The first few weeks in a new country are some of the most memorable and exciting that you will have. It’s incredibly romantic full of new and strange experiences that will make you rethink your concepts of what is normal. Even ordinary day to day tasks like going to a corner store to buy a snack can become extraordinary events.
Thing is, a constant stream of extraordinary events can also become quite stressful. Culture shock is a real thing, that, if not dealt with properly, can overwhelm even the most optimistic travelers. No matter how prepared you may think that you are to come to your new country of residence, the reality of being there is something quite different.
Read on for five tips on how to deal with culture shock when you first arrive in your new country.
Tip #1 You Don’t Have to Do It All in the First Few Weeks
This isn’t a holiday after all, if you have moved to a country for a TEFL job it is likely that you will be living there for one year or more. You likely have an enormous bucket list of things that you want to do in your new TEFL location, but racing through them will not only cheapen the experiences, it will also unnecessarily stress you out. Yes, you should start interacting and learning about the culture from day one. No, you shouldn’t feel like you have completely lost your own identity.
It’s perfectly acceptable to spend the odd night in doing familiar things (e.g. Netflix, reading books, cooking, etc.). You may even find that doing so helps you to reflect on your new experiences and thereby making them more memorable. Either way, when you are in a new and unfamiliar setting, you want to be at your best. Staying in from time to time and getting your head straight will help with this.
Tip #2 Learn Some Language Basics
Yes, you can get by without knowing the language. There are probably some people who understand a bit of English. Also, simple pointing and gesturing will get you pretty far. That said, pointing and gesturing with constant misunderstandings, while fun and interesting, will also add to your culture shock.
Starting to learn the language basics of your new country from day one, will not only help you in your daily life, it will also help you to empathize with your new students. When you start to understand the major differences of your language and theirs, you will become much better at error correction and planning thoughtful lessons.
Tip #3 Hang Out with People That You Wouldn’t Normally Be Friends With
Get out of the house! I know that this seems to contradict my first tip, but you will remember that I mentioned the “odd night in”. Over the years, there have been a number of teachers that I’ve known who couldn’t quite hack the traveling life. What often happened is that they sort of locked themselves in their houses and only came out when absolutely necessary; each time the outside world became scarier and scarier.
When you first arrive, you probably won’t know anyone. You’ll need to rebuild your friend network from scratch. While it’s easier to keep in touch with friends and family these days, you will still want to start making friends as soon as possible that are physically present. My advice, when anyone asks you to hang out in the first few weeks, is to say yes. Be open to new experiences and different types of people. By going out and meeting people, you will eventually find your tribe.
This is advice that I received when I first came abroad and I took it. While the first week I was hanging out with an oddball fifty year old man (sweet man, but odd), by the second week I’d met a group of friends that I’ve kept in close contact with for over a decade. One of them is my wife!
Tip #4 Get Ready for Your Job
First things first, you probably won’t have a lot of time between first arriving in the country and starting to work. TEFL centers usually hire because of an urgent need and probably want you to start as soon as possible. Unless you are lucky, this probably only leaves you a week or so from your arrival in a new strange land until your first day on the job. Get ready for it.
Try to get your home in working order so that you can come home after a long and stressful day and feel comfortable. You won’t be living there forever, so I don’t mean fully furnishing the place. Get some simple decorations up, get a bed, get your toiletries in order, get enough work clothes, etc. If you’re going into a shared housing situation, get to know everyone and familiarize yourself with the “house rules” so you don’t feel awkward.
Similarly, get to know your immediate surroundings both at the place you’ll be working, and your home. Look for cheap restaurants. Look for a nearby supermarket. Look for a bar that you’d be comfortable hanging out at and not getting lost on your way home (scary in the first week). The sooner you are able to make it feel like home, the sooner you’ll get rid of culture shock.
Tip #5 Give It Some Time
For better or for worse, the culture shock that you feel when you first arrive in a new country will go away. Humans, especially TEFL teachers, are incredibly adaptable creatures. If you actively engage with your surroundings, and take part in the culture where you live, the things that once seemed strange will become ordinary.
On my way to work today, I took several alleyway shortcuts on a motorbike. Upon seeing some fresh jackfruit, I came to an immediate halt turned off my bike and haggled with an old woman to get a decent price. I threw the jackfruit on my lap and continued driving past a large funeral procession where a band played loud joyful music and old men in white carried the remains of their friend or family member in a something that looked like the ark of the covenant. This, for better or for worse, didn’t seem the least bit odd to me anymore.
In general, I’d say the best way to get over culture shock is to try and embrace it. Don’t be too hard on yourself when things seem more difficult than they should. Keep an open mind and follow the tips above. If you do so, you should be just fine.