Culture shock is defined as the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
For me, culture shock is that ‘oh, wow’ moment when you lock eyes on something that you’ve never seen before and you know that it will stay with you forever, no matter how far and and how long you travel. Culture shock isn’t a judgement (before people start jumping up and down and flinging all sorts of accusations after they read the list below), it’s an observation about how different things are compared to what you’re used to.
In over five years of travel, I’ve had a lot of culture shock experiences. Here are the ones that have left the greatest impression (in no particular order).
1. Toilets without any cubicle door or privacy in China. Yes, I used one of these toilets in China. Yes, I got stage fright and yes, it took me an extraordinarily time to pee while several women hovered over me with ‘hurry up’ looks on their faces.
2. Armed guards outside my guest house in Quito – I couldn’t quite decide whether this extra level of protection in Ecuador made me feel more or less secure but it felt like a cup of cold water in the face every time I walked past the machine-gun toting guy outside my guest house.
3. People sat in the train’s overhead luggage area in India – courtesy of a missed train, I took an on-the day, no-seat-reservation train in India. It was so crammed, I sat 3-people to one seat for 8 hours but I didn’t have the worst of it. Scores of men and boys sat in the luggage rack, necks bent against the ceiling.
4. Standing under a cactus as tall as a house in Phoenix, Arizona. People and cultures aren’t the only things that have surprised me – nature and its immense power has dropped my jaw more than once.
Rome’s seedy side – Rome may be one of the most opulent places I’ve ever been so I wasn’t expecting a seedy side. Yet, it does have one and my accommodation (near Termini station) was right in the thick of it.
Food portions in America – I knew food portions in the USA were vast long before I visited (stereotypes sometimes bear true) but I wasn’t expecting regular portions the size of my head. It did, however, serve me well in Hawaii when I could get 3-4 meals out of one order.
Cosmetic enhancements in Colombia – breast implants I’m familiar with (not personally, mind you) but bottom implants? I was told that implants were a common gift for a girl’s 15th birthday in Colombia.
Use of the ‘c’ word as punctuation in Australia. It’s a word that can start a fight in England so it’s used sparingly. Not in Australia where it’s thrown into conversations as a noun, an adjective, a verb and, failing that, a full stop.
Dogs for food in Cambodia – I couldn’t understand why a homeless man in Cambodia had three prized puppies on a string. He’ll sell them for food, a local told me. I though he meant that the man should sell them so he could get money to eat. That wasn’t what he meant.
Fresh from Downton Abbey manners in Brazil. I though I had decent enough table manners until I got to Brazil. Oh my goodness, the table Ps&Qs of this nation put me to shame (as I tried to fish a lemon pip out of my drink with my finger and received a stare). A tad intimidating but very pleasant to watch. Britain: take note.
Women comfortably exposing their stomachs in India – growing up in a society where women (and men) are trained to covet a flat stomach or otherwise keep it covered, it was refreshing to see so many mid-sari stomachs hanging out in all their wonderful fleshiness.
Casual machete carrying in Nicaragua – the first time I saw someone (a young boy) carrying a machete, I was ready to run. Within a day, I realised it was the norm (for farming purposes I was told). Having one rest on my leg for several hours on a cramped bus was still daunting.
The number of homeless people in USA – for one of the richest countries in the world, the disparity of wealth and the resultant number of homeless people in the USA still shocks me even after several visits. The fact that most people blank out their homeless counterparts shocks me more.
Child prostitution in Colombia – the number of sub-16 year old girls on dates with western men who were plus-50 was something I couldn’t un-see once I’d started to notice it in Colombia.
Food in the Philippines (an Asian anomaly) – given its location, I thought good food in the Philippines was a given. Wrong. You can read my thoughts on that here – Food in the Philippines: The Lingering Taste of Salty Disappointment.
Horn blasting in New York – Deafening, disconcerting and completely pointless. If a city’s collective frustration has a noise, it takes the form of a horn blow in New York.
The poverty in India – I can’t describe in a sentence the shocking extent of the poverty in India except its estimated that over 275 million people live on less than ¢1.25 a day. Of all my culture shock experiences, this one has stayed with me the most. I left India feeling both incredibly humble and sad.
The dehumanised healthcare system in the USA – I’ve come into contact with the US healthcare system twice. Both times my financial status was given priority above my health. On one occasion, the doctor spent more time at her computer with her back to me than assessing me.
Using the toilet hose in Thailand – I confess, I still don’t really ‘get’ the whole toilet hose in Thailand. Ok, I understand why but I’m still not sure about how. Each time I tried it (do as the locals and all that) I ended up with an embarrassingly wet ‘area’ on my clothes. Please tell me if I’ve been doing this all wrong.
Hose and ‘suicide’ showers in Latin America – speaking of hoses…from a sawn-off hose pipe concreted into the wall to a more swish arrangement (shower-head) that came complete with exposed electrical wires, it may have been shocking at first but didn’t take long before I got used to this rustic and sometimes risky way of washing.
The number of dishonest taxi drivers (everywhere) – I genuinely believe that 99% of the people in the world are good people. I also believe that taxi drivers the whole world over make up a fair portion of the 1%. These days, I use Uber.
Eating with my hands in India – I’m the kind of person who eats a pizza and sometimes even a sandwich with cutlery. So, using nothing more than my fingers and some chapati to eat curry took some getting used to. As did permanently (tumeric) stained nails.
Bioluminescence in Isla Holbox, Mexico – I’d seen videos of bioluminescence but seeing it up close and interacting with it in the water was a pretty special moment. You can read more about Isla Holbox here.
Everyday peace and tolerance in Jerusalem – transitioning from one quarter to another in Jerusalem, Armenian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, locals worked side by side in harmony. That’s not quite what the media had led me to believe.
Female sex tourism in The Gambia – I’m no prude but the seeing white western women in Africa paying for the local men’s services shocked me. You can read my thoughts on that topic here.
The lifetime bachelors in China – When a country has a gender preference for baby boys, the effects are felt for generations. An estimated 40 – 50 million bachelors in China have no hope of marrying or becoming parents. Watching a man place his cute puppy, complete with pink hair ribbons in his bike basket hammered that reality home.
Not being able to drink alcohol in a dry country in the Middle East. It was the first time I’d stepped inside a dry country. Before that, it hadn’t occurred to me that there were places where alcohol was off limits.
Topless ladies on Spanish beaches – as a young 20-something travelling to Spain, my inner British reservedness was quite uncomfortable with the number of topless ladies (of all ages, shapes and sizes) sunning themselves on public beaches. This was probably one of my first culture shock experiences.
The air pollution in China – by the time my one month visa was up in China, I had a perpetual cough and a huskiness to my voice I thought I’d never recover from. I met a US girl who was teaching in China and was popping over to the traffic choked streets of Kuala Lumpur just to get some better air. That says something.
Blatant racism in Chicago – I’ll let this picture below speak for itself. It was inside a bar window. Being belligerent, I knocked on the door and challenged the sign. I told the guy that I wanted to wear low-cut pants that would probably show my underwear with a sleeveless plain white t-shirt and excessive jewellery – would I be allowed in. The response: ‘It’s not aimed at you miss. It’s aimed at black people.’ 🙁
Live guinea pigs stored under the oven in Peru – I witnessed this while visiting a local family. The fact that Guinea pig is a food form and not a pet was one thing but seeing them stored, alive, like they were sacks of potatoes was another culture shock experience.
Skimpiness of the bikinis in Brazil – Stood next to the Brazilian beauties on the beach, my British bikini felt like it was fresh out of the 1940s compared to the minuscule swatches of material the local girls were confident enough to wear.
The cost of healthy food in the USA – walking around a supermarket looking for a healthy lunch I saw that for $10 I could buy a bottle of vodka (and receive change) or 3 family size cakes or a small platter of fruit.
Tall beyond belief buildings in New York – I’ve probably been places since that have had taller buildings but standing in New York that first time with my neck craned skywards, barely able to comprehend the enormity of the skyscrapers – that sense of awe will stick with me forever.
Crumbling pavements in a no-claims culture in Latin America – if the pavements of many Latin American countries existed in the UK (and heaven forbid the USA – claim capital of the world), bankruptcy would quickly ensue. In Latin America, if you put a foot wrong, it’s your fault (because it’s your foot). Learning to take full responsibility for my actions (and steps) made me trip less often and I was grateful for that.
Prescription medication for bulk buy in Guatemala – My medicine kit was stolen when I was in Guatemala and I though I’d struggle to get some of my prescription only pills. No hay problema as it turned out – the pharmacist tried her hardest to bulk sell me 500 pills by offering me a discounted price.
Seeing a road accident in Colombia – I’d heard more than once that the value of human life can be low in Latin America and I got a sense of that when I witnessed a traffic accident. The girl couldn’t have been more than 17 and judging from her tangled limbs and the mass of blood, she was dead. That she was left uncovered was shocking enough. The crowds – including the firemen at the scene – stood around taking pictures on their mobiles shocked me even more.
The omnipresent dirt in India – it once took me 3 baths in a hotel in India to get rid of 6 weeks’ worth of dirt. It felt like it’s everywhere, from the streets which are used as litter bins and toilets by animals and humans (both of which I witnessed) to the choking fumes.
Lack of personal space in China – Personal space is something that doesn’t seem to exist in China where people will comfortably stand shoulder to shoulder with you even if there is no need to. A British person would tried to have you arrested if you got that up close when there was other space to be occupied. Definitely a culture difference.
The humidity in the Amazon – I had romantic notions about the Amazon that were quickly dispelled. Mosquitos galore, the inability to keep your bag open in case something crawls in and the humidity which turns everything damp and keeps it that way.
Endemic marijuana smoking in Jamaica – there are lots of roadside signs in Jamaica warning of the dangers of drink driving but no mention of the fact that smoking weed is a daily part of so many local’s lives. Most surprising was the number of stoned people I encountered who were clearly high in a ‘work’ setting.
Corruption in Laos and Belize – yes, I know corruption is more widespread than these two places (and don’t get me started on corruption in so-called rich nations) but having to hand over a ‘small administrative fee’ to get basic police reports to support an insurance claim…
Chicken buses in Latin America – I miss the excitement that comes with taking a local bus in Latin America. Brightly coloured and containing a menagerie of animals (usually for food), those first few occasions had me eyes wide.
Difficulty sourcing tampons in Mexico – again, Mexico is not the only country where this happens but not all countries have a tampons as a common form of sanitary wear. Spending close to a day tracking tampons down in a small town was a surprise the first time and not a mistake I made again.
Body hair on Brazilian ladies – long leg hair that had been bleached white on top of beautiful dark Brazilian skin, the effect is quite dramatic. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘peach fuzz’ and also a golden shower…but don’t google that last one…
The Milky Way without sodium glare in Nicaragua – yeah, I thought I’d seen the Milky Way until I sat on a beach on the isthmus of a volcano in Nicaragua when the lights were out. Something else.
Sporadic water and light in several developing locations – you turn on a tap and there’s water, right? Same with electricity and light? Not everywhere. If you want a good punch of gratitude, go find a place where you have to wash when the water comes through and permanently pack a torch just in case.
Graphic front page news in Latin America – newspapers in Latin America have no qualms slapping a full-on picture of a dead body (blood, guts and all) on the front page. No ‘contains graphic images’ warning as you buy your morning coffee – that was definitely a culture shock experience I had to get used to (largely by learning to quickly avert my eyes).
The menu of options on a Japanese toilet – want to play music? Done. Prefer the sound of flushing water to disguise any other sounds? No problem. Heated toilet seat, a range of ‘washing’ functions and even an air freshener function, Japanese toilets are more complicated and offer more usability than my TV.
There you have it – my biggest culture shock experiences – what’s your greatest culture shock experience been? Let me know in the comments below.
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