I’ll never forget my worst experience with culture shock, which I had during a six week, 5,000-mile journey throughout India.
I had lived in five European countries prior to this shocking experience. Our residences had been mostly in small towns, and we had adjusted well. Oh sure, when I lived in Germany I bellyached about their compulsiveness and their disdain of foreigners, but I enjoyed the year there. That successful experience, however, inflated my idea of just how much cultural change I could handle.
India taught me a lesson.
Travel ads I had seen promoting India were interesting, so it seemed like the next step for me on my quest to see the world. I signed on for a six-week tour at the most basic level: riding and sleeping on trains. I figured this would let me see the country without the barriers of fancy hotels and restaurants.
What a mistake.
First problem—my luggage didn’t arrive and I only reclaimed it the day I left the country. I was reduced to traveling with the backpack I had as a carry on. That meant no water purification tablets, Pepto-Bismol or emergency food supplies. My travel companions and I slept on the floor of the train car assigned to us and it was moved to a siding and became our hotel when we were in cities.
The beggars, the poverty, the open sewers, the general filth, and different philosophy of life overwhelmed me almost instantly. The stress I experienced was compounded by a significant loss of weight (25 pounds) due to chronic stomach problems brought on by "Delhi Belly."
The effects of the culture shock I experienced continued long after I returned to the U.S. I found myself depressed and frequently on the verge of tears as I relived what I had seen. I was angry with people around me for being preoccupied with insignificant problems in the face of the bigger picture: overpopulation, food shortages, disease and early death experienced elsewhere in the world. In all of this I had a sense of powerlessness. I felt I could do nothing to change the world for the better. Even today, when I describe India to friends, I sometimes find myself choking up.
On the other hand, when I later lived in Mexico for three months I didn’t feel any culture shock. In part, this was because I was living with a doctor and his family. Although they only spoke Spanish, their lifestyle was not markedly different from what I was accustomed to.
Although culture shock is not entirely preventable, there are some things you can do:
• How close you get to the real culture makes a big difference. If you haven’t traveled widely, start with organized tours of less than three weeks. The tour guides protect you, and more often than not, you will be staying in Americanized hotels and eating carefully prepared food.
• Have realistic expectations. Read up on the area and know what to expect. A prepared mind is good protection.
• Keep your sense of humor. I like traveling with British tour groups. They carry an air of superiority, and rather than get annoyed or weep they crack jokes about what is happening.
• Keep your sense of curiosity and wonder active. There are many new things to learn; be open to them.
• Recognize ahead of time that you will goof up. You will make mistakes. So many of us who travel have been successful in our home environments and fallen out of practice in how to fail or to do dumb things gracefully. Treat your mistakes as another learning experience, and don’t be overly critical of yourself.
• Become aware of your limits. Traveling in Europe is not likely to stress most of us. On the other hand, traveling in a third world country, even for a short period of time, can deeply affect many people.
Since India I have made 26 trips into trauma zones as a member of a trauma team. We usually go in a few days early to acclimate and stay a day after our workshops to decompress. Each evening we debrief as a group and are careful to get enough sleep. In some places like Pakistan I still have trouble with the food making me ill, but at least now I have my meds to prevent things getting out of hand. The friendships we establish with the locals are also an aid in adjusting to the unusual or unpleasant circumstances. Even with all of this support some experiences, such as working with individuals who have been victims of ethnic cleansing leave me shaky and it takes some time to restore my full composure when I return to the US.