12 Ways to Minimize Culture Shock

ways to minimize culture shock
Taking a break in Spanish class

No two people will experience culture shock in the same way. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, my perspective as an unemployed accompanying partner is drastically different than my husband’s or someone who is single or moving without formal assistance. Considering my circumstances, I thought this blurb from Internations about culture shock was particularly interesting:

Those who receive the least support on a professional and personal basis are usually hit the hardest. Expat spouses in particular often feel isolated and resentful when they experience life in a new cultural environment.

While I never resented Cody—we were pretty well aligned with our desire to move abroad—I definitely struggled with the isolation piece. Looking back on my experience with this transition, I’ve put together a list of things that helped me to get through the rough patches. And of course, there’s also a bit of advice on where I went wrong.

Research, research, research 

While no amount of research can prepare you for the onslaught of emotions you may experience, it’s still helpful.  Learn about what makes your new home cool. Read about culture shock and cultural sensitivity. Prepare yourself with the basics of interacting with others. All of these things will open your mind, help loosen your grip on your own mores, and help you to adapt quickly. And if you take this advice from a previous post, it can be entertaining as well.

Quit with the comparisons! 

The sooner you quit comparing your new home to your old one, the better. It’s inevitable that you will do this but be aware of the feelings behind your comparisons. Of course, I couldn’t help but notice that the whole ‘getting in line’ situation in Bogotá is quite different than what I’m used to. What I’m talking about here is grumbling because people don’t know how to form a proper line. You know—the type of comparison that groups the folks in your new home together (that they always do this or that). This type of thinking creates a divide between yourself and your new neighbors and can sneak in quite easily, especially when you’re having a bad day.

Keep in contact, but don’t let that be your lifeline  

We keep in touch with our friends and family on a regular basis—Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram. You have to get creative when you can’t have a face-to-face dinner! Maintaining relationships brings comfort and is especially important if you want to minimize reverse culture shock when you move back. However, don’t let that become the stepping stone you use to get yourself through the week. Just as you did at home, you need other activities that keep you busy and happy! And don’t become obsessed with what everyone else is doing on social media. Yes, it’s rough that your friends are having fun without you and yes it can be lonely that family is carrying on traditions in your absence. Know your limits and don’t depress yourself by becoming a Facebook stalker.

Don’t visit home (yet)  

Yikes, this was one of the biggest mistakes I made. The three-month mark was the most difficult spot for me and coincidentally was when we planned a visit home. I pushed everything else aside as I focused on the trip. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I even skipped classes the full week before we left so I could stay home and prepare. I would recommend that you not plan a trip home until you feel like you’ve moved through the rejection/alienation phase of culture shock. The next time that Cody had to visit San Diego for business I decided to stay home because I wanted to make sure that I was truly happy and settled in before I visited again.

Take care of yourself  

It sounds obvious, but take care of yourself! I believe in the mind-body connection, so if you are stressed emotionally then that is the time that you most need proper rest, exercise, and spiritual care. Not only that, but I don’t think people realize how incredibly exhausting it is for your mind to be immersed in a new language! Your emotions are going through enough that you shouldn’t add to it by getting your physical body all out of whack.

Don’t take yourself so seriously

Ooh, this one is hard. I don’t like making mistakes. Or being laughed at. And I seriously don’t like showing up somewhere and feeling out of place. Well guess what—I had to chuck all that in the trash and realize that people don’t give me a second thought in most cases. I already have a million embarrassing stories of my missteps here in Bogotá, like when I tried arranging a dog walker he laughed (I mean really laughed) at my terrible Spanish or when the wife of one of Cody’s coworkers invited me to swim at her club and I brought a bikini while everyone else was in speedos and swim caps (it’s a rule, you have to have a swim cap!). Everyone struggles with a new language and culture so stop being so hard on yourself. And, never let your fear of looking silly stop you from getting out of your comfort zone and having a new experience!

Find something familiar

Comparing your new home to the old one in moments of frustration isn’t helpful.  However, I think having the familiarity of something you loved doing in your old home is a great way to feel settled in a positive way. One thing Cody and I loved in the U.S. were movies. Whether we went to the theater, the drive-in (one of the best things in the WORLD) or used Netflix at home, we were always looking forward to a new movie or show. I think one of our first Friday nights in Bogotá was spent watching Godzilla at a theater down the street from our hotel. It was great to have that normal activity in a new place.

Work on learning the language

Many people in Bogotá speak fantastic English, but the fact is that it’s a principally Spanish speaking city. When we arrived, I had the vocabulary of a two-year-old and was grateful to have a stipend for language lessons. Spanish classes not only provided much-needed structure and daily interaction with other human beings but learning the language helped me feel comfortable going out of the house! One other positive about most language schools is that they have group activities. This was great because I was able to explore the city and learn to use the buses without getting lost. Not only that, but you’ll meet other people in your own situation. I’ve made several friends that I still keep in touch with in that Spanish class.

photo with teachers
With professors (and a fellow student) at the language school

Accept every invitation

This was one of the most helpful ways that I moved through the feelings of alienation.  When I was feeling isolated, my tendency is to isolate myself more. I didn’t want to make new friends, I wanted my San Diego friends! When we returned from that visit, Cody and I decided that we had to put ourselves out there more.  I accepted every offer for lunch or coffee, attended the school’s activities, and we went out with folks from Cody’s office. It was a bit awkward at times—it’s funny how you kind of ‘forget’ how to make friends—but the more I did it, the easier it became. And of course, even though I dreaded all the plans I made, I always ended up having fun.

Get involved with something

There is no way around the fact that you cannot stay home all day, every day. I’m sure those first couple of weeks were rough on Cody because he came home from work exhausted but I had pent up energy from being alone—while he wanted to relax, I was ready to recount the minutiae of my day. So I had to get busy—I found a bible study, a place to do translating work as a volunteer, and I had my Spanish classes. There are expat communities in practically every major city around the globe (for instance, the American Women’s Club) that have meetings for all kinds of things. So get out there and wine taste, read books, learn French or volunteer! In Bogotá at least, the expat organizations are a mix of expats and locals, which is a great way to make friends from all over. There is no reason to be bored or lonely.

Focus on gratitude

This one may not be as easy for everyone but even when I was feeling isolated I could always pull myself up by focusing on the things I was thankful for. There is a lot of poverty in Bogotá and seeing people struggle to make ends meet put things in perspective pretty quickly. How easy is it to feel sorry for yourself when you have plenty of food, hot water and a place to sleep? Living abroad is a dream for us, and here we are, living our dream! We have family and friends who love us and are supportive. I get to spend my days as I please. The list goes on!

Keep moving forward

Someone very wise told me that the process of dealing with huge life changes is similar to that of grieving because, in a way, you’re grieving the loss of everything familiar. Everyone needs a different amount of time to go through the process and you can’t rush it if you’re not ready. When I was feeling isolated, I always reminded myself that my feelings were temporary and just like life everywhere, there are both good and bad days. Sometimes you just have to go through the motions and your feelings will catch up. Just one more time for good measure: remember that the feelings are temporary!

One thing I haven’t mentioned but will also impact your culture shock journey is the new culture to which you’re adapting! That being said, many of my tips above hinge on the fact that I am able to go out safely by myself. These same tips may not be helpful if you are adapting to a place that is drastically different from your home culture or where it isn’t safe for you to go exploring alone. Internations puts out a

Internations puts out a study on the best and worst places for expats and Colombia ranks in the top 20 countries on the “Ease of Settling In” index (graph below).  Regarding our experience in Colombia, Cody and I completely agree with this ranking and were both were surprised how welcoming people have been—especially the folks in his office who are always including us in events, out to have dinner or for a drink.

Ease of Settling In Index

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