What’s the Deal with Culture Shock?

Image shows the famous Paris-Orleans Clock

I jolted awake, drenched in panic. Where was I? The shadowy cavern with its modest frills and enormous windows was not my bedroom. Oh right. Paris. I was in Paris. In the midst of a jet lagged slumber, I forgot. Clueless hours of trying to navigate the city and unsuccessfully locate any sort of meal led me into a starved coma until that moment. The sound of a warped siren thundered through the Rue de Rochechouart propelling me into consciousness. Nervously glancing at the digital clock on the nightstand, the mute glow of 2:00am barely registered through my fogged vision. The siren was the sound of my nightmares- the sound, I imagined, was derivative from a haunted carnival, full of evil clowns- killer clowns. Was it an ambulance? Was it a fire truck? Was it the police? I wasn’t sure. I burrowed under my pillow and softly wept while my hotel roommate snoozed. The first day of our college travel writing class trip, and I was already pummeled by unfamiliarity, terrified to use my pitiful language skills, and yearning for the comforting security of home back in the United States. It was my first trip abroad. It was the delusional moment I thought I hated Paris. It was my first foray with culture shock.

Albeit preferable, I did not barricade myself in the hotel room for the rest of the week-long trip. After all, I was in Paris. Plus, the exorbitant trip deposit was non-refundable. As a college student, this scholarly Parisian excursion already caused a huge deficit in my meager ramen noodle budget. Therefore, I ventured out into the foreign realm of fancy language and endless accordion music. If you have seen The Wizard of Oz, you may recall the moment Dorothy landed in Munchkinland, where she- mouth agape- slowly absorbed and processed the eccentric, new world. She was not in Kansas anymore. That scene lightly resembles culture shock- the disoriented feeling of being in an unfamiliar place or experience.

Reflecting on that college trip over a decade ago, I realized how little I had actually prepared myself for traveling abroad. Sure, I bought and studied the Frommer’s guide to Paris. I knew all about visiting the Louvre, avoiding petty theft, or asking for the nearest restroom in French. What I failed to realize was that beyond the pretty travel photos was an actual culture that completely differed from my own.  No twenty-four hour pharmacies?  What happens if I feel sick at night? I did not know that it is considered rude to ask a server to alter a meal order or that it is standard practice to say, ‘Bonjour’, even to strangers.   I was completely oblivious to the nuances that shape normal french life, of which even as a tourist, I would be forced to confront- even the mere sound of emergency sirens prompted panic.

Culture shock affects everyone differently, and that is okay. For me, the first few days of unfamiliarity and over-stimulation were crippling. Leaving my bed was frightening. Fortunately, I was accompanied by a group of classmates who mostly seemed to adjust to the environment and encouraged me to leave my comfort zone. Once I realized that I was safe, got a feel for the culture, and accepted that I would fumble speaking French, I had an experience that would be the precursor to one of the most definitive periods of my life. Had I let anxiety and fear dictate that trip, I would never know the pleasure of cracking a warm, crusty baguette alongside the Seine, or the serenity of losing myself at the Luxembourg Garden, or the thrill of haggling with an artist at Place du Tertre.

Here is my advice if you are traveling to Paris, or abroad in general: do some research. Travel guides are great, but they are just that- guides. You will only find the most topical information. Instead, explore the internet- find writers and blogs that describe personal cultural experiences in greater detail.  I list some of my favorites right here on this blog. Talk to friends, family members, colleagues, or acquaintances that have recently traveled.   Peruse social media- you might be surprised at how revealing a picture can actually be. You could stumble on a dish you want to try or discover a nook worth investigating. Or perhaps the opposite- you could determine the places, meals, or experiences to avoid, which would afford you a more enjoyable experience. Familiarize yourself with the culture as much as you can prior to the adventure. If you arrive and find you are severely disoriented, try to let it pass. Take deep breaths, explore, and do your best to persevere. Traveling is a jewel, and you are its keeper.

  1. Diane

    August 20, 2016 at 2:50 am

    Hi there, it’s really scary experiencing something big like a trip abroad for the first time. The sounds, the language, the new surroundings… it can all be so overwhelming, so great tip about researching. My first trip abroad was as a 16yo high school student to France and Spain and I returned not liking Paris at all. That’s since changed. 😉 I think my worst culture shock was being jolted awake to morning prayer at the nearby mosque in Morocco. So loud and I had no idea that would happen so early. Was really scary and I didn’t know what it was at first! Thankfully my friend knew and then the next day we were used to it. Phew!

    1. Jessica

      August 22, 2016 at 9:07 am

      Hi Diane! Oh boy, that would jolt me awake in a panic too. I’m glad you were able to surpass it!

  2. Dennis Smith

    August 26, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    We have become great fans of Rick Steves books, tv shows and the like. while he not only talks about the places he does touch on how to learn to travel which I have found helps

    1. Jessica

      August 30, 2016 at 1:57 pm

      Rick Steves is great! I too enjoy watching his shows. Regular travel guides are definitely helpful, but there’s only so much information provided. I love reading travel blogs, as they provided a more personalized and thorough experience.

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