Notes On Appreciating Your First Bout Of Culture Shock

Thai lunch

Thai lunch packed my house mom when doing a homestay in Thailand 

Something I didn’t appreciate until now was the beauty of your first real dose of culture shock. While I grew up traveling with my family — road trips to different amusement parks around North America and cruises to the Caribbean — my first true solo experience was heading to Bangkok, Thailand. From there I’d be spending three months making my way through Southeast Asia and China, doing some volunteering as well as a short GAdventures Tour (then called Gap) talong the way, but for the most part, on my own.

I remember vividly the mix of excitement and panic of preparing for the trip, the hundreds of “what if” scenarios that went through my head. What if I couldn’t figure out how to take public transportation because of the language barrier? What if I didn’t make any friends on the road? What if I got sick from the food and couldn’t figure out how to get to a doctor? I also worried about packing, if I’d run out of clothes, if my attire was conservative enough, if what I was bringing was weather appropriate.

When the time finally came to go on the trip I was a bundle of nerves. The 45-minute drive to the airport seemed to take forever, but once we got there I felt like it had been too quick, as I didn’t want to say goodbye to my parents and what was familiar to me.

When the plane landed in Southeast Asia and I had my backpack securely fastened to my body, the zippers locked and my phone hidden in an inside pocket in my jeans, I made my way to the taxi stand. I knew the price quotes by the driver was too much, but as I was on my own and nervous I let him rip me off. I told him the address of my guesthouse and was surprised when he dropped me off at the end of a closed-off road — what I found out after was the notorious Khao San Road — full of drunk and crazy partygoers, bright lights, suit salesmen, street vendors, loud music and just madness that was sensory overload for me as I walked, sweat dripping down my back and shaky hands trying to grasp a written set of directions, trying to find my accommodation. I weaved in and out of the side streets, all of which seemed to hold their own world of offerings — and also which all looked alike to a confused first-timer. When I finally found my guesthouse — an hour later — I swore I would never leave my room.

Until the next morning. As the sunlight peaked through my window and the smells of Pad Thai and Khao Phat (Thai fried rice) wafted up to my window, I couldn’t help but seek out these delicious dishes as well as other still unknown facets of local culture. And I did. I visited temples, drifted through a floating market, road tuk tuks, learned about Buddhism from locals, took cooking classes, drank Singaha beer, saw a traditional Thai dance performance and much more. And most of those “what if” questions I had worried so much about either never happened, or when they did weren’t a big deal.

On that trip I truly learned you’re capable of anything when you need to be — especially when you’re in charge of yourself. Language barriers, missed trains and sickness on the road were all manageable once I thought out the problems that arose and used my resources to solve them (not to mention they were much less serious once they actually happened).

While I still always feel an intense curiosity visiting a new place, it’s never the same as that very first time, the mix of terror and a need to discover driving me forward, my eyes wider than they’ve ever been or ever will be. I look back on that first bout of culture shock fondly, as it instilled in me confidence and helped pave the way for other solo trips thereafter. I often say the most memorable trips are those that expose you to things you’ve never experienced before, and as it was my first time traveling on my own, it did to an amplified level.

I will always be grateful for that.

When was the first time you truly felt culture shock? How do you feel looking back on that trip? Please share in the comments below.

5 Comments

  1. I’m in Marrakech right now and I guess I had my first cultural schock here. It’s just so different from home. Motorbikes riding through the smallest alleys of the Medina, everyone wantig to sell you stuff and the Djema el fna square is insanely different from everything I know. It can really be described as an open air theatre. After a day you’re more relaxed though and I really enjoyed the time in the city.

    1. @Stef: I still have yet to visit Marrakech. Sounds amazing. That’s really the thing with culture shock. As long as you give yourself a day or two to calm down and acclimate, you’ll realize it’s all going to be all right and you’ll most likely have a very rewarding and eye-opening experience.

  2. My first culture shock was while studying in the USA for a year. I didn’t really see that one coming… As a European, I thought our cultures were pretty similar… Big mistake. Looking back I find it all hilarious and I have funny stories to tell at dinner parties đŸ˜‰

  3. @Sarah: That’s interesting to hear! I usually hear the stories of US travelers since I’m from the US. Interesting to hear it from the other way around, too. Hope you enjoyed your trip đŸ™‚

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