Young travel friends, I’m so excited to write another post and hope we can get to know each other more. I’ve loved the conversations in my post about 10 Tips for Exchange Students and hope I can help you understand the four main phases of culture shock while traveling abroad. I hope this will help you prepare. I would love to hear your experiences with culture shock in the comments! ^
Phase #1: Everything is new and exciting.
If my family had witnessed my first morning in the small village of Hedersleben, they would have thought I woke up high. I was frolicking up and down cobblestone roads and saying hello to every single German on the street.
Highlights of this time:
- Saying “Ich liebe dich” (I love you) to the chief of the fire department and having all of the firemen laugh. I’ll be honest, I love a crowd.
- Talking to a German man on the side of a cobblestone curb about WWII.
- Saying my first sentence in German “Können wir spielen?” (Can we play?) at the playground next to the monastery.
- Teaching the local teenager and friend Johnny how to say “That’s what she said” jokes in German.
- Picking yellow plums with my friend in the morning.
- Eating hard rolls with an assortment of meats and spreads. Nutella every morning!
Phase #2: Everyone and everything is irritating.
When my brother was in Uruguay after the “excitement” time had worn off, he wrote the family an email and said, “Mom… I think I’m racist.” He was so bothered by everything the people in Uruguay were doing. Everything! This was the same for me in Germany as a foreign exchange student. Just remember, this is a phase. You’re not a terrible person. Everyone else is not terrible either. It gets better.
Here are some things I was bothered about during this time:
- People talking about the weather. The majority of the time, Germany is cloudy. But that doesn’t stop the Germans from talking about how terrible the weather is.
- The layers. If I wasn’t wearing five million layers, everyone was going to come up to me like “Aren’t you cold? Anne, you’re going to get sick!” No, I’m not going to get sick, people! Calm it down.
- The showers. The toilets. The whole bathroom thing.
- The Birkenstocks and black socks. When did that EVER become a fashion statement?
- Carbonated water. Can anything be more annoying than pretentious bubbly water?
Some of the things were only little that bothered me. But little things added up. And then bigger things bothered me. The friendship culture. The way to express gratitude. and more and more.
I felt so different than everyone around me that I became lonely and sick. I missed a week of school. At the time, I didn’t realize I was having panic attacks. I dreaded having to get up in the morning and be the different American exchange student all over again.
I promise it gets better and you still have good moments in this phase. You will have sad days. You will feel lonely. And guess what, travelers? It’s normal.
Phase #3: You become familiar with your surroundings.
Your language skills are growing. You’re not getting a headache every time your start a conversation. You have at least one person that you can talk with at school. If you’re a foreign exchange student, it’s the holiday time where you may be with friends at Christmas markets. I remember drinking tea and watching terrible, addicting TV shows with my host sisters. It felt like I woke up one morning and could understand things better. I was finding a way to by myself. And I knew the bus routes, the train routes, and my favorites cafés. I felt more familiar with my surroundings.
Phase #4: You accept and adapt.
This is often the time for exchange students and study abroad students when you realize you are at the end of your experience in the host country. You’re fluent. You can accept you’re differences. You accept people may not “get” you in the way you want them to, but you still have made friends.
Days feel easier. School is easier. You still have communication breakdowns once and a while, but for the most part you’re not thinking about what you need to say before you say it.
I had a lot of events and hang outs lined up for me during this time. I felt confident asking my host family if I could hang out with friends, or travel to Berlin. I could joke around. I could express my personality.
What are your concerns about culture shock? Do you have experiences with culture shock? We’d all love to hear in the comments!