I thought that I'd done everything to prepare myself before my trip to Bolivia, where I would be volunteering with Cuso International at a technical institute in La Paz for an entire year. But when I arrived in La Paz, I felt extremely lost and anxious. I was overwhelmed. Even though I had a kind and understanding roommate, I felt lonely and isolated.
I was experiencing culture shock, something I had somehow managed to avoid my entire life. As a development professional with experience working with organizations around the world, I was shocked to realize that I was not impervious to the ailment.
Prior to departing, I had done all my usual research: I read the guides, I found online blogs, and I talked to people from that country. I also found an organization that had sustainable development methodologies, including focusing on skills exchange and building partner capacity. I went through Cuso International's excellent training and was confident in the organization’s approach to development.
I was experiencing culture shock, something I had somehow managed to avoid my entire life.
Having done all this, I felt fully prepared to take on La Paz. I didn't even consider culture shock; instead, I worried instead about altitude sickness (I was going from roughly 250 metres above sea level in Toronto to just over 3,600 metres in La Paz) and what I should wear to work.
Fortunately, upon arrival I had no serious symptoms of altitude sickness and people dressed to work just as they do back home. I did, however, feel uncomfortable and generally unhappy. I immediately started a count-down in my agenda. (Only 351 days to go. . .super.)
As a "seasoned traveller," I was annoyed with myself for even considering that I could just go home. I thought of all the people back home who wished me luck and believed in me. (Then I also thought of all the people who maybe secretly didn’t.) I chided myself for being a drama queen and decided to be an adult. An adult that bears the consequences of her actions! An adult who will not be bested by some new city! An adult. . .who was really happy all of a sudden to have had the forethought to pack her Hello Kitty blanket.
With this in mind, I went out into the city and I decided to accept all invitations and ideas and just work through my feelings one day at a time, knowing (read: hoping) that it would be temporary and that I would feel like myself again soon.
Here are my top tips for overcoming culture shock—even if you’re a regular traveller:
1. Be kind to yourself and find a balance between exploration and contemplation.
It’s a good idea to get out into the new surroundings and make an effort to push your own boundaries, meet new people and explore your new area. However, it is just as important to find time to reflect and winddown.
2. Have a friend or family member back home that you can call.
Specifically one who won’t worry that you’re feeling [insert emotion here], but who will listen and encourage you to do your best to stay put and adjust. An emotional family member would not be the best option in this scenario; they will just tell you to come home.
3. Bring some favourite items from home.
In my case, I brought my strong tea, a collection of things with which to decorate my room, and some favourite movies that never fail to make me laugh. I will state for the record that during my first two weeks I watched Wayne’s World a record 15 times! Way! In case you are calculating, that’s roughly twice a day. True story. (I told you—those first days weren’t easy.)
4. Find an escape.
This could be an activity or a place. I started to listen to the radio each day in my living room with a coffee in hand. I found a station that plays top 40 rock and pop, with random Nickelback, Barenaked Ladies, and Justin Bieber songs thrown in daily. I am convinced this is some kind of Canadian conspiracy, but to what effect—well, now that is the mystery. I am pretty confident in saying that wherever you go in the world you will encounter these particular three Canadian artists at random times, whether you like it or not. Anyway, those chill hours in the first few days provided me with a certain kind of comfort after a day spent surrounded by foreign smells, sights and sounds.
5. Consider your new region “home.”
Perhaps the best piece of advice I can share is something that I was told during my training, and that is to call your new apartment, area, or city "home" as soon as possible.
You can do this exercise even before your departure and tell yourself that you are going home. This is a way to train your brain to associate home with your destination rather than the far-away land where (let’s assume) all your loved ones are desperately awaiting your return. Now you may not like this new home right away, but don’t worry your heart will catch up to your brain, you’ll see.
Until then, party on, Wayne! And party on, Garth.
The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Cuso International.Add this article to your reading list