Updated December 2020
Whether you’ve traveled before with your family on a vacation to France or you’ve gone on a road trip with friends to Canada, adaptation into a different culture can feel a bit softened when you have friends and family to share the culture shock with. However, if you decide to study or teach abroad, or even travel alone one day, there will be the inevitable moment when you have to face the culture shock all on your own. Though the thought of imagining yourself having to deal with culture shock by yourself can start to make you start to feel emotions of anxiety and fear, don’t let it get to you! Below I have created a list of tips that helped me out when I was adjusting to life in Madrid recently, and that can also help you ease into the new culture as well as enjoy your new surroundings and more.
Take a walk around the neighborhood
Many times whether you are studying abroad in a big and bustling city like London or teaching English in a suburb town on the outskirts of Madrid, taking that first step in getting to know your surroundings, your neighbors, and the street names is a good step in getting acclimated into your new barrio. I remember my first day moving into my host family’s house when I taught English in Madrid, we all walked to the local grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner that night. They showed me around the neighborhood and town a bit, and I started to notice familiarities and things that were different. Many times, this is the initial moment in which your new reality and life sink in and you think, wow I really did come to_______this is going to be my neighborhood. On your walk, you may even start to see yourself a few weeks/months into the future walking the streets of your neighborhood and even knowing which are the best places for cafe con leche. Overall, I’d say that walking around your neighborhood is a good place to begin to slowly allow your mind to catch up with what is going on in the moment.
Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres is basically the equivalent of When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Observe the locals and their customs from their talking expressions, to how they dress, how they walk, and everything else displayed right in front of you. They are often your best teachers! Did you know that in Spain, it’s important to know which cheek to kiss first when greeting someone? Apparently you’re supposed to start from your left and then go onto the right. You’re welcome; I may have just saved you from an embarrassing physical and cultural collision. Watch how others go about their normal lives, and soon enough, you’re going to start to mirror their manners and pick up their customs, as well as understand why they do certain things the way they do. Go to a park, a restaurant or café, or a shop and spend an hour or so watching people’s manners and behavior. It’s fascinating and it literally teaches you about the local social norms. As a native Spanish speaker, when I was in Madrid, it didn’t take too long for me to pick up on some of their lingo because I understood what they were saying so much so that I even began speaking a few words with their tone, speed, and accent (especially when singing along to songs). You will start to do the same without even thinking it twice in time! Se te pega!
Watch a little local television or listen to the radio
Back home and for a while now, I wasn’t must of a TV watcher. Especially as I was preparing for my year abroad, I was mainly searching for YouTube videos and blog posts on Spain and Spanish culture. However, once I arrived at my host family’s house and I learned that they were not about that “no TV life” I learned to not only adjust, but learn more about Spanish culture and topics through television. As part of my host parent’s nightly routine was to catch their favorite series or a movie after their 9pm dinners, it gave me the opportunity to watch TV with them, and ask questions about whatever the television was playing from commercial, movies/shows, and the news; I started to learn more about the Spanish culture without really trying. The commercials you see when you are abroad are created specifically for that culture and target audiences; their news clips on TV display specific issues not only within the country, but also directly within the local area that you may be residing in. You learn to see the issues, the products advertised, the topics that are of interest to the society you’re living in, and in this case, it can allow you to have a better understanding of the culture, and what interests and concerns people. So ju!
Learn the language! (or enough to get by with to begin)
If you can, dedicate a little portion of your day to learn practical, everyday vocabulary in the native language. Don’t worry about the grammar or sentence structures just yet, focus on learning key words like help, please, thank you, coffee…you get the idea. You’ll feel more confident and proud of yourself to do this at least a little bit while you listen to how the words are pronounced, the different tones of voice, and so on. Just like with people watching, the more you observe and learn key words, the more you use them and the more you add to your vocabulary. Wherever you may find yourself, if you don’t find yourself directly taking a language class like if you were studying abroad, look up language exchange hangout spots on Google within your city! There are dozens of locals wanting to learn English just as bad as you want to learn and practice the local language, so here’s your opportunity to learn the language and also meet people! Just be patient with yourself and practice as much as you can.
Try new foods!
In many cultures, food is not just food; it’s an art and a way of life. In Spain for instance, people take their lunch time seriously – I’ve never had a 2 hour lunch before until I was working in Madrid! People make time for food; it’s a priority, and people shape their day and meetings with family and friends around meal times. This is their form of socializing and bonding that we as foreigners should understand and partake in. If you go into a new culture with a picky mentality, you are not only limiting your palate, but you are also limiting your sociability with the rest of that society. When I got invited to my friends villages in Spain, I would be invited to their family’s lunches and dinners. Often times during our lunch or dinners together, discussion originated from questions like have you ever tried (insert food item here), or do you have (insert ingredient here) in the United States? Or I would ask do you use (insert ingredient here) in some dishes? Food and drink are huge facilitators to get to know people and for people to be able to get to know you better. The more you know about their culture, including food and ingredients, the more you get a sense and understanding for the culture. It’s something that will shed more light into your growing knowledge of the host country, which can bring you closer to appreciating differences and similarities. Plus when you’re about to try something new, you may be only moments away from trying your next favorite food. So please, just do it. You’re only limiting your cultural immersion and adaption by refusing to try the local delicacies and getting to know people. Even if you end up trying a food item you didn’t like very much and you let your friend know, he/she will still really appreciate your willingness to try it at least!
Learn the transportation maps and system of your city
There isn’t a feeling quite like figuring out and actually understanding a metro map. It’s liberating, it’s fun, it makes you feel limitless. Figuring out and getting around your new area by taking the bus or the train to get to places farther away, can give you a great feeling of pride, courage, and in time, adaptation to the local way of life. When I was teaching English in Madrid, I found out there was a public transportation app that allowed me to check out the metro layout and transportation schedules in real time, in and around Madrid. This was SO handy, and it definitely gave me more confidence to use the public transportation to different parts of town, the city center, and beyond without fearing getting lost. In turn, when you reach the point where you feel comfortable getting around by yourself or with friends on the metro for instance, you even learn to accept the fear of getting lost. Pretty soon, you realize it’s not the end of the world, and you learn how to find your way back the more you are out learning street names and landmarks. Riding the metro and taking the bus will help you ease into your barrio and the closest big city because you’ll know it like the back of your hand in time. I can’t recommend searching for something like a transportation app enough in whichever city you may find yourself in!
Go on day trips
Look at a map or search online for towns or points of interest that are nearby your location. In today’s day and age, it’s so easy to run a quick search of blogs dedicated to travel in any part of the world or look up your host country’s travel and tourism Instagram accounts and hashtags, and browse the pictures to see what catches your eye. When I was in Madrid, I made sure to follow up on Instagram and type in the search box anything I wanted to find in Madrid or neighboring towns/cities: #SegoviaRestaurants #MadridDaytrips #ToledoSpots, and piles upon piles of pictures by locals and tourists popped up with their recommendations, as well as dedicated instagram accounts to show you the best of everything that the city has to offer. Plan a route using the Google maps app, download any type of city transit tracker available in your area, and you’re on your way to discover more of your surroundings! Having my own joven abono card when I lived in Madrid really felt like having no limits to where I could go throughout city and a little beyond. Seriously, this thing cost me 20 euros each month, and I would be able to use the metro, buses, trains limitlessly…it was my lifeline and gateway to so many beautiful spots in and around la comunidad de Madrid.
Talk to your friends and family back home
Now, just because you are in a different country, getting settled, taking the bus back and forth to different parts of the city, doesn’t mean you should forget your family. Especially if you are Latino, you know just how bad your family wants to know your daily activities, who you’re with, what you did, what you ate and if you like the food por alla. Talk to them, let them know your progress, and tell them each milestone. Soon enough, every time you end the conversation with them, you’ll feel the pang of homesickness less and less because you’re starting to feel more comfortable about your area and the culture. You’ll also be excited to share everything you’ve learned with all your loved ones when you talk with them. As much as this helps you, it also helps your family to see how you’re doing and how much you’re enjoying the experience. You’ll be like a teacher to them, letting them know how you’ve adjusted, what you like about your host country (what you don’t like), what you’ve eaten, and where you’ve gone, which in turn will make you realize just how much you already know about your host country.
When I tell you to say yes, I mean be open to different experiences, possibilities, and exploring. You’re abroad!! You already said yes to leaving your comfort zone, which is a big accomplishment so keep that mentality going. If friends ask you if you want to hang out next weekend, say yes! If you get offered to try a new food item, say yes! If you get invited by a local friend to visit their village for the weekend, say yes! Of course, by encouraging you to say yes to many things, I also don’t think you should say yes to offers from people you barely met, on that first encounter…or maybe? I’m just kidding, but really use your best sense of judgment and take the opportunities as they come from the people you start to get to know. After the first semester was over at the school I was working a and after I had a few months of getting to know my coworkers, they started to invite me one by one to their little corner of Spain. Because I was invited to their villages and cities, I not only got to visit so many other regions of the country, but I also got to do it with my new friends and other amazing company. If I hadn’t said yes to invitations from my Spanish friends, I would not have discovered authentic hospitality, cultivated long lasting friendships, or gained deep connections and appreciation of the Spanish culture because I have amazing people and experiences to tie them to.
Remember why you’re there in the first place
Why did you go abroad to begin with? To discover a new culture? To meet new people? To get out of your comfort zone? Then do that. Keep doing that. Give yourself that opportunity to become challenged more once you’re there by setting small, manageable goals. Start out comfortably, and then work your way up. Accept invitations from your friends to meet up for coffee and a pastry, put yourself out there, go to events in your town/city to meet more locals and other people who are also abroad to discover more of what this beautiful world has to offer us. Find things to do, places to go, ask questions, keep an open mind, and appreciate where you are in that moment. Travel is a beautiful thing my friends 🙂
One of the important things to keep in mind is the fact that you as the traveler experiencing the change must want to actually want to adapt to the new culture. Attitude is key here, as it is in everything else that you do in life. I am confident that by having a positive and open attitude, trying new things, and considering the above suggestions, you will be on your way to not only enjoying your experience abroad but also integrating and picking up new routines and words into your life that you will be using even beyond your time abroad. Since coming back from Spain, I have felt an increasing urge to call friends and family “tio” and “tia”, even though all my life a tio and tia is what I call my uncle and aunt, and I have adopted olive oil wholly and completely into my diet more. I look at these as little souvenirs from one of the best years of my life 🙂
I know it sounds easier said than done, but if you become patient and you open yourself to your new sorroundings, the shock won’t be so harsh. As always, thank you guys for reading! If you’ve been abroad, I’d love to hear some of your tips on how you’ve adjusted to your new surroundings while being abroad in the comments below!
Hasta la proxima,