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Going Abroad: 6 Tips for Overcoming Culture Shock

Going Abroad: 6 Tips for Overcoming Culture Shock

By | 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.

going abroad tips for overcoming culture shock

Street vendors can become your local teachers

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.

going abroad culture shock green kit kat

Green Kit Kat? Yes, please!

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 Ringdahl

Lauren Ringdahl

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.
Lauren Ringdahl

Comments

  1. I remember my time studying abroad in Ireland. While I didn’t have to deal with learning a new language, I still faced aspects of culture shock.
    There is a fine balance between bringing old comforts and exploring new things; this is what I struggled with the most while I studied abroad. I think that I might have held too tightly to what I was accustomed to from home and did not embrace the culture I was living in. I remember spending days and weekends watching Netflix or taking walks by myself. There were so many opportunities to join clubs, meet friends, and explore the country and I should have taken the time to explore and join in more.
    This is a great article that everyone should read; once before leaving and a second time after a few weeks living in your new home.

    • Lauren Ringdahl

      Hi Aislinn! That’s a good point about checking in with your culture shock before and after you arrive in country. I think that you can read and prepare ad nauseum but when you’re living it, it can feel very different. Living abroad can feel pretty isolating, and I think patience with yourself and your new situation is key.

  2. I’m currently doing my thing in Colombia — the most important thing that’s helped me so far in getting through the house of flying crappy emotions is learning the language, taking part in activities that the locals love (SALSA!) and to an extent trying to stay away from english speaking people toward the later bits of your stay. While it’s great to have a support network that understands me and can explain things in the beginning, these people almost always inevitably leave you, and let’s be honest, they can’t REALLY help with integration. Some of the most amazing adventures I go on come from being open-minded, doing whatever is blown in my direction and trying to fumble through a conversation, and these things reaffirm my decision to be where I am, no matter what a crappy week I’ve had.

    • Lauren Ringdahl

      Hey Xaq! All great points. If you’re touching on having a balance between expat and local friends, I completely agree. While I’ve made close friends in both categories, some of the more grounding experiences in Shanghai have been with my Chinese friends. They’ve lived their lives here, built their careers and/or families, and know the culture in and out. Spending time with them really gives me a sense of a stable life in China.

  3. Kayly

    I’m currently teaching in China myself. This is my 2nd year here and your overall message of moderation between familiar and exotic is a good one, because it’s so easy to become imbalanced here that way. There are days when we need good old American movies for the familiarity, and then there are days when we need to go out and try some green tea ice cream, because why be here if we can’t explore?
    If teachers have any questions about the culture they’re surrounded by, the students are usually excited by the opportunity to teach you about their own culture!

    • Lauren Ringdahl

      Hi Kayly! Nice to hear from a fellow teacher in China. Especially with the hot summer and fall we had in Shanghai, trying all the crazy ice cream flavors (corn on the cob!) had to be one of my favorite cultural explorations. I also agree that your students are a great source to turn to to learn about your new culture. My students light up if I ask questions about food or travel or where to find the best of the best in Shanghai.

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