Overcoming Culture Shock

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Written by  July 25, 2016

How to handle the ups and downs when living abroad isn't exactly what you'd imagined.

For the nearly eight months leading up to my departure for Ecuador, I had plenty of time to contemplate every aspect of my nearing experience abroad. I daydreamed about becoming fluent in Spanish and about how I would instantly be able to connect with new people and find a group of friends just like I had at home.

But when I arrived, I realized it wasn’t going to be that simple—not by a long shot. Even my newly minted university degree in Spanish couldn’t have prepared me for the mental marathon that is keeping up with long conversations in my second language, or long stretches of time not speaking English. Sometimes I just wanted to curl up in bed and watch Netflix in English; something comfortable and familiar that felt like home. . .and sometimes I did.

Be your own advocate and make the time and space to do what you need to make your experience abroad better.

There is certainly a mystique to the idea of living abroad, perpetuated by books like Under the Tuscan Sun and the countless “Quit Your Job And Buy A Ticket” articles that flood the Internet. But what these romantic stories leave out is that many aspects aren't so glamorous. Living abroad also involves things like learning the local bus route, adjusting to the local culture and developing a daily routine in your new setting.

Here's my advice on how to best ease into your new home: 

Identify the challenges

It is important to hone in on what you’re experiencing, so that you can make changes to improve your experience abroad. Maybe you’re not actually so annoyed with the slower pace of life, but rather are frustrated with your struggle to make new friends. Maybe your new job isn’t what you thought it would be, or the language barrier seems to be more of an impenetrable wall than a tiny hurdle. These are problems that, with effort and determination, can be fixed or changed once you identify them.

When I wasn’t making friends as quickly as I thought I would be, I realized that even though my Spanish was strong, I was afraid of making grammatical errors that would embarrass me. I wasn’t putting myself out there as I should have been, and therefore I wasn't getting better at Spanish or making new friends. To force myself out of my comfort zone, I decided to take an opportunity to volunteer at a local church where I would be forced to speak Spanish all the time. It was a challenge at first, but I eventually found myself speaking Spanish more than ever, and my fear disappeared.

Be your own advocate and make the time and space to do what you need to make your experience abroad better. Take language classes and study grammar, or find other expats that will help you navigate the cultural differences. Once you feel stuck in the struggles that you're facing, you may not be able to see the options you have to make a positive change. 

Give it time

Culture shock is no joke. Even if you’ve travelled before, each time it's real and different. I had visited Ecuador before I moved abroad and had spent time living in different countries throughout Latin America. I was about as prepared as anyone could be for such a transition, so I thought that getting used to my new home would be a breeze. However, it still took some time to adjust and I didn't feel truly comfortable for a few months.

All of this is totally normal and just part of the process. At this stage in the adjustment process, don't be too hard on yourself and certainly don't make any rash decisions. There have been times where I have gotten so upset—usually over something minor—that I have wondered out loud why I even moved here in the first place. If I had acted on those thoughts, I would have missed out on so many of the incredible experiences. Give yourself some time and then get back on your feet and give it another try.

Remain positive

There will be moments that will live up to your fairytale expectations, including when you realize how much you've learned and how far you've come. But there will also be challenges greater than you imagine.

One of the most important lessons you will learn from your time abroad will be about your own resilience, adaptability and strength in overcoming challenges—so don’t throw in the towel at the first inconvenience! The experiences that you will have—whether it be seeing new places, tasting delicious new foods or meeting new people—are worth the time and effort it takes to adapt to your new lifestyle. 

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Carley Clement

After graduating from NYU, Carley Clement followed her passion for Latin America to Ecuador. She works for the non-profit Manna Project International as Senior Program Director, and spends her free time cooking Cuban food, travelling, playing with street dogs, and blogging about working abroad for Verge.

Website: carleyinecuador.wordpress.com

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