Category Archives: Culture Shock

Dear Prague, How you have inspired me…

Having returned to the United States, the way I function in relation to the rest of the world is completely different.  I would consider myself a homebody who typically leaves the home to go to school or work but not to explore or be part of the community simply for the sake of being part of the community.  I am happy to volunteer for specific events or dedicate time to activities that have set times, but I don’t generally go for walks in unexplored territory or further than a radius beyond a couple blocks of where I live.  Dear Prague, you have inspired me to increase my footprint in the world.

As an adult student registered with Students Services for Disabilities, I think having that mark really impacted my view of myself and what I am capable of doing.  I know that I have overcome a lot but due to the amount of time I have spent in hospitals or convalescing I am comfortable being indoors.  Now that I know that I can explore the world, I am empowered to continue to do so.  Dear Prague, you have inspired me to empower myself.

This week, for example, I spent time with one of my classmates from our study abroad program.  We are both adjusting to life back in the States, and it was a beautiful connection to meet at home with a friend who lived a similar experience.  It became clear to me that I can travel around the city at my will and that I am not limited to my little corner of the city of Chicago only going to campus to study or to a job site.  Armed with a liter of water, my UPass, and supplies for the day I can spend a day out in the city of Chicago just as I did in Prague.  Dear Prague, you have inspired me to live in a more worthwhile way.

My friend and I shared with each other that it was a bit of culture shock to return to the States and encounter common behaviors of Americans.  From O’Hare airport and back to our neighborhoods, we traded stories of how we missed walking down the streets of Prague because the people we encountered had a quieter, more respectful, perhaps, demeanor.  We laughed about how we can look at behaviors of Americans in the Lincoln Park or Lakeview neighborhoods and how those neighborhoods specifically cater to the idea of remedying hangovers.  In Prague, however, Pilsner Urquell is a commonality but the expectation is that people enjoy their beers with friends and won’t require a “Hangover Smoothie” the next day.  Dear Prague, you have inspired me to have a beer every once in a while.

My new-found feelings of limitless exploration and self-empowerment are perfectly timed as I extend myself into the professional world looking for full-time work.  I have decreased anxiety about a commute to get to a new location and don’t mind the idea of visiting friends in different neighborhoods.  The confidence I have gained from traveling is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.  And because of my travels, I am confident that now my life will be more interesting.  Dear Prague, you have inspired me to test my limits and look for new challenges as I continue to write my story.

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Filed under Culture Shock, Eastern Europe, Lissette in the Czech Republic

Friends Taking the Shock Out of Culture

My first couple of weeks trying to manage what I will call my new and transformational “Chinese life” definitely presented some difficulties. Months before I even thought about how everything was going to work out abroad, I heard the term “culture shock” at my university’s study abroad orientation. It seems that in many people’s minds culture shock is some mystical, fairytale-esque concept, or that it’s your immediate reaction to a new place when you first arrive. This term was briefly discussed during the orientation for my program, and I overheard several students sort of laugh away the significance of it. To put it simply, culture shock develops this way: once you enter your new surroundings, you’re in a “honeymoon” state, everything is wonderful and unfamiliar, for a while it feels like you’re the star of some kind of movie.

My motion picture included sign upon sign that reeked of bad translation, my running theory is these places pay someone to just run their shop’s name through some mediocre translating software.

My motion picture included sign upon sign that reeked of bad translation, my running theory is these places pay someone to just run their shop’s name through some mediocre translating software.

As time goes on it fades and gradually you start to feel uncomfortable and extremely out of place (in China, where everyone save a small percentage are ethnically Chinese, this feeling comes extremely quickly), and you start to miss the little things your home has that your new home doesn’t. I’m here to tell you that during my first “transitional” few weeks, I was a prime example of this stage of culture shock. I’ve never been in a city as large as Kunming, and my biggest distress was that I felt like a grain of sand on this huge beach I didn’t understand. Slowly but surely this started to fade away as my relationship with my classmates and my roommate improved. So far the person that I appreciate the most is my roommate. Here’s a short breakdown of how I got my roommate: CET Academic Programs, the organization that is in charge of my program, gives each one of us a Chinese roommate in order to foster our language abilities, as well as give us a chance to intimately know a Chinese person and how they live their lives day by day. My roommate had to apply and be interviewed, and is given strict instructions to not speak English at all with me. That being said, even though at times I fear our communication is poor due to the language barrier, he’s become one of my best friends so far. The most interesting thing about our friendship to me is the fact that we’re constantly exchanging cultural information about our homes, while all of my other friends back home center around our common interests (my roommate and my interests almost mirror each other, so that aspect is there as well).

I take that back, the most interesting thing has to be his fear of photos.

I take that back, the most interesting thing has to be his fear of photos.

A couple of weeks ago we got to talking and somehow I brought up Fifty Shades of Grey, which was risky because I really didn’t want to explain what the plot line was (is there even one?), and after a while my roommate eluded to the promiscuity of Americans by saying he didn’t know why we liked being intimate so much. At the time I played it cool but was surprised that that kind of misconception of Americans exists. I tried my hardest to clear that up for him and tell him that many Americans (myself included) aren’t like that using my child-like Chinese, and I don’t regret it one bit. Although we’ve never had a talk about misconceptions and stereotypes about Chinese people, many of them have been cleared up from subtle nuances I caught just being around him so much. My favorite cultural insight is Chinese hospitality. When he and I would go out to eat, countless times he would pay for me without a second thought (we started going dutch after I finally figured out how to say there was no need), and let’s not forget all of the times I had no idea what I was doing and he would help me understand something, or simply take me to put minutes on my phone.

He also took me to a temple near Yunnan University, the college that I have my classes in.

He also took me to a temple near Yunnan University, the college that I have my classes in.

When we got there we were given two candles and some incense. Once we got to the kiosks where they go, I lit my candles with the flame of another, then placed them down inside the kiosk.

When we got there we were given two candles and some incense. Once we got to the kiosks where they go, I lit my candles with the flame of another, then placed them down inside the kiosk.

After that, the incense was lit, and I stood in front of one of the temple’s buildings to make a wish and pray (my roommate helped me with this every step of the way). Not going to lie, I wished for a hamburger.

After that, the incense was lit, and I stood in front of one of the temple’s buildings to make a wish and pray (my roommate helped me with this every step of the way). Not going to lie, I wished for a hamburger.

All in all, I’m going to make sure once I arrive home to not forget his kindness, and to pay it forward by taking that piece of Chinese culture to the States. Going back to what I said about culture shock, there’s also a stage where you begin to feel comfortable with how things work where you are. I can proudly report that I’m tiptoeing my way into a rut, but not in the cliché way this word is often used. In a place where little children (and very often the elderly) look at you like you come from outer space, having a routine that includes friends you never thought you’d have is a blessing that is hard to take for granted.

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Filed under Culture Shock, East Asia, Garrett in China

Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock is a phenomenon I hardly believed was real when I set off for my study abroad. I could understand the waves of shock I felt as I studied in Thailand and half expected them before the plane even landed. After months I could feel the culture shock lessening and eventually it was relatively absent in my day-to-day life abroad. Two weeks have passed since I’ve returned home and I can say with absolute certainty: Reverse culture shock is real.

Not only is this strange type of culture shock real, it’s far worse than anything I experienced during my 10 months in Thailand. In the few weeks I’ve been home, I’ve found myself thrown into a sea of confusion, anxiety, and frustration.

My lifestyle in Asia was so scarily different from the average American lifestyle that for the first week I was actually anxious about a lot of things. Thailand is notable as a land of laid back attitudes and ‘Thai Time’ is a very real thing that I’ve gotten used to—patiently waiting an hour for a friend or even a teacher is commonplace in Thailand. America, in contrast, is so avidly impatient that I found myself anxious and confused at how quickly people raise their voice or get angry at the slightest inconvenience. This—paired with the general lack of politeness in the workplace—has made my first week back to work one of constant anxiety.

Of course, there are a mountain of things I missed while abroad that I’m happy to have back. Among other things, the wealth of creature comforts like reliable internet access, the ability to converse with anyone at ease, and more dependable transportation have been on my list of missed things. But of them all, my friends and family are definitively what I’m most happy about now that I’m home.

Looking forward, my time abroad has given me opportunities I want to expand upon in the future. I hope to be able to spread awareness of the positive aspects of studying, even for a short time, in another country and the educational advantages it serves. After college I wish to work internationally in Asia and continue my education beyond my home country. In a way, I believe studying abroad has opened my eyes to how integral an international outlook is in the modern era and I hope to be able to bring this to the table in my future work experiences. Ultimately, studying abroad has driven my need to grow as an individual and to help people internationally.

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Filed under Culture Shock, Doug in Thailand, South & Central Asia

Farewell, England

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G. K. Chesterton

It is unbelievable to me that my adventures while studying abroad in England have come to an end. It is a strange feeling. The feeling of coming back to the same place being a different person. My time studying abroad in England almost feels like a dream because it happened so fast. As I looked out the window of the plane coming back to Florida it felt like it was yesterday that I was leaving. I definitely have noticed myself experiencing the reverse culture shock and it is a more clear realization on how different Americans are culturally from the British. Although the differences may be small, the small differences are what make up the big difference. Yes, we are definitely friendlier. The British have mannerisms that we don’t. In America, I have the privilege of going to a grocery store and not having to bag my own groceries. The British and Americans may speak the same language, but we really don’t in terms of context.

While I do miss England, I definitely do not miss the food. I am so glad to be reunited with American food! Yes, I said it. Food in the United States is so much better. Hands down. On a serious note, I am appreciative to have the privileges of being an American. Part of the reverse culture shock that I had was just realizing how many privileges I have as an American and the opportunities the United States has to offer to its citizens.

I was sad to leave on a flight to go back to Florida, because frankly, I didn’t want to leave. I embarked on a journey and adventure of personal, educational, and professional growth when I decided to study abroad in England. I look back and I absolutely achieved my goals. However, as I grew in every aspect I realized that there is no limit to growth. True discovery means the understanding of always having more discoveries to uncover. By being abroad, I gained the understanding and knowledge of the world and myself. For me, my perspective on what I thought the world was and the people in it expanded and evolved. I advocate for everyone to go abroad and see the world, because to see only a small part of it is such a shame. There is a bigger picture to discover. Once you see the bigger picture you realize that you can impact it to make a change.

I miss England and hopefully I will be back one day. I created amazing memories with new experiences and great people. When I was in England I was able to make it my home. I think there are both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to living in the United States, United Kingdom, or any other country. I miss the small differences in England, but I miss the people I left behind more. I love traveling and I love going on flights, but I never wanted to go on a flight more until I had to get on a flight back to Florida. As I landed in Florida and looked out the window I saw a plane take off. Once again I found myself looking at a plane taking off and wishing I was on it back to England. Without realizing it, I made England my home. Coming back it didn’t feel like I was coming home. It felt like was leaving it. Farewell to England, but I promise, I’ll be back.

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Filed under Culture Shock, Lily in the United Kingdom, Western Europe

A Land of Culture Shock

To most, Southeast Asia could be considered the land of culture shock. There is no place more different in culture and lifestyle than the other side of the world, Thailand. Even menial tasks become a shock to the senses, an adventure, simply something new. It’s truly a scary and wonderful kind of feeling.

Living in Thailand the past several months has had me ride through a rollercoaster of shock and awe that I never expected. It was a constant state of relearning how to do basic tasks in a wholly new environment, in a different and complex language. Yes, there were times where the shock was probably too much and I would hole up in my room wishing I didn’t have to invent hand signs to order the food I wanted or bargain for the smallest thing. But I wouldn’t have asked for a better experience.

The first several months were the definitive months for culture shock. I was in this new country where I didn’t speak the language and was unaccustomed to the significantly different style of education my host university operated on. Street food became my new dinner, water became a commodity on reserve, air conditioning became my new best friend and motorbikes my ill-favored enemy. I even found myself speaking far less with my stateside friends and family than I hoped. I loved the newness of my new world but found myself anxious and nervous much of the time. It was something I had expected, in a sense, but not at this magnitude.

But, as my first semester of study came to a close, I found myself growing accustomed to the Thai lifestyle. I could speak the language a fair amount, had made a handful of Thai and international friends and generally felt comfortable.

The second semester would follow and sometime during the 8th or 9th month of my time abroad, I came to the realization that I had become more than comfortable in my new lifestyle. Without sounding too sentimental or hyperbolic, I felt at home. Whether this feeling came from a good working knowledge of the language or the new friends or what have you, I can say that I began to feel just as at home in Thailand as in Kentucky.

In all, I believe that culture shock is a phenomenon that needs to be experienced and is a building block of any study abroad. Sometimes it may feel terrifying but eventually it becomes a lovely part of the new life and should be cherished. As I look towards the next month and my subsequent return to America, I hope to be able to experience the same shock upon my return.

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Filed under Culture Shock, Doug in Thailand, South & Central Asia

Pushing Your Limits: The Value of Study Abroad

Here’s a graph about culture shock, which should seem familiar since it pops up on this blog a lot.


I’d really like to start this post with: I hate this graph.

“Hate” is a strong word, I know.  If you’d like, I have other words I could use to describe my relationship with this graph: loathe, despise, abhor, detest.

Not any better?  Alright, we’ll stick to hate.

I’m a math major.  And I’ve tried really, really hard, y’all, to spare you from hearing about that.  For example, fun story I almost wrote about: I had the same taxi driver two days in a row, and we ended up becoming friends! The way I was going to tell it: I literally calculated the odds that I would have the same taxi two days in a row– a little under 4 ten thousandths out of 1, for the curious– and then nestled that into a story about Pi Day because it happened in March.  (You’re welcome for changing that up.)

But now I have to write about a line graph, which is so solidly in my Mathematics Zone that there is no way to go about this without a little bit of SCIENCE.

Ahem, sorry for the caps lock, I got excited.

This is a line graph.  While the axes are unlabeled, the x-axis (along the bottom) is pretty obviously time, and the correspondence of “high points” with emotionally positive things, and vice versa, can lead us to guess that the y-axis is “happiness.”


And now, my dear reader, let me add a straight line, marking “constant happiness” from where you began, pre-study abroad.


And now, my dear reader, what do you notice?

You finish below the line of constant happiness.  You end up less happy.  Study abroad is a net negative.


(Disclaimer, it’s not just me: I showed the original, unmarked graph to Juliana, my roommate, for whom– and I quote– even basic math is difficult, and she still immediately asked, “So life will never be as good as before?”)

I’ve studied abroad before, thanks to the US Dept. of State NSLI-Y scholarship, and I can assure you that my life improved significantly.  That summer in Morocco altered my goals in life, political views, interpersonal relationships, perception of myself, America, and Arabs… and all for the better.  Were there low points, both during my trip and during reverse culture shock after?  Of course.

But were my happiness and life, overall, improved?  Of course!

And now, with the amazing opportunity to study abroad a second time with the Gilman Scholarship, yeah, sure, I identify with this graph on some level.  I had a week there in month two where I just wanted to see my friends, the ones I’ve been friends with for years instead of all the ones I’d just met; I anticipate some absolutely terrible reverse culture shock next month, when I want to take a taxi to downtown and listen to live Arabic jazz, and realize I’m in Kentucky where nothing interesting happens ever; of course I’ve had some local minima– er, I mean, “downs.”

But I still hate this graph, and I want you to all know that it gets things so so so so so wrong with regard to the most important part: where you end should be way higher than where you began, because studying abroad is awesome and will make your life better.

Brought to you by your not-so-local math major.

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Filed under Charlotte in Jordan, Culture Shock, middle east

Home Sweet Home!

Packing was one difficult task. It never is easy, but it becomes especially hard when you have to fit your entire life in one suitcase and a carry-on. Saying goodbye to friends was even more difficult. I didn’t shed tears though. I know that one day I will go visit them in their home countries, so its not so depressing saying au revoir. Before I knew it my new friends were behind me and I was on a plane destination Sweet Home Chicago. I remember leaving for Taiwan like it was yesterday. The streets were cold and covered in a slimy layer of old snow and freshly frozen rain. The only difference between my ride to the airport and my ride home was that we could have the windows rolled down because the freezing temperatures were swapped for sweltering hot ones. My sister greeted me at the baggage check along with one of my best friends and my older cousin. I quickly said goodbye to my fellow Illinois State University study abroad friend Jacquie, with whom I waited as storms delayed our flights and plane rides stretched hours to add up to an over 24 hour return trip home. We waited as suitcase after suitcase went by on the belt. A grey suitcase that looked really beat up peeked out from behind a huge red one. That was mine! I was sad to say it had seen better days, but without further ado I grabbed my ruffed-up suitcase by its broken handle and made my way home.

It has been a long week of adaptation and comparison. As the days pass I realize that this country without a doubt is crazier than when I left it. With gay marriage, murder, and kidnapping cases dominating the news I wonder to myself if I somehow missed the insanity before or if through the years became desensitized to it all. At every turn I am confronted with the people, food, and places with which I grew up. It seems everyone has something new to say and the world is filled with unfamiliar smells and taste. Or maybe I am just looking at the United States differently than before I left. Everywhere I look there are no new stores or buildings, the prairie across the street from my neighborhood is exactly as it was in my childhood, the airport hasn’t changed with its’ rough workers offering no smiles, even my family and friends are surprisingly the same. The last week has showed me that acclimation isn’t just hard in a foreign country. I never knew travelers faced such a reverse-culture shock. Before I left for my trip, I had never left the country and had only been to a handful of states. Now after five months in Taiwan and trips to three other countries, I can’t shake the feeling that I am supposed to be boarding a bus or a plane to zip off to some other destination. Even when accidentally bumping into someone walking down the street I sometimes let out a 不好意思Bù hǎoyìsi, instead of an excuse me. But of course there is nothing like the comforts of home to ease you into the living at home again. I made multiple runs to my favorite Mexican restaurant down the street on dollar taco day, spent time at my Aunt’s pool relaxing in the sun with family, and made sure to see all my friends before moving back down to Central Illinois where I will start school in a few weeks.

Adjusting to my school town is a little bit harder. At first I even put off writing this journal because I was afraid it will solidify the end of my study abroad semester. After realizing it was finally over I buckled down and wrote it. The funniest part about it all is that while I was in Taiwan I was forever looking at the mountains as breathtaking. Illinois has nothing to compare to them. The majestic view of those mountains was a constant reminder of how far away I really was from home. As I drove down I-55 toward Bloomington-Normal I whizzed past acres of corn that roll in the wind like waves in the ocean and splendid wind turbines that spin lazily on even the windiest of days. Without thinking I find myself looking for the mountains that while abroad were the constant reminder that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Somehow their ever-looming presence had become so familiar. I couldn’t believe that when I looked up there were no mountains in the distance. Nevertheless I eagerly walked the streets of this corn surrounded town. Making stops at cafes and restaurants to inquire about jobs. I know I need one to keep busy and pay off my college bills. It’s increasingly eye-opening to the fact that my study abroad time is over for now and I have to get back into gear for the start of the new school year. It makes me nervous looking around imagining all the students flooding my campus like they do each year. Even so I am ecstatic to see my university friends this August and am even more excited for classes to begin so I can continue to learn and spread knowledge that I discovered while abroad.

I would like to thank the Gilman Scholarship for giving me this unique opportunity to travel to Taiwan to study Chinese; also I’d like to point out that I learned much more than how to communicate in Mandarin. This world is everyday growing smaller with the gears of globalization grinding. By spending time abroad I was not only exposed to the culture of Taiwan, but those cultures of my fellow expats. The memories I have made will last a lifetime. Along with that exposure I am amazed by how it has helped me understand myself and how it helped me grow into a more mature adult. I think without this trip I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Thank You to the Gilman Scholarship and those who made my trip possible.

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Filed under Brett in Taiwan, Culture Shock, East Asia