You’re jammed in the aisle of the airplane, itching for the door to open. You can’t wait to get out there to see what you’ve been reading about for months. You can feel the anticipation in your fingers and your toes. You’re ready to burst.
You finally get out, and you find complete chaos in the airport. You aren’t sure where to go, the signage isn’t very good, and you don’t even know who to ask. The anxiety builds…
The signs of culture shock: disorientation, information overload, anxiety, withdrawal, frustration, anger…
Have you ever felt any of these when you enter a new environment?
Culture Shock Will Make You Want To Hide
I never experienced more culture shock than in Hanoi. Even more so than India. The buzzing cadence of the motorbike engines filled my head. Pretending you’re a horse with eye blinders to cross through the racing swarm.
I had read about the compact living in Hanoi, especially in the Old Quarter. People do their living on the streets – there is no room indoors for it. Store fronts crammed floor to ceiling with goods, one after another. Each one with an eager merchant (or more) solicited me. The motorbike parking and plastic stools crowded the sidewalks. There is no room for pedestrians.
I knew these things beforehand, but it didn’t adequately prepare me to cope with it. The anxiety distracted me from absorbing the environment. It took me some time to get my bearings.
Language barriers, technology gaps, cultural unfamiliarity, and uncertainty contribute to culture shock. The more you know before you go, the better off you’ll be. Try to learn any cultural faux pas (you may know they don’t wear shoes in the house, but you do need to wear socks). I rely on traditional guidebooks for this information.
This is what you should do
As I mentioned, you do your homework, but you still get overwhelmed. When this happens, try these:
- Be Proactive – Give yourself downtime when you first arrive. Don’t try to do too much too fast. Take breaks throughout the trip also.
- Observe – Find a spot at a cafe where you can see the street and observe. Nothing should compete for your attention. Keep your books and phones stashed away. Watch what people are doing. How do they get on the bus? How do they cross the street? How do they act the shops or stands? There is the added bonus of people watching, one of my favorite activities!
- Where am I? – Get to know the area near your lodging. Develop a comfort zone and know how to navigate it. Where are the nearest landmarks? Where are the nearest metro stops? Where is the convenience store?
- Ask – Servers at bars and cafes often have spare time and can provide you with valuable information. Not only tips on where you should go, but they can explain what you’re seeing and how to get things done. How do I buy a bus ticket?
- Compare Notes – It can help to commiserate with other tourists if you are experiencing some discomfort. But be respectful!
- Seek Comfort – Yeah, this is kinda cheating. But I don’t see any reason to struggle. I admit it, my comfort is McDonalds while abroad. Don’t judge me! Maybe for you it’s an Irish pub or expat bar. But use this as a last resort!
Over to you, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed with traveling? How do you know when you’re experiencing culture shock? I’d love to hear in the comments below!