If you’ve looked into going overseas, chances are you’ve come across this phrase before- “culture shock”. People often wonder what to expect from it, how to cope with it, or how to avoid it entirely. Culture shock has been made into the looming, uncomfortable con of education abroad. While it is a very real part of travel, it by no means has to be a negative aspect of it. I found that it became one of the most important forces contributing to the adventure and personal growth I encountered while studying in Thailand.
When I started my search for education abroad programs one thing I was looking for specifically was culture shock, oddly enough. I didn’t really want to step outside of my comfort zone; I wanted to smash it into little pieces and run as far away from it as metaphorically possible. I pictured that as riding elephants through thick jungles, or getting lost in a labyrinth of city streets— rather specific and embarrassingly uncreative ideas of what my first experience outside the country would be like. It didn’t take long for me to begin understanding the confusing, intense, and laughable experience that is culture shock. Once I stepped off my plane, all of the sudden I had the cultural understanding of a newborn baby; I was a very, very blank slate. I didn’t even know how to say “Hello” and for a second, I found that mildly terrifying. It could have sent me into a hyperventilating puddle of homesickness, but instead I found myself laughing as I walked through the airport. Have I ever not known how to greet someone? When was the last time I had to ask someone how to eat or dress or speak like an average person? I found that this “shock” was not so much that as a complete, and sometimes intense, awareness of everything happening around you.
Trying to erase the handshake from my muscle memory was difficult, but making the locals I met laugh every time I forgot, was pretty fun to see. I perfected the art of eating everything with a fork and spoon, and eventually gave up trying to defend our American habit of eating rice with a fork— come on guys, it just doesn’t make sense. Ordering coffee in Thai every morning was a victory and walking to class through my jungle of campus with my friends was an adventure in itself. Sometimes a regular day could be overwhelming or exhausting, because I couldn’t stop thinking about things that I would at home. The constant unfamiliarity is where this new culture can become heavy, it takes more effort to readjust rather than break down. I got to experience every day, seemingly basic things that we often overlook for the first time. I couldn’t just zone out because essentially nothing was natural anymore.
I think the never ending newness of being in another country is what makes education abroad the transformative experience that it is. To let other cultures shock you, but to stick around long enough for it to become a part of you.
Photos and written by Lizzy Southard
Lizzy Southard is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador. She is a sophomore studying International Studies, and she participated in a UK Partner program (The Education Abroad Network) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.