Most Fifty-Plus Nomads spend a lot of time and effort planning the logistics of their adventure. As a result, there are thousands of books, blogs, websites, podcasts, etc. dedicated to helping find the best hotel, restaurants, sights, etc. in a destination.
Generally, however, the most important thing that Fifty-Plus Nomad should research is how to adapt to their new lifestyle. It is, for this reason, that I prepared my course: My Four Most Important Travel Lessons.
None of these lessons has anything to do with travel logistics. Instead, the course addresses issues like adjusting to a Fifty-Plus Nomad lifestyle and being open to outside-of-the-box experiences. It also talks about some of the challenges of life on the road such as justifying your lifestyle; overcoming church overload and backpackers’ syndrome, and addressing loneliness and too much together.
The more I travel, the more I’m convinced that successful Fifty-Plus Nomads are above all else experts at recognizing and addressing culture shock. Therefore, I decided to highlight the following lesson from my Four Most Important Travel Lessons course on my welcome page.
As you will read below, my biggest regrets come from culture shock. Moreover, in over five hundred interviews, I discovered that culture shock played a role in almost every serious problem that fellow Fifty-Plus Nomads encountered as well.
¨When you travel overseas, the locals see you as a foreigner when you return you see the locals as foreigners.¨
Almost all Fifty-Plus Nomads, at times, particularly those who decide to live in another country, will feel a bit 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 will 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 trying to adjust to a new way of life. (Usually starts after 3-4 months).
- Three: You often yearn for home and regret your decision to become a Fifty-Plus Nomad in the first place. (This stage usually lasts for 1-3 months).
- The last stage: You begin to accept both the trials and joys of being a Fifty-Plus Nomad. People go through these four stages at different times.
Often Fifty-Plus Nomads report that it takes six months to a whole year to go through all these stages.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is not anticipating culture shock. If you do not do anything about it, you may decide to come home too early or remain in the second or third stage for much longer than necessary.
Reverse Culture Shock
One of the biggest surprises for most Fifty-Plus Nomads is that it can be difficult to return home after they have spent a lot of time abroad.
In fact, most expats report that it was harder to adjust to their home country after a prolonged absence than it was to adjust to life in a new country.
The longer you stay overseas, the harder the readjustment to your home country.
Living and traveling overseas changes you in many ways. You adapt certain traditions from your adopted country. (For example, after years abroad, I don’t like it when restaurant wait staff give me the bill before I am ready to leave. I also dislike keeping my shoes on in 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 a lot of luxuries for a year and a half in Russia in the 1990s, I was overwhelmed that friends seemed so 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 values and culture change 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.
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 sights and sounds from home. If you, like me, find yourself in a place that has very few people and places that are 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 McDonalds 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 U.S.A.;
- 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!;
- 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 U.S.A than I ever expected. However, over time, 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 they appeared more competitive, collectivistic, and brusquer than my countrymen;
- As time went on, I began to look for things I could admire about Russians. It wasn’t that hard once I tried. Russians are generous, smart, talented, and beautiful people. I also began to realize 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 individuals, I began to like the country. Eventually, I married a Russian, and while it did work not out, I will always be grateful for the time I spent with her and her family in Russia.
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. (Many times, 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 from 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.
Regrets, I Have Had a Few
Culture shock, unfortunately, plagues most people who live or travel abroad for more than a couple of weeks. In some people, culture shock manifests itself in a desire to avoid going outside the house. In others, it is intense homesickness that can be so debilitating that it even creates physical hardships (like stomach pains).
Culture shock in the past 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. 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 was charged $7.50 to enter. I blew up at the little old lady ticket-taker. I told her that this was not fair; 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 didn’t like the Deng Plateau much and paid Eric $65 and left no tip. (Because 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 that he wanted to use the money to buy his wife a birthday present and that now he couldn’t. I didn’t budge and have regretted it since then. To make matters worse, I’d promised him that I’d send him some old Spanish textbooks and could not because I lost his address.
Culture Shock Caused My Biggest Travel Regret
Besides, excessive culture shock caused one of the decisions I regret most in my life. 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 scheduled to stay there for a year but decided to come back after a semester and regret it to this day.
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 thought erroneously 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.
When I came back, I almost immediately knew I’d made a mistake. The moment I got off the plane in Saint Paul, Minnesota (my college’s location), I was depressed by the snow outside and yearned to return to the warmth of Cairo. I did not feel comfortable with American culture anymore, and most of my friends had made new friends.
I began to realize that I:
- Had met some excellent students from all over the world at AUC and that I would miss them terribly.
- Regretted not taking AUC seriously.
- Was in culture shock in Egypt. My problems would have passed if I had given it more time.
My semester back in the US was a disaster. I was depressed and lonely and would have been better staying at the AUC. Egypt was a hard time, but it was also exciting and challenging.
Want to Learn More About My Four Most Important Travel Lessons?
The above lesson Culture Shock is from my class: My Four Most Important Travel Lessons.
The class talks about why I love my life as a Fifty-Plus Nomad because I have learned five lessons on the road. The five lessons include:
- Mixing different types of experiences (independent, group tours, and learning and volunteering programs);
- Traveling to different parts of the world (Emerging and Developed Countries);
- Avoiding Travel Burnout: Church Overload and Backpacker’s Syndrome; Loneliness; Too Much Togetherness; Dealing with the Foreigner Tax: Paying More as a Foreigner and Justifying Your Lifestyle and
- Having a home base