Culture shock

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readDec 9, 2017

Source : Google photo

Synopsis: We often see this phenomenon called culture shock when people visit other countries where the culture, language, food, clothes and mannerisms are different from their own and have a hard time adjusting so get a shock. The blogs deals with this subject and suggests how to overcome them.

I think there are two types of people in this world. The first type is the one that rarely travels outside its comfort zone and the second type that is more daring and accepts challenges and tries hard to overcome them by travelling around the world. I observe that the vast majority of the people belong to the first type and when travelling, they are subject to severe culture shock that this blog is about.

It is true that these days more and more people travel to other countries and even within their own countries due to the advent of budget airlines and cheaper package tours offered everywhere. The no frill airlines do a roaring business carrying massive number of people to all parts of the world at lower costs than the commercial airlines .It serves the people who are on a tight budget and want to visit a country in a package tour of a few days or of a short duration.

The package insulates the traveller from all the hassles like flying for the first time, finding a hotel room in a foreign country, visiting sites of interest, paying for fees and surcharges. It is all included in the package so the traveller feels comfortable in a group tour that includes people from his own country.

These package tour groups can be seen anywhere these days that follow a tour guide who always has a bullhorn to guide his flock and speaks in the language of the group which is a great comfort to the traveller. The guide will show them where the McDonalds is if the group is from America or a Japanese restaurant if the group is from Japan.

In short the package tours offer the traveller his own comfort zone abroad so that he does not experience culture shock that is common to individual traveller. Imagine that you find yourself in a foreign country where no one or very few understand your language be it your mother tongue or your body language, where people drive on the other side of the road, where people eat food that is very different from what you eat at home, where people dress differently, have different social manners and dress differently due to the climate where they live.

It can all be very intimidating to a person who travels for the first time outside his country and experiences a host of things for the first time that he is not at all prepared to see or experience.

I can only chuckle at the discomfort of an Indian woman on Bondi beach in Sydney or Bois de Boulogne in Paris where female nudity is common. While this experience can be traumatic to some people who step out of their comfort zone for the first time as they travel more to different countries, the brave ones get inured to the culture shock gradually while some become great travellers and tremendously enjoy different culture, food and environment and mingle with the people easily.

Now days the technology comes to the aid of anyone who has a touch screen cell phones that shows a GPS guided map of exactly where a person is and where he wants to go. It can also show hotels, motels, restaurants, hospitals and a wealth of other information although sometime depending too much on a GPS guidance can land a person in a canal as a Singaporean once told me in Ho Chi Minh city with great hilarity although his wife was not amused.

I was told that there are now instant translation gadgets into which you speak and the translation in 140 languages comes out instantly in C3-PO type audio at the touch of a button although I would not trust such gadgets 100% yet. The languages can be much nuanced so a literal translation may land you in hot water if not a canal because that can be unpleasant.

Others depend on Fodor’s guide book that are quite comprehensive that include all the information anyone ever needs in a foreign country. They sell them at the sidewalk of Ho Chi Minh City at a knock off price of a few dollars and where women can be found any day carrying stack of Fodor’s 4 feet high in their arms.

I had great fun in Hong Kong one time when I found myself mimicking a chicken when no one understood that I wanted a plate of chicken and rice .It worked but in Kyoto it was a different story when I wanted a painted Japanese scroll but no one understood what a scroll was so I tried to make them understand using a roll of toilet paper. No one understood the analogy so more help was summoned to decipher what this weird foreigner wanted. Finally in defeat I made my escape.

So I come back to the issue of Culture shock. Today I want to write about it and examine why some people get it and others don’t.

The shock some people encounter in foreign countries comes from their new experience of seeing, feeling and knowing how people can be very different in different countries where the climate, food, manner of social behavior, dressing and everything else that define a people is so different from what they are used to back home.

Mostly it is the food that people crave in foreign countries so you will see Americans flocking to McDonalds or Indians looking for an Indian restaurant. Rare is a person who will munch on fried spiders in Siem Reap no matter how vociferous the Cambodians are in praising such “food “. Rare is the person who will take a sip of the Vietnamese wine where they can see a pickled cobra in the wine bottle.

I myself would not dare to eat cobra meat or dog meat that some restaurants in Bangkok offer but then I am not that adventurous when it comes to food although I have tried curried frog legs in Vietnam once or twice. There must be many poor frogs on crutches there that I feel sorry for in retrospect. I would not eat rat meat either that baffled some Cambodian farmers in South Vietnam who thought it was a treat.

So one man’s food is another man’s taboo. It can also extend to clothes. Imagine you are a Moslem woman visiting the Venice beach in Los Angeles where you will find yourself the most overdressed woman while the rest go about in thongs and mostly nothing else. I will not mention Bondi again because it may give you a heart attack.

This desire to bring your comfort zone with you anywhere is noticed by the business people who take full advantage of it and will create the home feeling in their hotels and food joints. There is a reason why all the McDonalds look alike anywhere or the KFC outlets with Col. Sanders picture prominently displayed. There is a reason why all the Hiltons look alike anywhere. It is where the Americans feel at home and can order American food just like back home.

One fellow looked for red meat in the local market in the Philippines but no one understood him because what he wanted was mutton that they do not sell and rarely eat. He kept on saying that back home, it was available everywhere. Now try asking Americans if they eat mutton or if it is available in their local supermarket and they will tell you that they do not eat mutton. To them the meat means only beef and pork. Chicken is not meat but just chicken. They also do not eat lamb because it is not easily available while a New Zealander or Australian will say that it is the easiest thing to find and they know scores of ways to make delicious lamb chops or lamb dishes.

The culture shock some people feel when they travel to other countries comes from their inability to accept something that is new to them so they are naturally suspicious. When I offered some fried shrimp chips to my housemates in California who were all Americans, no one touched it because it was new to them.

It also comes from their inability to adjust to a very different culture they see for the first time and do not know to react. In Japan people are very clean and always remove their shoes before entering their house or anyone’s house but in the United States, people can jump on a bed fully dressed with their shoes on or put their feet on their desk while receiving people in their office.

People visiting India for the first time may be shocked to see cows wandering in the streets or people spitting and throwing garbage everywhere especially if you are from Singapore. The feral pigs scavenging the heaps of garbage, open sewer flowing onto the streets, beggars and people defecating openly by the railway lines can all be a traumatic experience for a first time visitor.

Very few people can look beyond the heaps of garbage and see the beauty of a country like India or any other country. That takes an open mind to absorb what is truly beautiful in any people in any country.

The culture shock also comes if the person has an exaggerated sense of the superiority of his own culture and country. This comes from a sense of great patriotism so it becomes their yardstick to measure others so they end up finding other cultures that do not measure up.

Then there are those who travel a lot and keep an open mind to everything they see and feel or taste. The extreme example is perhaps that of an American who had never eaten a crab so he chewed it shell and all and wondered why people in the Philippines eat it and like it. It is good to have an open mind about food but it does not hurt to observe how others eat it. If you just ask, people will happily show you the way. The American did not ask and did not observe so he had a bad experience that perhaps stayed with him.

Now I am not suggesting that you try anything and everything when it comes to food but surely you can find delicious food in any country if you just try, the rat, dogs and cobra wine excepted. The French eat a foul smelling cheese they call camembert that is hard to swallow but they like it and will offer it to you. You do not have to eat it because there are hundreds of good cheese varieties in Europe.

The culture I am writing about comes as a package that includes food, dress, language, behavior, social manners and etiquettes, cultural trappings like festivals and many such things. It is the tremendous diversity from country to country that makes this world so beautiful.

Reading about other country and people is not the same as visiting a country and experiencing everything first hand but travelling can also be arduous and may include drinking water that may not be safe or eating food that gives you stomach trouble. One American visiting us here was shy to admit that he had stomach problem right after he arrived from Vietnam where he had eaten some salad so I took him to a doctor right away. It can happen to anyone. You just have to watch what you eat and specially where. The street food may be alluring but there may be a down side to it in some places.

There was a case of a fellow in Colombia or some Latin country where he was stung by a fly on his head. He did not think much of it and went home but later he felt severe pain in his head. The doctors found that the fly had deposited eggs this way and the hatching larvae under his skin were causing havoc. Luckily the doctors were able to get rid of all the larvae so the fellow survived.

There are such dangers that lurk in some places that people must be aware of and wear cap and shoes all the time. Walking barefoot on sand in some East African countries can get you in serious trouble where guinea worms are found.

When we were in Mali where Malaria is endemic, we had to screen our house and give our children Nivaquine as a prophylactic but we had no trouble with the fresh milk, butter and vegetable although Americans told us not to eat it. The fear based ignorance is common to many expatriates.

I think one way to overcome culture shock is to keep an open mind and leave behind your country and your language and try to experience a new culture by admitting that all cultures have something beautiful in them. I think all cultures are unique and have a great deal to offer to anyone who tries.

As the world grows smaller everyday through the connectivity , video chat and messaging services that are free and bring people closer, there are tremendous opportunities that have opened up to travel and see this beautiful world of ours.

Do you have what it takes to absorb it all and bring home new knowledge and experience and share them with others? It can go a long way if you accept that no one is superior to anyone and that all people have something unique to them that are worth knowing about. This diversity is what makes this planet so interesting.

The culture shock is an outdated concept people should try to overcome.

Note : My blogs and biography in the following languages are given below in the link.

Blogs in French

Blogs in Spanish

Blogs in German

Blogs in Japanese

My biography in Japanese

Anil’s biography in French.

Anil’s biography in English.

Anil’s biography in Spanish.

Anil’s biography in German