“When you travel overseas, the locals see you as a foreigner, and when you return, you see the locals as foreigners.”
Why Do Long-Term Travelers and Expats Abandon Dreams
Culture Shock and Travel Burnout
What Are the Four Stages of Culture Shock?
Almost all Fifty Plus Nomads sometimes will feel overwhelmed, depressed, or homesick. If these feelings continue over a week or more, you may have what experts call “culture shock.”
Experts in culture shock typically report that most people who live or travel abroad experience four stages in adapting to their new country or lifestyle. Here are the four stages in order:
Stages of Culture Shock
- One: You are in love with your new life, enjoying the new sights and sounds, and even sometimes begin to dislike your homeland.
- Two: You start to understand that being a Fifty-Plus Nomad has flaws and get tired of adjusting to a new way of life. (Usually begins after 1-3 months)
- Three: You often yearn for home and regret your decision to become a long-term traveler or expat in the first place. (This typically lasts one to three months):
- The Last Stage: You begin to accept the trials and joys of being a Fifty-Plus Nomad.
People frequently go through more than one stage simultaneously. The time frames listed are typical, and many people go through them for longer or shorter periods. Sometimes, it takes people up to a year to reach the last stage.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made (and seen many other Fifty-Plus Nomads) is not anticipating culture shock. If you don’t recognize it, you may unnecessarily return home too early or spend too much time in stages two or three.
My Experiences with Culture Shock
If you anticipate culture shock, you can work through it. When I was a volunteer English-as-a-Second-Language teacher in Kaliningrad, Russia, I got over “culture shock” by:
Seeking Out Familiar Experiences
- Seeking out familiar sights and sounds from home. If you, like me, find yourself in a place with very few people and businesses like home, take short vacations to more Westernized areas. I frequently took short jaunts into Warsaw, Poland (200 miles away) to eat at places like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut that felt like home. I also ate ethnic foods (Thai, Mexican, and Korean) that reminded me of my life in multicultural cities in the USA;
Seeing Things with a New Perspective
- Realizing that it would pass. As you’ll see later, I let culture shock interfere with my time in Cairo, Egypt, and decided to return home early. Only, to my later regret. After this incident, I haven’t decided that again. I kept reminding myself when I was in Russia of my mistake in Egypt. This remembrance kept me from going home earlier than I should have.
- Accepting that Russians were different from Americans. Oddly, my first impression of Russia was that the place was more like the USA than I ever expected. However, as I got to know the language, customs, and people, I felt more and more like I’d moved to the other side of the Earth. After a couple of months, I began to dislike Russians. They seemed overly concerned with saving face and appeared more competitive, collectivistic, and brusque than my compatriots.
- As time passed, I began to look for things I could admire about Russians. It wasn’t that hard once I tried. Russians are generous, intelligent, talented, and beautiful people. I also realized that since Russia was a vast country with many differences between people, I should stop expecting everyone to act the same way. Once I found things to admire and started treating everyone as an individual, I liked the country. Eventually, I married a Russian, and while it did not work out, I will always be grateful for the time I spent with her and her family in Russia.
Asking for Help
- Asking other volunteers for help. Since I was part of an established volunteer group, I talked about my sadness with our director. She gave some of the best advice I’ve ever heard about culture shock: “Go out and try to have fun. Don’t stay at home. Try to get invited to parties. Go to bars or discos. Take a class in something fun.” I followed her advice and let my hair down. It worked wonders!
Expert Advice on Overcoming Cultural Shock
While these strategies worked well for me in addressing culture shock, here are a couple of other approaches from experts in culture shock that are also worth consideration:
- Celebrate holidays like you would at home. The worst time to be plagued by culture shock is during the holidays. You will miss your family and traditions. However, you can also use this to your advantage. Work hard to get invited to another expat’s home. (Often, they volunteer to host other Americans during the holidays). Or even invite your neighbors over to partake in the holiday. (This can be a great way to make some friends in your new country).
- Take up a hobby. Ideally, this hobby will be something new so that you can share a laugh at your awkwardness with other novices. Studying a new hobby can also be a great way to meet non-expat locals.
My Culture Shock Mistakes
Culture shock, unfortunately, plagues most people who live or travel abroad for more than a couple of weeks.
In some people, culture shock manifests in a desire to avoid going outside the house. In others, intense homesickness can be so debilitating that it creates physical hardships (like stomach pains).
Culture shock in the past for me resulted in what I consider the worst disease a traveler can catch: excessive stinginess. Here are a few examples of my stingiest and most embarrassing moments on the road:
- When I was in Russia, they had a double pricing structure for foreigners and residents. While this pricing system is standard in many countries, it is nowhere near as prevalent and unfair as in Russia in the 1990s. (I understand it is much less today). It cost 20-40 times as much for a foreigner as a Russian. This discrepancy angered me to no end. One day, I went with my ex-wife, Nina, to a church in the Kremlin in Moscow. She paid 40 cents, and I coughed up $7.50 to enter. I blew up at the little old lady ticket-taker. I told her this was unfair; I’d lived there for a year, made a Russian wage, etc. She would not budge. Nina looked at me and said, “Paul, calm down; there is nothing you can do about it. It may be unfair, but you are making a fool of yourself.” I thought about it for a few minutes and realized she was right.
- For some reason, the whole week I spent in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, in 1991, I was a real cheapskate. At the airport, I went to the tourist desk and bought a package with a hotel and a free private tour of Prambanan. (Prambanan and Borobodur are among the world’s best-known Hindu and Buddhist temples). I liked the tour guide, Eric, during our visit to Prambanan and Borobodur and contracted with him to visit the Deng Plateau for $70. I was not fond of the Deng Plateau much, paid Eric $65, and left no tip (I thought he had made a commission off of a puppet that I bought with him and that he should rebate the commission to me). He said he wanted to use the money to buy his wife a birthday present, and now he couldn’t. To make matters worse, I’d promised him that I’d send him some old Spanish textbooks and could not because I had lost his address. I didn’t budge and have regretted it since then.
Culture Shock Caused My Biggest Travel Regret
Besides, excessive culture shock caused one of the decisions I regret most in my travels. In 1984, I was a student for a semester at the American University in Cairo (AUC) as part of my college’s study abroad program. I was supposed to stay a year but returned after a semester, and I regret it.
I left because I did NOT:
- Want to fight cab drivers to go to school cheaply. (Egyptians, at least then, tended to charge foreigners five to ten times as much as Egyptians).
- Do very well academically because I traveled rather than studied.
- Work as hard as I should have. I erroneously thought that AUC would be easy. As it turned out, the
Egyptian students were probably as well, if not better, prepared academically than me. The teachers were also quite academically demanding.
Reverse Culture Shock
One of the biggest mistakes for most expats is that it can be challenging to return home after spending a lot of time abroad.
Most expats report that it is much harder to return home than it was to adjust to living in the first place.
The longer you stay abroad, the harder your readjustment to your home country.
Why is Reverse Culture Shock So Hard?
Living and traveling overseas changes you in many ways. You adopt certain traditions for your adopted country. (For example, after years abroad, I wouldn’t say I like it when the restaurant staff gives me a bill before I am ready to leave. Also, I wouldn’t say I like keeping my shoes on when visiting friends’ homes.
You also see the world differently. Most Americans and Canadians, for example, report shock at the fast pace and the over-commercialization of life in the US and Canada. After living without many luxuries for a year and a half in 1990s Russia, I was overwhelmed when friends seemed excited about a new car or computer.
Moreover, your home country changes while you are away. Most of your friends at home have different jobs and significant changes in family status. (Such as marriages, divorce, children, etc.,) In addition, your home country’s values and culture changed while you were away. Don’t be surprised if everyone is talking about unfamiliar TV shows, movies, books, etc., or your friends or family’s values seem different than before you left.