10 travel bloggers share their worst culture shock experiences
Here’s something every traveler can relate to: A moment (and yes, sometimes these moments turn into longer periods of time) of culture shock. A moment when we felt creeped and/or weirded out by the things that seem normal to people in a different culture.
If only traveling was all glitz and glamour, sandy beaches, turquoise water, sunny weather all the time, snow-covered mountains against clear blue skies, relaxation and friendly people everywhere we go – let’s be real – we would be bored, not learn, not get challenged, and our families and friends would barely be able to keep their eyes open rather than falling asleep while hearing these picture-perfect stories from us.
So here are some culture shock stories which are share-worthy and entertaining and made our traveler bloggers grow stronger: locals spitting red in Myanmar, ladyboys in Thailand, insects as food in Thailand, guys trying to kiss you right away in Brazil, or passing people bare-chested in a hospital in Italy.
You will find my culture shock story about my recent Tanzania trip about scorpions, bucket showers, and staring at the very end.
All photos were provided by bloggers.
My first big culture shock was on my long-term backpacking adventure which occurred earlier this year. Arriving in Myanmar I knew that it had newly opened its borders to the outside world. What I didn’t realise was the astonishing cultural differences between that country and anywhere else I had previously travelled.
My plane landed in Yangon and I jumped in one of the fixed price taxis to take me downtown to my hostel. It was the dry season and the temperature was intense, especially having arrived from cold New Zealand. I had to put the window down to provide relief, but what greeted me on the other side was unexpected. Stopping at the traffic lights, what I can only describe as a spitting spree, began. Heads popped out the window, with eyes concentrated on the only white foreigner around, and the locals just spat red. I was uncomfortable to say the least. This was my first taste of a country that I quickly fell in love with, having put my first impression behind me.
In Myanmar the use of Betel Nut is an epidemic. A psychoactive drug made illegal in many other countries, but seemingly a normal practice here, with people all ages freely using it. The sidewalks are stained red from the residue. You quickly learn not to bother trying to dodge the fresh spit on the street as you will eventually stand in it no matter how hard you try.
I lived, traveled, and worked in Brazil for a year. My biggest culture shock was not all the bureaucracy I had to deal with, nor how Brazilians put on ketchup on everything. Those things I could navigate.
What I was never able to get used to was how every Brazilian guy would try to kiss me less than a minute of conversation in a club. Now, I consider myself quite experienced in the clubbing world, but I was really taken aback by this. Furthermore, Brazilian men would invent all sorts of creative excuses to convince you of why you should kiss them.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard this line:
“Have you ever kissed a Brazilian guy before?” “No…” “Well you should try it” “No thanks…” “Why not?”
And my personal favorite:
“Have you ever kissed a Brazilian guy before?” “Yes…” “Well then, have you ever kissed a two-meter-tall Brazilian guy?”
If you reject a Brazilian man, they will disappear faster than you can say “caipirinha”. They waste no time. Don’t get attached because two minutes later, you’ll see him making out with another girl.
I found this all to be quite overwhelming, as there was a rotating door full of guys who would approach me and ask for kisses in one night. Even my European male friends agreed; they weren’t comfortable kissing a girl so quickly, but the Brazilian girls expected it to happen! Over time I came to accept that to the Brazilians, kissing is just like a handshake… But I never did manage to adopt this part of the culture!
You would think that Poland (the country that I’m from) and the UK shouldn’t be very different when it comes to the culture. They are both located in Europe, not too far from each other, and both are part of the European Union (not for long though, oops).
Oh well, I couldn’t be more wrong. Where do I start… For example – a “small talk”. It just doesn’t exist in Poland. We do not talk to strangers and ask them what they have for dinner. Why would you even want to know that? I remember how surprised I was, when whilst shopping, I was approached by the shop assistant and asked about my personal life and plans for the evening. Eghm, no.
Or let’s take the food and the drinking culture. In the UK most cafes shut at 5 pm. Well, guess what, most people finish work at 5 pm. How can I have my favorite flat white during the week when everything is already closed in the afternoon? Hmm, I can’t. Instead, in the UK, straight after work you go to the pub for “Ale” (a beer) or a “dram” (whisky). You have a burger with fries or oily fish and chips. Generally, you go out more often than you eat at home and you drink a lot. Also, when you go out, you never feel cold. Even if it rains and it’s zero degrees outside, you still don’t take the jacket and wear the shortest skirt possible. Fashion is important, right?
And houses. The carpets in the kitchen or bathroom never stop to surprise me (why, why?!). Electricity “on a key” – when you run out of money, your light goes off and then good luck in finding your wallet in the darkness and running to the shop to top it up! Not even mentioning the separate taps for hot and cold water. Nothing wakes you up in the morning better than racing your hands from boiling hot to freezing cold water, brrr. Ah, Britain. I still love you, anyway.
I consider myself a fairly modest American. So imagine my surprise at having a mammogram in a country where the beaches are filled with topless women. I would soon learn that there are no paper gowns in Italy.
Shortly after moving to Milan, I was due for my annual mammogram. I felt confident enough in my Italian to embark on the appointment alone.
As my name was called, I confidently followed a young, and quite attractive, 20-ish Italian guy through a door into a small room. He spoke hurriedly in Italian and then disappeared through a second door in the rear of the room. I didn’t quite understand him but I apprehensively removed my shirt and bra and waited. He returned, took my hand, and began leading me, bare-chested, to what I assumed was the mammogram room. But not before we marched through what appeared to be the residents’ lunchroom where a group of young people in scrubs sat around a table eating. I desperately tried to be nonchalant and concentrated on not folding my arms across my chest.
As we arrived in the mammography room, I assumed I’d wait for a female technician to arrive. But again to my surprise, this gorgeous young Italian took my hand, pulled me up to the machine, grabbed my right breast and began the flattening process. I’m pretty sure the machine picked up a portion of my teeth as my mouth hung open in surprise and partial embarrassment.
Culture shock hits you quickly in India. After arriving in New Delhi for a business trip and taking my first steps outside of the airport terminal I found myself immediately surrounded by half a dozen men trying to take my suitcase from me. They didn’t want to steal my belongings; they wanted me to pay them for “helping” to carry my suitcase ten feet to my waiting car. Just a few hours later, my co-workers and I realized we were going to be very late to our first meeting because traffic was at a complete standstill. It wasn’t because of bad weather or because there was an accident. It was because a cow had wandered into the road and laid down to rest. It wasn’t possible to move the cow; our driver explained we would just wait until she was ready to move along on her own. When we did arrive, more than an hour late, we were amazed to be standing in an empty convention center. A kind local noticed our confusion and explained that in India no one shows up on time. Sure enough, it took more than another hour before the conference attendees began to join us.
As an American, India stood in direct contrast to everything I have known when it comes to culture, which made me feel off-balance from my first moments in the country. I am used to punctuality and personal space; India simply doesn’t share those cultural norms. It took most of my visit before the cultural shock started to wear off and I could relax, stop fighting everything that felt different, and move at India’s pace instead of my own. Although I eventually shook off my own cultural expectations, I never did get used to sleeping cows blocking traffic!
Within an hour of arriving into Saigon Vietnam, I was already exploring the city at night.
I headed to nearby Ben Thanh market. Hundreds of motorcycles cruised the streets and I noticed that the traffic rules I had been accustomed to, didn’t apply here. To cross traffic intersections, I attached myself to small pedestrian groups and we pushed our way through, forcing traffic to accommodate us, but on several occasions, cycles came really close to me, nearly clipping me from behind. I began feeling anxious about drivers’ speed and unnecessary close proximity to me. I wondered if life was cheap here.
Once inside Ben Thanh, the vendors quoted me high prices for everything and I began to feel like a walking dollar sign. I walked away having purchased nothing because I was tired from price negotiations. Emotional tiredness from nearly two months backpacking through S.E. Asia was taking its toll.
The following morning, I awoke exhausted. Exhausted from traveling. Exhausted from haggling. Exhausted from dodging motorcycles. Exhausted from constantly learning about how to manage being in new cultures. Exhausted from my expectations of myself.
Overwhelmed, I wallowed in my hotel, messaging back home, swimming in the hotel pool and eating at the rooftop restaurant. Later that afternoon, I realized that I was going through the lows of a culture shock cycle.
After a much needed short rest, I went on to book tours, and spent my remaining two days on a Mekong Delta river cruise, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, and a very moving afternoon at the War Remnants Museum.
Looking back, I’ve learned that I can be too demanding on myself. My need for mental rest can hit without warning. I love to travel, but to really enjoy it, I have to take care of me first.
Last year, I was sitting in my office in Barcelona, daydreaming about where I was going to travel during the summer. That’s when I decided. I was going to take a 2 month solo trip to Thailand.
The easy part was booking the flights. The hardest part was overcoming the culture shock. No matter how much research I did beforehand, nothing could have prepared me for this new culture that was so different from my own.
The Thai custom that shocked me most was their absolute dedication to the Thai King. I was in a park in Bangkok at 6 p.m. when the national anthem came on over the speakers. Everyone completely froze, put their hands by their side and looked straight ahead, emotionless. Luckily, I had frozen out of pure shock. As soon as a whistle sounded, they continued on like nothing had happened.
Another part of the Thai culture shock was seeing vendors sell insects as food. I found it strange but it’s a normal part of the Thai diet. Not only that, the dress code is really reserved. I wasn’t allowed to enter a temple unless I took off my shoes and covered my shoulders and legs.
Also, the noise of Bangkok completely overwhelmed me. Out on the street, my senses were attacked by the sheer amount of people, horns honking and hundreds of vehicles blaring. I was shocked again when I went to a Muay Thai boxing match and saw the locals screaming and chanting along to fast-paced traditional music. I wasn’t used to seeing Ladyboys either. Nor putting my hands together and bowing to greet a stranger.
The culture shock in Thailand is definitely intense at first. But once I became open to this new way of life, I adapted to it and even grew to embrace it.
As soon as the hostel doors opened I was completely floored.
Full jeepneys and tricycles barreled down the street, people practically oozing out of them. Just the sound of the city itself sent me into sensory overload. Horns blaring, people shouting, there was so much movement, crowds coming from every direction.
On top of that, the heat and humidity was unlike I’ve ever experienced, and the sudden absence of air conditioning felt like a sucker punch of hot air.
That may all have sounded a tad dramatic, but that’s how it all felt at the time- dramatic and over the top.
It was my first time overseas, I was eighteen and I was heading to the Philippines for just under three months to do work as a missionary.
There was nine of us in a group all together, from different countries and backgrounds which was an interesting experience in itself.
Previous to this trip, I’d done some travel around North America, but never long-term, or overseas in a completely new culture.
We’d landed in Manila late at night, exhausted from the long flight we piled into a couple of taxis that were far too expensive and drove to our hostel.
Waking up the next morning, we decided to fight jet lag and walk around the city and get a feel for our surroundings, and as soon as those doors opened is when it all hit me.
I definitely adjusted after a while and was able to accept this setting as the norm; however it doesn’t mean I necessarily embraced it as my new favorite place. I still found the population density, heat, and constant chaos to be overwhelming!
Now that it’s been a couple years, I would love to return to The Philippines, only this time more prepared with what to expect!
9. Spanish language overload in Madrid by Kerry from The Petite Wanderer.
I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain for 6 months. I arrived back in January 2017, only to face a huge, and unexpected, culture shock.
I had been studying Spanish for a while, and by that point, I felt pretty confident with my Spanish speaking abilities. I was by no means fluent, but I could get by in conversations, and could understand pretty much everything. Or so I thought…
Spain was like an entirely new world for me. I’d only been out of the country once when I went to a Caribbean resort with my mom, so I’d never experienced a language barrier. I didn’t think that I would have too much trouble with the Spanish language, but I was very, very wrong.
I don’t think I realized the reality of moving to Spain until I arrived to the Madrid-Bajaras airport. Literally everything was in Spanish. I was surrounded by Spanish announcements, signs, native speakers… The worst part was, I understood nothing.
I was directed (in Spanish) to go to one of the taxis waiting outside. The driver spoke no English, and I could only spit out “puedo pagar con tarjeta de credito?” (can I pay with credit card?). We proceeded to drive to my accommodation, with the radio playing, in Spanish. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and once I got to the hotel, I broke down and started crying.
Over the course of the 6 months I lived there, I became accustomed to life in Spain. I picked up on the language, and was speaking and understanding Spanish. I became absorbed in the language, and the culture shock shifted into cultural awareness.
10. Bucket showers, scorpions, staring and more in Tanzania by me, Jenny from Discovering Legacies
No sidewalks. Bajajis (the equivalent to tuk-tuks or rickshaws or three-wheeled covered motocycles). Massais in their traditional clothing. Dust. Dirt. Car and bus emissions. Buses from the 80s or 90s (?). And a whole bunch of people staring at the only European girl walking around with a Tanzanian dada (Swahili for sister), her three year old nephew, and a golden retriever/ lab mix. In most parts of Africa, people are scared of dogs because they’re kept as guards rather than pets. I was so overwhelmed on this first day in Dar es Salaam, Africa’s fastest growing city, that I didn’t even have the courage to go outside by myself and was glad when dada offered to come with me. It took me at least a week to get used to the staring (read more about it here.)
The second shock came when I had to catch a scorpion that had found its way into my tent (read more about that story here).
Then, my second time in Tanzania, I was in shock when, a few hours after arrival, I realized that I had to take a shower with water from a bucket that I scooped with a Tupperware. When the water was finally coming to the house through the pipes after taking bucket showers for two weeks, we had to regularly pump it into a tank. When this tank emptied (sometimes during a shower), we had to pump again. Also, we only had electricity when we paid for it. In case we needed the A/C to sleep during >30°C nights, but we ran out of units, we had to stay sweaty. Washing clothes only happened by hands where I stayed.
But the biggest culture shock by far was the difference in sense of time and planning. Locals don’t plan. They live in the moment. That means no planning what you’ll have for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; work life rather happens than making things happen. But, at the same time, this means enjoying the moment. Enjoying what you have. Not living in the present or future. And that was the biggest takeaway from these three months, which I cherish the very most. Even though, at first, it was a struggle, especially as a German, to which punctuality literally comes next to in the dictionary.
Have you had a moment of culture shock? Please let us know in the comments :)!
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