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Going Abroad: 6 Tips for Overcoming Culture Shock
By Lauren Ringdahl | On 20 Jan, 2014
If you’re about to move abroad to teach for the first time, or are strongly considering it, congratulations! You’re already one brave human being. By now you’re probably well aware of the trials and tribulations that go along with meshing your world with another. But you’re also excited! As you should be. You’re about to embark on an unbelievably fun and life-changing adventure.
Unfortunately, though, you’ll experience a necessary rite of passage shortly after you arrive in your new country: culture shock. When the honeymoon period is over, reality sets in: you don’t speak the language, your logic doesn’t apply to this new place, and it is difficult to get basic things done.
Don’t despair. It happens to everyone and it’s completely curable. Here are my six tips for making adjustments to a new country in your first few months there:
1. Establish a routine.
I recommend doing this as soon as possible. Find out what daily rituals make you feel like an adult in the world, and get those set up. In the name of experiencing all that is new in your country, you may feel tempted to push off the administrative drag of establishing things like setting up your home, setting up regular times to talk to folks at home, finding a way to exercise, etc. These are the elements that will make you feel like you have a life abroad that feels like a continuation of your life at home.
Before I moved to Shanghai to teach, I failed to realize how important some of my weekly activities were, no matter how small (bike rides through crisp air, dance classes, or picking up a beer from the corner store on my way home). Now, these routines have become all the more special because I’m able to see their manifestations in China.
2. Pick up some survival skills.
I don’t mean learning to build a fire or fashion a bow-and-arrow out of twigs. Find out what cultural know-hows you’re missing to do the day-to-day things, and focus on mastering those first. Whether it’s language, the subway or bus system, or what times the best street food vendors are open in your neighborhood, get yourself some street skills and rejoice.
Because I chose China in part to study Mandarin, I wanted to build a solid foundation in the language first. I spent a lot of time in the beginning studying grammar. When I discovered that after three weeks, I still couldn’t order a bowl of noodles, I switched tracks. Acquiring some restaurant survival vocabulary allowed me to order my lunch on my own, which made me feel more like I had progressed in my Chinese than any of my textbook studies did for me.
3. Bring in your old comforts.
Most of us move abroad to experience new foods, new methods, and new experiences. With that said, you will have days where you just need a break from it all. Don’t underestimate the power of your comfort food, your favorite blog, or coffee just the way you like it. It’s okay to spend out of your budget or your intended cultural checklist to ease into life abroad. My personal combination on certain days is Netflix, overpriced ice cream, and Skype chatting with friends.
4. Practice curiosity every day.
This gem came from someone at my school. The first few months can feel overwhelming and depending on your personality, can tempt you to retreat to a land of Netflix and Skyping with your friends 24/7. Find a way every day to try something new in your city or town, whether it’s the mysterious-looking candy in the grocery store, or a maze of side streets when you’ve got time to spare.
Approaching experiences from a place of curiosity drastically improved my acceptance of the outcomes, whether I was able to get what I needed in five minutes, or whether I rambled frantically in Chinese to a bakery cashier for no less than fifteen minutes before I could get my order. In each of the moments where things don’t go as planned, you inevitably learn something (even if you only learn to order cookies by weight, not number). Now, I try to add in little adventures every day, which has made my days or time off much more interesting.
5. Seek support.
In the beginning, it can be tough to figure out if what you’re experiencing is culture shock, a boundary breach, or just a bad day. You need a lot of support to live abroad for the first time, so don’t go it alone. Talk to your coworkers, roommates, or new friends. Build a network that allows for you to share your stories or feelings about certain situations and ask, “Is that normal?” Most likely, they’ve been there before and can give you the real deal. Don’t count out the support of your network back home. I realized how much my friends and family wanted to hear about the full scope of my experience, good and bad — it’s an education for them, too! Allow them to be there for you as much as they can through a phone or computer screen, and suddenly you’ll be less isolated than you thought you were.
6. Just be yourself.
Undoubtedly, everyone will have an opinion on how you “must” go about your teaching abroad experience. Arguably, there are people you will meet who have been at this a long time and are clued in to a lot of what your new place has to offer. I’m not here to negate that. It’s great if you can be eager to learn from others while you’re away. However, this is your experience. It will and should look different for everyone. Decide what you want out of each day and each week, and work from there. If you do, you’ll be surprised by moments of feeling truly at home in your new place, and those rewards will taste all the sweeter.
Do you have any tips to add? Comment below and help out a newbie traveler!
Lauren’s passion is education and intercultural learning. Originally from Massachusetts, she lived and taught in New York City for several years before doing her CELTA with Teaching House. She now teaches English to adults in Shanghai, China and writes about her experiences on her blog, An American in Shanghai. She lives for bike rides, ice cream, and learning languages.
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