When Culture Shock Sends You Running for Cover

Right away, it starts. Only you don’t realize you’re in the midst of culture shock because it starts with a honeymoon phase. It truly feels like being a newlywed. Everything is fascinating, new, and exciting! You’ve taken the plunge. You’ve moved to a different country from your home country and it is pretty wonderful. Even the annoying things can be overlooked because you are wearing the blinders of true love. Your love is real and you will not be experiencing culture shock, because you’re different, right? You are open-minded or well-traveled or both. You’re the sickening brand new couple in the corner who can’t stop making out, sitting on the other’s lap, and making smoochy eyes at each other.

Eventually, you wonder if your love is as deep as you thought

Eventually, something changes and the love isn’t so deep. The blinders are off and you can see the flaws so glaringly bright. Why, oh why, didn’t you notice before how different your new country is? How could you have totally missed that you DO NOT FIT IN and NO ONE CAN UNDERSTAND YOU? Did you even act correctly in that last social situation? And since I’m American, I wonder if I smile too much? Yes, that’s a thing.

Statue: a person in a cloak reaching out, a ladder with two children in cloaks also reaching out towards the sea

This statue on the oceanfront at Puerto Vallarta

What are The 4 Stages of Culture Shock? What are Culture Shock Symptoms?

Recently, I looked up culture shock online. It’s defined as: “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Until, just like an onion and an ogre, you begin to peel. This article defines culture shock as having four phases that can vary in severity. These phases are: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation. Everyone will experience culture shock differently and may even skip some of the phases. I was hoping I’d just stay in the honeymoon phase and skip the phase that causes anxiety.

Because really, who needs MORE anxiety?

I’m coming up to a transition. I feel it. Occasionally, I’ll wonder how my life made such a dramatic turn. I’ve also had to reexamine long held beliefs about myself and how I would prefer us to live our lives. I’ve had to explore new things and I’ve tried many new tastes (and it’s so worth it to try foods several times before making a concrete decision about disliking something – I now cannot get enough of the chili covered candies, the taste has grown on me in the best way). When I said I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, I didn’t realize just how uncomfortable that would be.

A sucker that is orange with red chilis in it; something simple can sometimes trigger the next stage of culture shock.

New tastes, like candy with chilies in it (and it is really good)!

We’ve been here around 4 months. In some ways, it feels like we’ve been here forever. I also can’t believe we sold our house and won’t ever be going back there. We won’t return to live there and we won’t be the same as we were before. My kids are feeling these feelings as much as I am. My children miss their house, their cats, their cousins, and friends. They didn’t have a choice in the matter. We, the parents, decided it was best and off we went, but not quite into the sunset. We hopped into a different movie. Consequently, their adjustment may even take longer than mine.

We are all still a little discombobulated.

It has gotten better with time.

I don’t regret moving here. I don’t know what the future holds, but I am happy, awed, and interested here and now. There are daily reminders of just how good we have it. So many people survive on so much less. Even though I know my feelings are valid about some things being difficult, I also feel humbled to have the constant reminder of the poverty around me. There are great riches in my neighborhood and poverty just outside of it.

As a dear friend said, referring to new experiences, “For every cockroach, there is a delicious taco.” I thought it was perfect. Everywhere has both good and bad things. This is true of every single place on the planet.

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Image of candy and text that says When culture Shock sends you running.

12 thoughts on “When Culture Shock Sends You Running for Cover

  1. Laura says:

    I can completely relate to this! Although I hadn’t moved there, I spent a month in China last year and the culture shock was very much real! Kudos to you for going through with the move! I’m sure it can feel overwhelming at times but I’m glad to hear that overall you’re happy with your decision. Looking forward to hearing more about it!
    Laura recently posted…11 Things You Should Know Before Visiting ChinaMy Profile

    • Natalie says:

      Culture shock happens even on month long trips – especially if the culture is very different from one’s own. My husband and I discussed moving to Japan at length. He had lived there before and loved it, but there were people among the expats who took a little while to adjust. Even really well traveled and adventurous ones!

      I’m still happy with our decision to move here so far! Thanks!

  2. Red Nomad OZ (Marion Halliday) says:

    My way of dealing with culture shock is to just keep telling myself that there’s no point in having life-changing experiences if they don’t actually change your life! Getting out of your comfort zone is always challenging – but I have a friend who claims that ALL change is positive, because the alternative – stagnation – is actually going backwards. Good luck with your continuing journey!
    Red Nomad OZ (Marion Halliday) recently posted…See Australia Month-by-Month Part One: January to June Travel Teasers!My Profile

    • Natalie says:

      What an excellent and positive way to look at it! It’s definitely hard to look at change that way sometimes. I invited the change, in this case, and I’m managing to still feel reasonably positive about it. Thank you!

  3. Megan Jerrard says:

    Thanks for sharing this really honest reflection – I think culture shock is something people don’t talk about nearlly enough as they should, because I believe it’s something everyone feels at some point in their travels, whether that’s from a move as you have experienced, or a completely new culture, or just being away from home for so long. But it’s almost as like we don’t want to admit that we’re missing home, or experiencing culture shock because we feel guilty as everyone’s worked travel up to be this experience which is supposed to be 100% amazing. As with any thing in life, there are highs and lows, and it’s completely normal to feel the feelings you’ve described.

    I agree that there’s a honeymoon period, where everything’s new and exciting, and then reality kicks in, especially if you’re in a new place for a decent period of time. But stick with it, as you’ve rightly identified, it does get better with time, and you need to allow yourself time for that adjustment. Over all, never regret the decision to jump because even if it doesn’t work out, you only ever regret the things in life that we didn’t do!

    Wishing you guys all the best – stick with it and do what’s right for you 🙂

    • Natalie says:

      Thanks, Megan. I also believe culture shock isn’t discussed often enough! It applies to travelers (especially those who are nomadic or traveling for a significant stretch of time). I am planning on writing more on this topic, as I have quite a few expat friends, even from before moving abroad.

  4. Jessica says:

    Glad to see that you’re settled in in Mexico. I’ve lived in several countries but culture shock hit me the most in Belgium because I was there completely on my own and without the diplomatic assistance I was used to when I worked for the government. I would have mini meltdowns every other week and wanted to go back home. Thankfully, I started meeting more people and exploring the city. I lived in Brussels for six years and I have to admit even to my last month there would be something that shocked me LOL. Then I moved back to DC and went through culture shock as well, in my own country! Wishing you the best in your new chapter!

    • Natalie says:

      Yes, I’ve read that there is culture shock upon returning to one’s home country as well!

      Having the assistance of a company (in our case) is so helpful and I think it contributes to why I feel like I’m doing pretty well, so far.

  5. Victoria @The British Berliner says:

    I totally understand how you feel.
    I’ve lived in 4 countries but I didn’t really plan them, they just sort of happened!

    However, I live in Germany, and this was planned. I’m from the UK, and even though Germany isn’t very far, I actually found it more difficult to settle!

    Firstly, I was a little older and secondly, this was for the long term as I had officially emmigrated, and thirdly, I knew that this time, I really had to learn the language as I had left previously been in countries for corporate issues, and this time, I was on my own as I didn’t want to move to Frankfurt!

    In fact, I was so tired of language immersion at one point, that I actually flew to London for just 24 hours so that I could hear English voices and have English food!

    I adjusted pretty quickly after 5 months, have been quite successful in Germany, and I’ve never looked back!
    Victoria @The British Berliner recently posted…How to visit Slovenia: Introducing Kamnik – A town stuffed with mountains and cheese!My Profile

    • Natalie says:

      Isn’t it crazy how the culture shock hits you? Maybe it was worse because of the expectation that Germany would be similar to the UK? I didn’t know what to expect in Mexico. While it is different than the US, there are also more similarities than I expected (stores like Walmart, Costco, and Home Depot) and though traffic can be crazy, the main area I drive is similar to US driving.

      For us, having the company resources (having a person I can rely on for help, for example) alleviates a LOT of pressure and frustration for me. I can ask for help for any problem I have and I’ll receive it. Without that service, I’d be a giant mess right now. I also have some expats around who I can ask for help. I believe this and being able to call my parents regularly has assisted in things going fairly smoothly to this point.

      We aren’t going to visit “home” for a few more months yet and I’m starting to get antsy!

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