Culture shock. If you’ve ever travelled, you’ve experienced it; if you’ve travelled as much as I have, you have experienced it in all the colours of the rainbow.
I still clearly remember my first major dose of culture shock. Of course I’d travelled before; through my childhood and adolescence I spent plenty of holidays in France in particular, and was used to the concept of things being different from how they are at home. But in 2008 I travelled to Australia, and on the way home stopped in Singapore for a few days. It was my first time in Asia, and (Europe aside) my first trip outside the English-speaking diaspora of the UK, USA and Australia. I was on the Singapore metro, and suddenly looked around me and realised I couldn’t see another face that wasn’t Asian. It hit me like a tidal wave that I was the foreigner here.
Culture shock is something that I’ve come to love, however, and the longer I travel the more dissatisfied I become with places that don’t take me outside my comfort zone. Of course there are many wonderful places close to home, but I love that feeling of the unfamiliar. Sometimes it can still be uncomfortable, though. I don’t think I will ever get used to the constant attention that comes with walking through a souk in the Middle East, or really any location in India. I find it very difficult to shop in any form when I am constantly trying to drown out the sales patter from an over-enthusiastic street vendor, and if the lottery money ever comes through, I’d be sorely tempted to set up a school for “how to sell to tourists” because I am convinced business would be a lot better for these entrepreneurs if they just learned to sit back and let us get on with it. Many times I have walked away from a stall simply because I was getting overwhelmed by the sales pitch.
It can be hard to shake off feelings of ingrained prejudice, too. Africa is one I am still working on, even though 99% of the people I have met were absolutely lovely. There is constant promotion on TV and in the news that Africa is filled with people who are out to scam you, attack you or kidnap you. I have never once had the feeling that I was genuinely under threat, however I have many times had a sense of fear that was thoroughly unfounded. It frustrates me, but I have learned to stop, consider the situation rationally and then follow my gut instinct even if I think I am being over-cautious. I have probably walked away from situations where I was at no risk (see what happened in Buenos Aires!), but I have a duty to myself and my loved ones not to take that chance.
One issue with travelling across cultures, on the other hand, is the risk that you yourself might do or say something to cause offence. I am currently travelling through Taiwan, and had an incident on day 1 which brought that home to me. Walking through a park, camera out and taking pictures, I climbed the steps to a pagoda to get a better vantage point. A few seconds later I noticed a lady sitting under a tarpaulin on the pagoda bench, clearly sleeping rough. Feeling guilty for charging into her space and waving my expensive camera around, I did something I hardly ever do and tried to give her a small banknote (I normally avoid giving to beggars and prefer to donate to charity instead). It wasn’t much, NT$100 or less than £3, but it was waved away very emphatically. I have a feeling I offended her by making the offer.
Most of the time, though, I love knowing that the place I am visiting has different social norms than I am used to. I find that it is very hard to go wrong with a smile, a bit of sensitivity and a large helping of general good manners. Taiwan is a great example of this; the people here are overwhelmingly polite, friendly and helpful, and I have never yet felt any disapproving glances. My friends will tell you that I am not a quiet person; I am generally pretty loud, so I try to moderate that a bit (easier when you are travelling alone), but I also benefit from the fact that I have blonde hair. I look nothing like a Taiwanese person, so I realised on day 1 that there was no point trying to blend in, and I suspect a lot of allowances are made for me because it is very clear I am a foreigner. This is something that is a definite bonus. A fellow traveller on a previous trip commented that she tends to get judged in Arab countries because she looks local (she is actually half Indian and half Caucasian, born and raised in the UK and with no religious or cultural reasons to dress conservatively), so she has to be more careful with the way she dresses than I would in the same country. For myself, I have had issues in Sweden because I look and dress very much like a Swedish person – fortunately our cultures are fairly similar so the issues have been mainly restricted to language, but it makes me aware of the advantages of looking different.
So how would I recommend dealing with culture shock? Here are my top tips:
- Be polite. Address people with a smile and a pleasant attitude, and most mistakes will be forgiven.
- Leave your expectations on the plane. When you are travelling through a different culture, the normal rules might not apply. You will save yourself a lot of stress if you are already expecting this and have planned in advance to take things as you find them.
- Avoid anything too outlandish until you have tested the waters. Look around you: how are people dressed? Ditch the strappy tops if nobody else wears them; throw caution to the wind if that’s what the locals do (that’s you, Brazil!). You’re having an adventure; nobody at home need ever know what you looked like unless you show them the photos.
- Do your research. If you know you will be travelling to somewhere culturally different from what you are used to, read the guidebooks and Google your socks off before you leave home. It will help you prepare for many of the differences, and ensure you have brought the right clothes/shoes/attitude for the place you are going to.
- Ask. If you’re not sure how something works, or whether something is acceptable, speak to a local. One of the huge advantages of speaking English is that you will nearly always find someone who can understand and help you; if you are met with confused looks and awkward apologies, at least you tried.
- Own your own culture. You come from a part of the world where things work differently, and that is nothing to be ashamed of! Clearly rule 3 still applies: look around you first and get an idea of how the locals do it, but it’s ok not to blend in as long as you’re not causing offence. Depending on the number of foreign tourists, you can be source of fascination for the locals, which is kind of fun! (Although I am developing a sense of paranoia here in Taiwan, where my blonde hair means I regularly get stared at. You start to question whether it is simple curiosity, or if they have noticed your shoes don’t really go with your outfit, or whether you spilled something on your tshirt…).
Above all, have fun!