Stories From Staff: Culture Shock

9 minute read

When you move to a new place, you are bound to experience culture shock at some point no matter how much you prepare. This can be a difficult experience at first, but ultimately it helps you see yourself, your culture and the world in a new light. These are almost always the stories you take home with you and tell over and over again. We thought we’d share some of our culture shock moments with you to let you know you’re not alone.

The Big City

Image courtesy of Pexels

Lynne, Program Director:

While many of us experience culture shock when we travel outside our own country, I think it’s just as easy to experience culture shock when traveling to new places within your OWN country. For me, I grew up in a very small town in West Virginia, so I definitely experienced some culture shock when I moved to NYC. When you grow up in a small town, you tend to know most people and if you don’t, you will still say hi to strangers you see in the store or on the street. In NYC, though, this just isn’t done! People don’t make eye contact here and tend not to talk to people they don’t know. I remember how odd it was when I first moved into my apartment building. There were 90 apartments in the building, and you’d see people in the laundry room or mail room and they would completely ignore you! It’s easy to see why people who don’t live here may think that New Yorkers are cold and uncaring.

However, after you spend some time in NYC, you learn that this really isn’t true. If you stop a New Yorker and ask for directions, almost all of them will be very happy to help you. Also, New Yorkers tend to come alive and will start talking to strangers when there is some sort of shared experience, such as getting stuck on the subway together, witnessing someone doing something strange, or during emergency situations like hurricanes and blizzards. Eventually, I learned that New Yorkers aren’t cold. We just spend tons of time with A LOT of other people all day long, so when you see us on the street or on the subway and we’re keeping to ourselves, we’re really just trying to take a few quiet minutes to think, read, listen to music, whatever. It takes a little while to get used to if you’re a country girl like me, but eventually you settle into this New York way of life.

Privacy (or Lack Thereof) in Shared Taxis

Liz, Communications and Recruitment Coordinator:

In the U.S. we are proudly individual and treasure our private space and private lives. Even in New York, where we are pressed up against strangers on public transportation regularly, we keep ourselves separate and carefully ignore those around us. When I interned in Togo, in West Africa, I found that there was a very different attitude towards privacy and public life. This was true everywhere, but it was particularly pronounced in the shared taxis that were the standard form of transportation between towns.

In the first place, they were packed beyond what we would normally think is possible. A small toyota with two bucket seats in front and a bench that holds three in back should seat five people, right? Not in Togo. The fewest people with whom I shared a taxi that size was 6, the most was 10. You generally had a stranger half-sitting on your lap and half sat on another stranger’s lap, while babies and packages were passed back and forth. In this intimate setting, you are not strangers for very long. In contrast to New York, where commuters pretend not to notice that they are in a full-body press with someone, Togolese take this opportunity to get to know you. I was asked about my family, friends, home, job, school, what I was doing in Togo, why I didn’t have children, how I got along with my mother - nothing was off-limits. I witnessed families fighting, couples flirting, mothers complaining and a family pick an entire cow up from the abattoir for a celebration and stuff it in the trunk of a shared taxi.

At first it was jarring for me to have all these private feelings, discussions and moments acted out in public and in intensely close quarters. I had definite culture shock and it built up until I felt nearly overwhelmed a couple of weeks into my time there. Then I decided to travel for a few days over a weekend and had the most ridiculous time getting back - it took 5 vehicles, 7 very personal conversations, 3 fights and 24 hours to go just over 100 miles. The endless series of problems that occurred during that trip became a comedy of errors and somewhere about two thirds of the way through I started laughing and didn’t stop until I came out the other side. Despite my initial culture shock, I grew to love Togo, its openness, its people, its culture, and even its transportation.

Adventures in Food

![new food]( “Image courtesy of <a href=“src=“">Jessica Spengler”)

Allison, Program Manager:

During my sophomore year of high school I participated in an exchange program where a Spanish student came to live with me for a few weeks and then I went to live with her in Spain. I was a little nervous but mostly excited for the experience. After the initial excitement of being in a new place wore off, some of the cultural differences began to affect me, causing me to feel anxious and homesick. What can make culture shock especially difficult to deal with is a language barrier, and my Spanish skills were not at the level of being able to articulate how I was feeling.

A particular challenge I faced was the food and meal times. I usually ate dinner at 6:00 p.m., but in Spain we ate at 10:00 p.m. By that time I was very hungry and ready for bed! I was also a very picky eater growing up, and while I ate meat, I still wasn’t very adventurous with it. For those unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine, there is A LOT of meat. From beef to blood sausage to chorizo and shellfish, almost every meal was filled with rich and often times unidentifiable foods. One night I asked what we were eating, and since I didn’t know the Spanish word they used, “conejo,” my entire family started acting like rabbits at the dinner table in an effort to help me understand. I was shocked. Sometimes I just wanted to curl up in my room alone and order a pizza, but not the pizza we had in Spain that was unfamiliar to me and had tuna on top.

Some of the new and unusual foods that had first caused me stress became the foods I would miss the most when I left Spain. This trip taught me how to be flexible and leave my comfort zone, how important it is to try new things, and to recognize that it is OK to miss certain comforts from home when you travel.

Signe, Participant Services Coordinator:

When I studied abroad in Shanghai, I lived with a Chinese host family who spoke very little English. Navigating a new culture with a formidable language barrier resulted in many entertaining moments, for all of us. I’ll never forget my first meal with the family. On the table were large communal dishes of food in the middle and small bowls of rice for each member of the family. Sensing my shyness of serving myself from the communal dishes, my host mother took charge and started placing pieces of food from each dish into my bowl of rice, and I happily ate whatever was served. My 8-year-old host sister found this amusing, and started serving me food as well. Thus commenced our eating ritual.

Growing up I was taught that finishing your plate was a nice gesture to show your host how much you enjoyed the meal. As I started to get full, I finished the contents of my bowl entirely, placed it back on the table and gave my host mother a satisfied thumbs up. She looked at my bowl aghast, quickly grabbed it, filled it with rice, and started piling on more meats. Confused by what had just happened but still eager to please, I started to eat what was served yet again, to show my gratitude and enjoyment of the meal and their hospitality. Telling my host mother how full I was after I would finish my rice bowl would not stop her from refilling it with more food. This continued on for some time until I not only reached an uncomfortable level of fullness, but also realized I was the only person still eating. What I later learned is that finishing your bowl in China is a signal to the host that you would like more food. Leaving food in the bowl, even after you have finished eating is perfectly acceptable, and actually helps your case in convincing your Chinese host mother that you really are full.

Shopping & Bargaining

![busy market shopping]( “Image courtesy of <a href=“src=“">prilfish”)

Nabil, Admissions Coordinator:

During my time as an undergraduate student, I took a study tour to Egypt. During our free time my classmates and I decided that we wanted to take a trip to the famous Khan el-Khalili souk to do some shopping. We all exchanged U.S. currency for Egyptian pounds and since the exchange rate was in our favor we all had wads of cash ready to be spent on local goods and souvenirs. When we arrived at the souk we noticed that there were many western tourists also doing some shopping. As I went deeper into the souk it seemed that I was seeing less tourists and more locals doing their shopping. I came across an area with at least three shops selling Egyptian cotton scarves. I went into one and got quoted a seemingly fair price. One of the members of our group was ready to make a purchase, but the rest of us still wanted to compare prices with the other shops. The other shopkeepers had very similar prices.

I ended up settling on one shop because of the wide selection and because the shopkeeper seemed willing to negotiate. This was my first chance to barter and negotiate my way to a better deal! As soon as I made it clear that I did not expect to pay the price that was originally quoted, the shopkeeper said “shhh” and pulled me aside so that other tourists (including members of my group) would not overhear our negotiations. I was able to bring his price down half way but at that point the thrill of bartering had taken over and I wanted to keep negotiating. I left the shop and was surrounded by the shopkeepers from the other 2 shops both waving their merchandise in my face and promising lower prices. This was very overwhelming and something I was not used to so I decided to keep walking to get a little breather. What I did not expect was that all three shopkeepers would follow me. At first I was a bit startled but they seemed to be reducing their price with each step I took. Finally the shopkeeper I had originally negotiated with made me an offer I could not refuse and I went back to purchase the merchandise there.

Culture shock can happen anywhere, at any time, but you are most likely to feel it during normally unremarkable, routine activities: communication, transportation, meals, shopping, etc. Read more about culture shock and tell us about your experiences!

Elizabeth Cummings By

Liz got the travel bug as a teenager when she volunteered in Mexico. After extensive travel, interning and studying abroad, she is excited to help others fulfill their dreams of experiencing another culture through InterExchange’s Career Training USA program.

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