By Kalina Davis
Traveling to a new culture can be intimidating. Suddenly you are thrust into a world of the unknown, where many things are foreign and unfamiliar. You may experience culture shock and homesickness, and your first instinct might be to return to your comfort zone where everything is safe and predictable. When you see that sign for McDonald’s or Starbucks while you are traveling, you are going to be tempted to drop everything you’re doing to indulge in a juicy Big Mac or a sweet Caramel Macchiato. I’m going to tell you right now, don’t do it. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Even if that small piece of home brings some temporary satisfaction, it will not reduce your culture shock or help you make the most of your travel experience. It won’t allow you to get to know the culture.
Do your research before you go and anticipate the cultural differences. The differences found around the world are what it makes it so beautiful and unique. Learn about the place you’ll be going to. What language do they speak? What food do they eat? What are some social expectations and customs? Getting yourself accustomed to the idea of being uncomfortable and trying new things can help ease the shock.
Although you may not be able to completely prevent culture shock, you can control how you handle it. When you are in a new and foreign setting, it’s easy to dwell on your discomfort. However, this will surely dampen your experience. Instead of complaining about the differences, embrace them. You will have most of your life to experience what you’re used to back in your native land, so take advantage of the opportunity to experience what is different. When you’re eating in a restaurant, don’t just order the safest, most American choice on the menu. Try a local specialty instead. When I was eating at a restaurant in Rome, I decided to order a pear and Gorgonzola gnocchi dish, something that I had never tried before. Even though I didn’t end up liking it, I was thankful for the chance to experience a part of the culture.
If where you are going uses a different language, instead of using English all the time, try to learn a bit of the local language and use what you know. From my experience, the locals always appreciate it when tourists try to speak in the native language, even if you don’t say something exactly right.
Instead of simply seeking out other Americans and tourists, try to meet a few locals. This can be intimidating to do, but it is always worth it. When I studied abroad in Rome, I had a few conversations with a woman who worked at one of my favorite gelaterie. We became friends, and she even came to my apartment to make my roommates and me some authentic spaghetti alla carbonara. We still keep in touch to this day.
Embrace the change, and allow yourself to become immersed in the culture you are in. Take a break from all of the touristy activities to sit and observe the life that goes on, soaking it all in. Your experience will be more authentic and memorable when you choose to do so.
Opportunities to travel to new places are wonderful gifts. Don’t take them for granted. When you travel, don’t stay inside your American comfort zone. You have plenty of time to be American. Instead, choose to embrace the foreign setting and learn what you can from the experience. Yes, the change can be scary and uncomfortable, but don’t retreat back into your shell. If you do, you will just scratch the surface of what is there to be discovered and experienced. Choose to take advantage of being in a new culture and try new things. When you do, the opportunities for growth and learning are endless.
Go Travel, and Travel Fearless.
Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel
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