Save the Shock: Dealing With Cultural Differences While Traveling Abroad

by Annie Lewandowski

Traveling abroad for an extended amount of time can be a transformative experience. Being away from friends and family allows one to discover new things about themselves and establish a sense of independence, confidence, and wonder. Cultural immersion trips are enriching and exciting, but can make way for unique challenges and ways of life that may range from just a bit odd to completely alien. Dealing with the sometimes intense shock of being set in the middle of a foreign culture was something that I experienced in my program abroad this past summer. This article is meant to serve as a guide for some of the emotions that can arise while adjusting to life in another country.

  1. Face Value

First glances at a culture will not give you any real idea about how the people native to that culture live their lives. Touching down in an airport seems like a breath of fresh air. “They aren’t that different from us, look that’s even an American food chain!” Large airports and public spaces in prominent, commercial cities will first seem very similar to what you are used to at home. Taking time to people-watch and experience interactions with locals might change your perspective.

  1. Breaking the Barrier

Language is the most immediate and stark obstacle that will hit you when being in a different country, no matter how long you intend on staying. The best way to offset this problem is to learn the language. Of course as most people know, that isn’t always a feasible task, but much can be said for attempting to communicate in local tongue. Stubbornness is possibly the worst mindset for anyone who wishes to gain anything from traveling and experiencing a new culture. People of your host country will greatly appreciate your attempts to communicate with them in their own language and will likely be more accommodating than if you were to speak your own language. Dictionaries and guidebooks containing simple and useful phrases can be found almost anywhere you go.

  1. Host Families

If you are traveling with a program or on exchange, it is most likely that you will experience a homestay at some point. This can be scary and awkward at first, but it is important to remember that you only have a short time with this family and spending time with them will help you get as much out of your trip as you can. Again, language in situations like this is something that should really be given some thought. Try to communicate with your host family in their own language and you will learn a lot more than you might have thought you could. To beat any inkling of homesickness can be extremely difficult, but really trying to become a part of your host family can help to alleviate some of this discomfort. Share daily rituals, habits, and routines that you do at home and take in those of your host family. Spending too much time on the phone or Skyping your family can ruin your immersive experience and make it feel less authentic.

Lastly, remember how unique and incredible your experience is! If you ever miss home and feel contempt or aggravation for the differences between you and those around you, try to let go of any preconceived ideas about your host country’s culture. Fully ingratiate yourself into the art, history, music, food, and customs and recognize that people are people no matter where you are in the world.