After I had been on about a half dozen international humanitarian aid trips, I found myself with the amazing opportunity to prepare my mother, who had never been out of the country, to spend a month in India visiting a missionary friend. But how to explain to someone how to deal with culture shock? I opened an empty notebook and began writing my mother a little textbook of sorts, explaining how to cope when traveling internationally. But no matter how hard I tried to prepare her, there were some things that she just couldn’t be prepared for.
After she returned and was telling me about her trip, she said, “Sarah, when we walked out of the airport and all of the foreign smells hit me, I realized how far away from home I was. I realized that I was stuck here for a month. For the entire thirty-minute taxi ride to the guest house—the first taxi ride of my life!—I panicked.”
Culture Shock. It happens.
That is culture shock. I think that all international travelers have experienced it, to some degree, though I’m sure that the degree and severity of the culture shock would vary based on how different the culture you are exposed to is from the culture where you live.
I don’t think I really experienced severe culture shock until I took my third trip. My first trip was to Mexico, my second to Honduras. Prior to both trips, I was excited and not at all scared or apprehensive. I am fluent in Spanish and so I figured that whatever happened, at least I could communicate. Though both humanitarian aid teams were stationed in highly impoverished areas that were much different than what I normally experience, because of my fluency in the language, I could communicate with the people. I had a common ground with them and felt immediately comfortable interacting with them. The atmosphere was very different from home, but not frighteningly so and on both of those trips, when it came time to return to the States, I didn’t want to leave.
My third trip was my first big dose of culture shock. This trip was to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. With the excitement and naiveté of a young traveler, I was not at all scared to be going into a war-torn country that was so poor that it made the barrios of Mexico and Honduras seem like resort communities. My first clue that this trip was going to be very different was the fact that when we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac in Kinshasa, soldiers with guns came at us, screaming in a language I had never heard, and tried to refuse us entry into this country that we had already received permission to be in. We were herded into a room where we were detained for more than an hour while they negotiated with our hosts. Then, we were loaded on small, cramped vans that took us to the American consulate. On this long, bumpy ride through mostly unpaved streets lined with huge piles of garbage (since they have no landfills, garbage dumps, or garbage collection service – as shown in the photo above) we saw a man get murdered by another machete-wielding man. For the first time, I felt fear. I had never felt farther away from home or more foreign and there was nothing I could do except put on a smile and learn how to cope.
By the end of that trip, I had experienced the most intense heat I had ever felt, the strangest food—most of which I still can’t identify—that I had ever tasted, and an attempted coup of the government that caused our patients to riot and tear down a gate of the compound where our medical clinic was housed. Despite all that culture shock, we cried as the plane took us away, because we had fallen in love with the people and found within ourselves a love for this country that so desperately needs the love and support of the global community.
Tips on How to Deal with Culture Shock
Since that trip, I’ve been on a half-dozen others, including a return-trip to Kinshasa a year later. Along the way, I’ve learned some things that help with the culture shock:
- Be as prepared as you can be before you leave home. There are countless resources for studying and learning about the country/countries you will be visiting. Internet searches, library visits, and hours spent reading while you’re at home (or on the plane) will make you understand and appreciate so much more while you’re at your destination. This is important even for “mundane” destinations, because if nothing else, it eases those fears of the unknown.
- Especially if you are traveling into countries that are not typical tourist destinations, make sure you have the government’s permission to be there. Most of the time, this will mean procuring a visa. Each country’s visa guidelines are different, so be sure to find out what those guidelines are and to follow them to the letter. This may include having to get additional immunizations and it may take you a while, so do not put this off until the last minute.
- If it is possible, before you leave home, make contacts within the country you’re traveling to. For most tourist-type destinations, that will mean making hotel reservations, transportation arrangements, and making a list of places you want to visit and restaurants where you want to eat. But when you’re traveling into non-tourist-type destinations, it is quite possible that you won’t be able to make those arrangements from the comfort of your home. In preparation for our recent trip to Sudan, we had to connect with a mission group in-country (Hope 4 Sudan) to make those arrangements in our stead. They “hosted” us, which the government of South Sudan requires. Because there are no hotels, restaurants, or transportation companies there, the folks from Hope 4 Sudan met us at the “airport” (a landing strip in the middle of nowhere, with no standing buildings), transported us in their personal vehicles, found us huts at the local humanitarian aid worker’s camp (Mango Camp), and let us use their kitchen to make our tuna salad every day.
- Once you’ve made all of the physical preparations you can make, prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. Remember that you are visiting this country and its people because of the appreciation and respect you have for them. Once you are there, keep reminding yourself of that. It isn’t going to be “like home” to you, but it is their home, even after you have left. Be as curious and respectful as possible. You will get so much more out of your trip this way.
If you are one of those travelers that stays on the beaten path or if you’re one that has never travelled at all, I encourage you: GO! Travel smart, but get out there. Go see those places, and most especially the people that will rock your life and change your world. It is a risk, but it is also worth it!
Photos by the author.