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Preventing Culture Shock

Written by  January 23, 2013

With less than a month to go, Rob is trying to stop culture shock—before it even happens.

Over the last several weeks I have been preparing myself to move to Brazil. Most of my preparation has been mandatory—things that need to be done so I can get to Brazil—but the rest are things that are going to help deal with lessening the blow of culture shock when I arrive. For all the talk I have heard about absorbing culture shock once you arrive, I haven’t been able to find a lot of information regarding making culture shock easier to handle before you even get on the plane.

Having spoken with friends who have gone abroad, I was quickly informed on how quickly I would be hit by the language barrier. From asking questions about my flight to ordering food, they all told me that having some competency in the native language would go a long way. Simply put, I decided I would learn Portuguese. For those who read my last post, you know that several weeks ago I confessed to knowing absolutely no Portuguese. Since then I have learned that English is sparsely used and even some of the other interns currently there have a relatively good hold on Portuguese. Despite the delayed start (something I do not recommend), I have started to make a consistent effort to learn some Portuguese.

Primarily, I have been using two different sources to learn Portuguese. The first is Collin’s Portuguese Phrasebook and Dictionary. This little book has a ton of small phrases for just about any scenario I am likely to encounter in Brazil. It also includes pictures of many different signs in Portuguese and how they would be translated into English. Of course, things like “pharmacy” and “airport” look very similar to English, but who knows where my head will be in a moment of stress upon landing in Brazil. The book is small enough that I can take it traveling with me and if I have difficulty speaking in Portuguese to someone, I can at least show them what I was trying to say. I will update on its usefulness when I get there, but as of right now I can foresee it being a good thing to have on hand.

The second source I have been using is Duolingo.com. I have been promoting this website since I started using it last summer to keep fresh on French and learn Spanish. I have always had a fascination with beginning to learn a language and then quickly give up, but I attribute a lot of that to wanting to be able to learn for free. Duolingo has a full program for learners to go through learning a language, straight from the basics to more complicated grammar lessons. My favourite part of the site is that it is built around constructing sentences that are useful for conversation, rather than focusing on mastering the grammar of languages first.

Being able to hear the pronunciation of a lot of the worlds has been extremely helpful; if you have not heard Portuguese before then you will know that, despite looking like Spanish, it sounds nothing like it. The sounds are more of an Italian-Slavic mix that don’t sit well on the tongue of a native English speaker. This part worries me right now, as it doesn’t matter what I’m saying if I’m not understood. But I’m optimistic that as I become immersed into Portuguese, I will be more accustomed to the sounds of the language every day.

On top of learning Portuguese, I have been catching up on Brazilian culture and history. When I accepted to my internship in Brazil a former roommate gave me a copy of Lonely Planet’s travel book on Brazil. He had used one of their books before and he championed it as the most useful thing he had while in India two summers ago.

From Brazil’s beginnings as a thriving pre-European civilization to dinner etiquette, this book has pretty close to everything I will need to know. It includes travel routes, must-see locations, as well as the cultural traditions of different parts of Brazil. I expect that once I start traveling around, especially to large cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, this book will become my best friend. The history chapters in the book provide some context for news headlines I now see about Brazil. Though it provided no mention of contraband smuggling cats, Lonely Planet outlined the long-lasting national debate in Brazil between proponents of resource development and environmental protectionists—a debate all too familiar to Canadians. I thought maybe my roommate was exaggerating when he explained how great this book is, but it really is a traveler’s bible and will certainly help lessen the blow of culture shock.

Preparing for Brazil is proving to be a lot more work than I had expected. I am not really sure what I was expecting up until now; maybe the excitement had clouded any other feelings. Going abroad is a lot of work and learning about a new culture is extremely hard to grasp. After all, most of us were raised in the culture we now live in, so it was a natural learning process that we did not have to think about. Learning a new language, catching up on hundreds of years of history, and learning new traditions is what differentiates the work and live abroad experience from traveling as a tourist.

My last few weeks will surely be busy as I try to wrap up my preparations and I am increasingly feeling more confident that I will be able to adjust without too much stress. The only cultural transition I am really having a lot of trouble with is calling football by its North American name, soccer.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Rob Small

Rob Small is an international relations graduate of Carleton University. An AIESEC intern, he is working as an English teacher at a local language school in Chapecό, Brazil. His first time living abroad, he hopes to share insightful, yet entertaining, stories about being a Canadian in Brazil.

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