Published 9th December 2015

Culture shock

So, you’ve found a job, got the visa, booked the ticket, packed your bags and you’re ready for the adventure of a lifetime teaching English as a Foreign Language. Congratulations on getting this far! Doing a TEFL course is certainly an investment of both your time and your money, but soon you’ll realise it’s worth every second and every cent.

You’re probably super excited, but also maybe a little bit anxious. Don’t worry, this is normal. Getting involved in TEFL means that you should expect the unexpected, so it’s only natural to be a bit nervous about embarking on a journey that is like nothing you’ve ever done before. There are few jobs which offer you the opportunities for travel and personal growth which teaching English abroad does, while also giving you the flexibility to work and live on your own terms.

Read more: 7 Unexpected Outcomes of a TEFL Life

But yes, it’s a lot.

To help you deal with this, it’s a good idea to take a moment and think about what lies ahead of you. You’re probably going to a new country where you won’t know many (if any) people, won’t speak the language, and won’t be familiar with the lifestyle and customs around you. You may even find yourself overwhelmed when you arrive, rather than excited. Again, this is normal. In fact, you may find yourself experiencing culture shock.

The stages of culture shock:

Culture shock is the feeling a person may experience when they find themselves in a completely new, different environment from the one they are used to. It truly is a real phenomenon and many people who travel because of TEFL (or any other reason) may find themselves experiencing culture shock to some degree. Culture shock consists of a number of different stages.

The honeymoon stage

The first stage – commonly known as the honeymoon stage – is when you first arrive in a country and everything is new and exciting. While your new lifestyle is perceived as different, any differences are seen in a positive light and are appreciated.

For example, Talia moves to Bangkok to teach English. She arrives at her new apartment in her new city and she is totally in love with the sights and the smells and the heat and the people!

Shock

The next stage is shock, when the honeymoon stage ends, which it always does. At this time the differences are no longer seen as fun and exciting but are more frustrating and irritating. Language barriers, a different lifestyle, social customs, and a lack of social connections all contribute to making you feel very lonely and homesick.

By now Talia has lived in Bangkok for a few months. She longs for a bit of rain, a decent hamburger, and some peace and quiet. The traffic to get to work is now irritating more than interesting, and the fact that she can’t communicate with the taxi drivers is not so amusing anymore.

Acceptance

However, when this stage passes you will find you are more accustomed to your new circumstances – possibly even know how to speak the language – and you find your situation more normal. You will be open to finding new friends and experiencing even more new adventures, so you will enjoy your time much more.

Talia has now made a few friends – foreigners who are also TEFL teachers, as well as Thai friends. She can speak a bit of Thai and getting around is much easier than before. She has found out where the good Western restaurants are when she’s tired of green curry or rice soup, and she no longer thinks it’s weird to eat omelette and rice for breakfast.

Read more: 3 Ways to Learn the Local Language

Integration or acculturation

The next stage is a stage not everyone reaches. Sometimes you will find yourself in a country that you just can’t get used to. Many people, if they are very unhappy, will go home at this point in time. Other times, you’ll find that after a while you feel like you’ve been living there your whole life and you don’t ever want to leave!

Talia went to Thailand for a gap year, but when it got to the end of the gap year she couldn’t comprehend leaving. So she didn’t. A gap year turned into a gap five years.

Culture shock. Man solo travelling

Re-entry shock

The final stage of culture shock actually takes place when you go home. Living abroad is a weird time warp. When you go home you will expect your friends to be the same as they were when you left, and they will expect the same of you. Except that both of you have changed in many different ways – as a person and in terms of life stages.

When Talia finally decided to go home (just for a visit) she discovered that the majority of her friends had gotten married and had kids and were settled in their careers. They couldn’t understand her choice of lifestyle, and she couldn’t relate to theirs. Of course, with true friendships, this wears off and things return to normal, but other friendships may not survive – and that’s ok. Besides, Talia only went home for long enough to find a job in another country!

How can I cope with culture shock?

The first thing is to recognise that culture shock is a valid process. If you’re feeling down or lonely or frustrated, don’t let that make you book the next available flight home. Give yourself some time to get comfortable. Having a positive attitude is a must. Be good to yourself and spoil yourself by having new experiences which wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. Try to learn at least a few words in the language, as this will help you feel more at home, and it will help you make new friends.

Keeping in touch with your friends and family back home is a must, so take advantage of all the different methods of communication we have at our disposal these days. (But don’t let your relationships back home interfere with you making new ones abroad.) If all else fails, Skype home and ask your mum to send you a parcel with all your favourite goodies from home!

Read more: Motivation and Culture Shock