How to deal with Culture Shock
How to deal with Culture Shock
Based on my Experience in Lima, Peru
It's loud, it's crazy, it's dirty - what the damn hell am I doing here?! Those and similar thoughts are the ones I had my first couple of days of living in Lima - alongside the sheer awe of it all. Having been brought up in a tiny Austrian town, protected by family, friends and nature, Lima was my first journey outside of Europe - and I was going to stay there for an entire year. Scared, meee? No. Fucking terrified! Excited! Enthusiastic! Eager! And terrified.
Then came my actual first day in Lima - and we went full on Peruvian experience, going to a local, very much non - touristy market called "Gamarra" in one of the not-so-nice areas called La Victoria. Despite the insanely cheap prices there, neither I nor my any of my Austrian friends bought anything that day. No, we were just so busy trying to take it all in. The smells, the colours, the views, the sounds - everything was so different from everything we had ever experienced before! That smell of fresh fruits, fried stuff and lots of people. Everyone yelling out their offers, the chatter in Spanish, the catcalling (another thing we had never experienced before).
We had arrived.
We were in awe.
This was amazing! And terrifying! And awesome! Was this what we had expected? We didn't even know. But we had barely ever felt so alive before.
It wasn't just this first day. Over the next couple of weeks, I would have many, many experiences where I would just stop and stare and try to grasp what it was that I was seeing and experiencing in that moment.
Most people who go on a university exchange get to experience those feelings one way or another. Going abroad for a semester or a year is an experience like no other - it's not just travelling, where you know, you'll be in the next country or back home as soon as you want. And while this holds true for any study abroad, going to a country where the culture is very different from your own, you'll face a number of additional challenges. To make the adaption process a little easier for you, I've collected some tips on how to make the most of this experience while not getting overwhelmed:
1. Write a diary
The day before I left for Peru, my aunt gave me a diary. I wasn't overly excited about it - it just added to my already overweight luggage and I'd never been the one to write a diary regularly. I have like 5 diaries from my childhood - all of which I've written into twice, at the most, then I got bored and the diary ended up sitting on my bookshelf, never to be looked at again. However, during my first days and weeks in Peru, I used that diary almost twice daily! Writing about my experiences, the (cultural) challenges I faced and everything in between helped me process all the new information and made dealing with everything so much easier!
2. Make local AND international friends
Many people I met on my exchange had either a group of international friends or had decided from the very beginning to "not interact with any other exchangees, but only with locals". Staying there for an entire year gave me the opportunity to develop a different perspective: it's local AND international friends you need. Your local friends are your connection to the country you're in. They're the ones showing you where the most amazing things happen. They're the ones who show you what their everyday life is like and they're the ones who will really introduce you to local culture.
However, your international friends are the ones who are in the same boat as you are. They are the ones who know what you're talking about when you just can't handle an aspect of local culture just yet. They are the ones who will know what it's like to spend important holidays away from your family because they're going through the exact same thing at the exact same moment! They're the ones who'll be daydreaming about Schnitzel and Kaiserschmarrn (Austrian specialities) with you when you desperately want something familiar.
Having local as well as international friends will give you the best of both worlds and make your transition as easy as possible.
3. Get active!
Join a club or an association at your host university. Join a local sports club. Go to meetups on topics that interest you. Being part of a team or a group will give you a sense of belonging in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. It will give you a sense of belonging to your new home, that otherwise would take much longer to develop. What is more, not only will you easily make friends in such groups, those associations and clubs also usually meet somewhat regularly, so you'll immediately develop some kind of routine in your daily life, which is a great thing to hold on to.
4. Lazy days are okay
There will be some days where you might not have the strength or the energy to go out and deal with your new surroundings. Accustoming to an entirely different culture constantly requires energy and it is okay if on some days you don't have that energy! Give yourself the time you need. Let yourself enjoy a day at the beach or a Netflix - day every now and then. This doesn't mean that you're not making the most of your exchange, it just means you're giving your mind and body the time to recharge and face your challenges head on again the next day. Or the day after that.
Studying, abroad, you commit to living in another country for a semester or a year. While that seems a long time, in the beginning, you won't believe how fast it has passed in the end. There will be things that annoy the **** out of you, like the fact that everyone is always late in Lima or the fact that supermarkets always close this early in Austria. However, living there, you can't just be like "well, I'm gonna be back home soon enough, I don't care." No. You will have to accept it and deal with it and who knows? You might actually end up liking it. That's what happened to me at least. Yes, Lima is loud, it's crazy and it's dirty. Especially compared to the little town that I come from. However, Lima is also exciting, it's full of amazing people, great traditions and fascinating habits. Giving myself the chance to experience all that has opened my mind in ways I never even imagined and I'm incredibly glad that I went for it. I'd love to hear your experience - how did you deal with Culture Shock when you were abroad? What are your secret recipes to make adjustment easier?
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