Culture Shock

When people travel to other countries, they often speak of culture shock. I’ve experienced this myself on many occasions. But I think culture shock, in general, has an unwarranted bad reputation.

Many people think that culture shock is something to be avoided. They use it as an excuse to remain in their comfort zones and not explore the wider world. Culture shock may be a bit uncomfortable, but I believe that just as a defibrillator can get your heart beating again, a culture shock can get your brain working and nourish your very soul.

Whenever I experience culture shock, I learn something about myself and the society in which I live. It makes me realize that there are certain things that I take for granted that other people do not. It makes me look at myself differently. It makes me appreciate what I have. It makes me wonder about the things that I lack. It causes me to think about the fact that there are many different ways to live, and my way may not necessarily be the best way.

Culture shock can be something very simple, such as going into a McDonalds in the Netherlands and discovering that they ask if you’d like mayonnaise with your fries rather than ketchup. (To this day, I prefer mayonnaise. I cannot remember the last time I put ketchup on anything.)

Or it can be something huge, such as not being allowed to rent a car in Turkey until I could show the agency that I could actually drive it around the block. (I then realized that I was seeing very few women behind the wheel there. It made me really appreciate my feminist freedoms.)

It can be rather jolting, such as going from Mexico, where I was the tallest person in any room, and where their extremely close concept of personal space made me uncomfortable, and then going to the Netherlands, where I was the shortest person in any room, and where their extremely distant concept of personal space made me uncomfortable.

I always thought I was a nice person until I went to Canada, where everyone is really, really, really nice. I always feel 1,000 times fatter when I go to Europe. In Croatia, I realized that I really should take the time to relax more. Spain made me appreciate a good nap. The Bahamas made me truly get how terrifying the thought of sea level rise can be. Turkey reminded me that all of civilization is built upon past history. Hungary taught me that some past history can be rather terrifying.

I have never, ever traveled to another country without learning a great deal about myself and my place in the wider world. I genuinely believe that if more Americans traveled, they’d be a lot more open minded. This trend toward rigid, “America first” inflexibility is scary and extremely detrimental.

It breaks my heart that because of COVID-19, we’re all forced to stay closer to home. I suspect I won’t leave the country again until a vaccine is developed, and that’s frustrating because the older I get, the more I realize how little time I have left. I need the occasional culture shock to appreciate being alive.

Dear reader, my wish for you is that, in healthier times, you get a chance to be shocked by the wider world.

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6 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Lyn

    We’re all experiencing a kind of culture shock with this pandemic as we rapidly adjust to new cultural behaviors and restrictions while creating new ways of existence that still honor our traditions. Much of the resistance seen, to safety measures against the virus, comes from being knocked so far out of your comfort zone you’d rather risk death than embrace this foreign new culture. I doubt the loudest resisters have ever willingly traveled to another country.

    Me, I’m not leaving the house until a safe, effective vaccine has been widely and successfully distributed. Each day I survive, intact, makes me appreciate being alive. I’ve no problem embracing this new culture. It forces us to be more creative, flexible and generous. We’re more aware of other countries as they share in these same challenges. We’re discovering new things about ourselves and those on this journey with us. Guess sometimes you don’t have to leave home to travel.

  2. Lyn

    Another thing in common; mayo with fries. Haven’t owned ketchup in years. Didn’t know it was a Dutch preference. Got the idea from potato salad. Potatoes with mayonnaise. Why not on my fries? When I get wild I add a little spicy mustard to the mayo. An unhealthy snack though, with all that salt and oil. 🙂

  3. I know about culture shock. I’ve been feeling like a stranger in a strange land in my own country for a long time. I encounter weird and shocking things all the time. I’m amazed that systemic racism and sexism are still so common. I was shocked by the whole tatoo thing and beyond shocked at piercing. I get culture shock every time I see a woman who looks reasonable who doesn’t understand the science behind vaccination.

    So I can experience culture shock without needing to submit to the discomforts and indignities of international travel. I can enjoy it here within walking distance 🙂

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