Coping with culture shock while teaching overseas

Many of those who teach abroad will experience some degree of culture shock. Moving to a new and often different cultural environment makes the feeling of culture shock a very normal and real psychological phenomenon.

With any move comes natural stressors, but relocating abroad presents a whole crop of new challenges: a different local language, new customs, new manners, and cultural norms. It’s typical to find yourself in a social situation where you’re not sure what is the right thing to do or say. And while coping with these stresses can initially be clouded with the “honeymoon phase” of travel, eventually an adjustment phase kicks in. This adjustment is what is known as culture shock.

What causes culture shock

The onset of culture shock varies from person to person - it can be anywhere from a couple of weeks to six months. The initial three months are often characterized as the honeymoon phase, where new cultural phenomenons might intrigue and delight more than upset. Everything seems new and exciting. But internally, our bodies are really dealing with physiological stress: lack of control, understanding new social norms, and perhaps difficulties in communicating. Trying to decipher how to respond properly in these situations can be exhausting and overstimulating.  

Culture shock symptoms

Culture shock can manifest in many ways, and can appear as fleeting feelings or can last for weeks. But indulging these feelings can lead to unhealthy behavior such as over- or under-eating, or serious sadness or depression. Watch for the following symptoms during your first few months:

  • Homesickness

  • Sadness/loneliness/hopelessness

  • Boredom

  • Aversion to social interaction, or withdrawing from local relationships and communicating only with family at home

  • Sleeping and eating too much

  • Stereotyping or an increased tendency to think badly of local culture and people

  • Uncontrollable emotions (like crying over seemingly anything)

  • Constantly comparing your home country to your placement country

The symptoms of culture shock can come and go throughout your first year of teaching abroad.

How to manage the effects of culture shock

One of the best ways to manage culture shock is to be aware of symptoms as they crop up. When you start to experience them, it’s important to tell yourself, “What I’m experiencing now is probably culture shock.” After acknowledging that you are experiencing culture shock, which is a very normal reaction to lots of change, you can take the following steps to overcome any of the symptoms:

  • Reassure yourself that these feelings will eventually pass once you’ve settled.

  • Take time to connect with yourself and honor your needs: keep busy with activities you enjoy, exercise regularly, develop a new hobby and set time aside for it each day.

  • Dedicate some time to learning the local language to help overcome communication difficulties.

  • Be easy on yourself: adjusting is hard work.

  • Establish a daily routine that you stick to. Make sure to get lots of sleep and eat healthily.

  • Make your apartment more comfortable with souvenirs from back home.

  • Schedule time to indulge in a healthy dose of culture from your home country: listen to some music, watch one of your favourite movies, or eat your favourite dishes. These small things can help. And if you can, sharing some of your culture with local friends can provide some relief.

  • Try to stop yourself from making cultural value judgments or comparisons with your home country.

Most importantly: encourage yourself. Remind yourself of your reasons for going abroad in the first place. Each time culture shock symptoms show up, know that it’s just your body taking some time to adjust to everything that’s new. Eventually, you will feel more comfortable in your new country and these pangs of nostalgia and homesickness will be shorter and more controllable.

Again, culture shock is normal: it isn’t a sign that you aren’t suited to teaching abroad, it’s a sign that you’re human and you’re working through a very natural process. Being aware of the fact that you will likely experience some degree of culture shock is a good way to combat serious side effects or symptoms.