Culture shock – it’s a thing

Moving to a new country is an exciting prospect but it can also be incredibly daunting.  Once you find yourself in that new place it can become difficult to cope with the ‘newness’ and you might feel very overwhelmed.  This is culture shock.

Sometimes it can be confusing to try and understand why you feel so miserable in your new surroundings.  You’ve been in a new country for a few weeks/months and suddenly you’re feeling sad and missing home, you don’t want to leave your apartment and you start to think that maybe you’ve made a huge mistake.  Sound familiar? You might read articles or watch YouTube videos to help but, these can make it worse – approaching culture shock as a funny anecdotal experience based on how strange or quirky your new country might be.  The truth is that, actually, culture shock is a serious experience which most expats and travellers go through at some time and if not fully understood it could have a terrible effect on how you move forward for the next few months or even the next year of your life abroad.   Below I tell you how culture shock affected me when I first moved to South Korea, how I overcame it and how important it is to fully embrace culture shock for all it’s ugliness in order to enjoy the good times that will undoubtedly follow.

 

A couple weeks in and trying to get my head around the foreign concept of butter cream beer. It wasn't for me.
Trying to get my head around the foreign concept of butter cream beer. It wasn’t for me.

Culture shock is real.  It’s a scientifically proven, psychologically assessed condition often experienced by those that emigrate to another country (or even just a new city/state).   It’s not just a funny anecdote about how different things are in your new habitat e.g. “Woah! They don’t flush toilet paper here! #cultureshock”.  More seriously, it involves several stages in which you first enjoy yourself, then you don’t, and then you do again (hopefully).

When I first moved to South Korea my life was manic.  I’d finally gotten myself to the place I’d been planning to move to for the last 6 months and I couldn’t wait to find out about everything it had to offer.  I started my new job, made some new friends, went out almost every weekend, tried all kinds of new foods and settled into my new apartment.  This was fine.  Of course, it was still overwhelming but in a good, manageable way.

 

How exciting. All smiles during the first week of craziness at the EPIK orientation in Busan.
How exciting. All smiles during the first week of craziness at the EPIK orientation in Busan.

 

However, this ‘manic excitement’ didn’t last for very long.  After a few weeks, my life stopped being on fast-forward.  I became more settled into a routine.  Other foreign teachers seemed to be forming solid friendships and making cliques, of which I didn’t feel I fitted into any.   I began missing the people from home, the people that knew the real me, the people that ‘got’ me.  That was the first side of culture  shock I experienced – I missed my people.  The next thing to push me over the edge was the language barrier.  A novelty at first, “Ha!  Isn’t it funny how we’re constantly struggling to communicate with everyone?!”.   Well…no, actually, it wasn’t.  I was infuriated by the language barrier and all the feelings of idiocy that came with it.  It frustrated me to the point that at weekends I didn’t want to leave my house because I knew this would involve having a confused conversation with a Korean, whether that was on the subway, in a restaurant or anywhere really.  And that exchange was going to make me feel stupid, or like a child or (strangely) guilty for not knowing enough Korean yet.

Now, as I started to miss my friends, struggled to make connections with other foreigners and felt agonisingly pained by the language barrier I slipped into a depression.  I started to worry about how long it would last and would I need to see a doctor?  I became anxious about getting diagnosed with something more serious and therefore realising that I’d made the worst decision of my life.  On top of all this, I’d started to binge eat, filling my face with as many sugary snacks and as much Korean fast food as I could gather.  I was trying to numb my uncertain feelings with food and had put on quite a few pounds since arriving.  Sadly, the weight gain only added to my troubles and the feeling that I had lost myself.

To my relief, after a couple of weeks of feeling like this I made a very good decision.  I decided to google ‘stages of culture shock’.  I’d encourage you to do the same if you’ve just moved to a new place and are feeling down.  Maybe you already have and that’s how you’ve come across this article.  If so – good job.

Understanding culture shock is one of the first steps to overcoming it.  Knowing that what you are going through and that you will feel better eventually gives you the power and courage to see it through.  Every time I felt down, worried, uncertain or frustrated with life –  I told myself it was just culture shock.  Through my research I read that  after the ‘crisis stage’ followed the ‘adjustment stage’.  The adjustment stage is when you start to gain a little more language skills, you become less frustrated by the day to day inconveniences you experience, you start to feel more like your old self and crucially you adapt to your new habitat.

 

I started running in a local lake spot because it helped me feel more connected to my old life.
I started running in a local lake spot because it helped me feel more connected to my old life.

 

I’m not quite sure when exactly this happened to me but I do know that it happened.  Perhaps it was that I started taking Korean classes twice a week, allowing me to quickly feel more comfortable interacting with people.  Perhaps it was that I started to understand other foreigners better, realising that if friends just weren’t meant to be then they weren’t meant to be.   I also allowed myself to simply ‘let go’.  I let go of my frustrations, I let go of my uncertainty and I tried to trust that everything would be okay.  I started to do things my way.  And if that meant I was doing it alone, fine!  I soon found that the right people were in the same places I wanted to be anyway.  I attended dance classes, I signed up to a regular language exchange, I also felt that with experience I was getting better at my job.  As if by magic, my culture shock vanished.

 

Having the courage to step out of my comfort zone and attend a language exchange worked for me. I got to go to awesome parties like this, full of potentially wonderful supportive friends.
Having the courage to step out of my comfort zone and attend a language exchange worked for me. I got to go to awesome parties like this, full of people who would soon become wonderful supportive friends.

 

And this is where I’m at right now  – I’m unashamedly involved in a love affair with South Korea.  I’m so comfortable now that I just can’t imagine leaving yet.  When the culture shock disappeared it was like a haze had lifted and I could see clearly all the amazing benefits that came with my decision to move here.  Now, I think I’m a very mindful person.  I notice every smell and every sound and I try to enjoy every day and go to bed happy and thankful.  There are so many things that I adore about South Korea which I can talk about in other blog posts but I try to focus on the positive things as much as I can.  I really like working in a school environment and I’m becoming a better teacher with every lesson.  My co-workers are really supportive and my school is pretty special.  My Korean apartment is super cute, even if it is only one room, it’s mine for now and I love it.  I still miss my friends back home, but I know they’ll always be there for me.  I sometimes think that if I hadn’t experienced the difficult times of culture shock, would I be feeling this much exhilarance now?  Absolutely not.

 

I took this selfie during my first few days in Korea. I think you can see the excitement in my eyes for the challenge ahead. It hasn't been easy but it has been worth it.
I took this selfie during my first few days in South Korea. I think you can see the excitement in my eyes for the challenge ahead. It hasn’t been easy but it has been worth it.

 

So here’s my message to you.  If you are down, frustrated, missing home and in the strong clutches of culture shock right now, take some advice from this article and then take a few deep breaths.  Be kind to yourself.  It will pass and you will feel all the better for having gone through it.  Wait it out, google the stages and see yourself through.  Support yourself as only you can and like me, you’ll be glad it happened.

 

 

Have you ever experienced culture shock?  What was it like?  Did reading this article help you?  Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.

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