Culture Shock: It Works Both Ways
Almost everyone has a fantasy of escaping everyday boring life and traveling the world.
Whether it is studying abroad, volunteering or just taking a regular vacation, students are choosing to travel abroad more and more often. Many students know that they will experience some culture shock, but few are prepared for the reverse culture shock of when they return home.
Culture shock, by definition, is “a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.” Many travelers go through this until they have adjusted to the different customs of the new place they are in.
Amber Duke volunteered with the program Orphanage Support Services Organization for about eight months in 2009. Through this program she lived and worked in several different orphanages with children of various ages in the city of Quito, Ecuador.
“Oh I definitely went through culture shock for about the first month I was in Quito,” Duke says, “One of the weirdest parts to get used to was not flushing toilet paper down the toilet. The plumbing can’t handle it, so we had to throw our used toilet paper in the trash.” While throwing toilet paper away was one aspect Duke had to get used to, there were many other small parts of everyday life she and her fellow volunteers had to adjust to. Another example Duke had come from “Whenever I bought a coke from the store it came in a glass bottle, so I had to drink it in the store and give the bottle back to the cashier.”
Likewise, another volunteer had similar issues with her travels. Alex Weston, a student at West Minister in Salt Lake City, participated in a volunteer program through her school’s college of health. In this program she traveled across India teaching children and adults about health care for about two months. “Probably the weirdest part of volunteering was teaching people to wash their hands. A lot of the time they just didn’t understand how washing their hands could possibly stop diseases from spreading.”
Both Duke and Weston agree that their experiences were well worth getting used to their new surroundings. However, they also both agree that getting used to being home took just as much time, if not longer.
Photo Credit Amber Duke
After being gone from home for any extended period of time many travelers experience what is known as reverse culture shock. Reverse culture shock is literally the opposite of culture shock. It is getting used to one’s own culture after being gone for any extended period of time.
Duke says of her returning home, “I just thought everyone in the U.S. was selfish. I’d see people worrying about their cellphones or gadgets when I knew that there were people who were much happier living a much simpler lifestyle.”
Weston also felt similar. “For about ten weeks I lived and worked with people who didn’t have cars, didn’t have indoor plumbing or clean water. To go home and hear people complaining about bad internet connection or to complain about stupid things just made me angry.”
Weston goes on to tell a story in which an acquaintance was complaining about her mother not willing to buy her the new iPhone. West says she more or less told the acquaintance to appreciate what she had because not everyone has those same opportunities.
Photo Credit Alex Weston
Getting Used to Everything
Just like when they left for a new country, both volunteers say that getting used to home was just as hard of an adjustment as getting use to their new surroundings. “For me getting use to a new routine was the hardest part,” Duke says. “I was use to waking up at the same time every day, going to the orphanages and doing the same thing every day. I would go to bed exhausted but feeling fulfilled, like I had accomplished something important that day. When I came back, I was exhausted at the end of the day but I was missing that fulfilled feeling.”
Many people when returning home take a while to readjust. Everyone is different, but for some people it takes just as long to get used to home as it did to get used to being away. Weston says, “I was gone for about two months and it took me about that long to get used to being home again. When I was originally getting ready to go to India, I did a lot of research on the culture, talked to people who had already gone and just mentally prepared myself for what to expect. I didn’t think I would have to do that to come home and I think that may be part of the reason it took so long to settle back in.”
Volunteering, recreational traveling or studying abroad can enrich lives. It offers people the chance to gain life experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have. However before anyone travels for extended periods of time, they should be aware of what could possibly be waiting for them when they return.