in yourself that you have made the best decision with the resources and information you have. I believe that traveling is all about making the most of any situation so there’s really no place that I can’t find beauty and joy in, it’s all about perspective.
Things that really helped me get out of my funk were:
1. Leaving my house every day and exploring. Until I got a bit more comfortable with my Spanish, I would take hour-long walks around Montevideo listening to music and looking at the buildings, people watching, always bringing my camera with me. This allowed me to get familiar with my surroundings and this helps to build up some confidence because you become more comfortable with your environment.
2. Connect with people in any way you can! Find other international students and meet up for coffee or dinner, talk to your host if you are staying in a homestay, or talk to students in your class maybe you will find someone who has studied abroad before. Something that surprised me was how many other people were feeling the same things I was, lost, confused, and a little bit embarrassed about my Spanish ability. These thoughts and feelings you are having probably aren’t unique to you; many are universal experiences and rights of passage for young travelers.
3. Do some research on the place you are! This can look like going to museums, reading or talking to locals. I had so many questions about Uruguay and Montevideo but it was sort of difficult to get information from the USA. Since being here though, I have starting points for a lot of questions that have been making it hard to understand life here. It also becomes easier to piece together cultural patterns that I might not recognize without necessarily asking someone rude or invasive questions about why they do certain things.
Traveling alone, while so beautiful and fun can feel really scary sometimes. The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned though was to trust in myself that I can handle anything that gets thrown at me. You have to have patience to travel and if you have none, you will be taught how to be patient through your journey!