Embracing culture shock: How it shapes you for the better

  • culture shock
Published on 2024-06-11 at 14:00 by Natallia Slimani
Moving to a new country almost always comes with a set of shocks. You may run into them right away or several months and even years into your stay. Out of all the shocks of an expat journey, culture shock is the most known and talked about. There are lots of resources online that will tell you how to manage culture shock, typically labeling it as something negative and unpleasant. But what if the culture shock you are experiencing is actually making you raise your own standards? It turns out that for some expats, culture shock can be a push.

What exactly is culture shock?

You step off a plane, and everything seems a bit off-kilter. You don't speak the language, the food tastes different, and even interactions with people seem unfamiliar. This disorientation (which often comes with a mix of excitement and anxiety) is what we commonly call "culture shock".

In most cases, we would use it to describe situations when there is some sort of opposition between the comforts that we are used to and the struggles we face in a new environment. However, sometimes, the culture shock we are experiencing may be caused by the new environment setting higher standards for us than the ones we are used to.

When culture shock makes you a better person: Japan

Arina traveled to Japan to learn the language. She wasn't expecting any major surprises, as she had previously studied both Japanese language and culture back home (in Belarus). And, true to her expectations, a lot of things about Japan seemed already familiar. Arina quickly got used to the food, daily commute, and the flow of her language classes. But then she noticed something. "I found myself being much more polite and mindful of other people's space and comfort. I wasn't an impolite person before. But in Japan, politeness is almost "extreme." People treat each other with a lot of respect and care – and it doesn't matter if they've met before; it could even be a quick one-off interaction on the train. I didn't notice how this changed me. I wasn't doing this on purpose. But when people treat you a certain way, you tend to reciprocate. I hope I take this new quality back home".

In Japan, politeness and mutual respect are not just social niceties – they are deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Part of this can be attributed to Confucianism. Even though Confucious never taught in Japan, his teachings have been present in the country since the 5th century C.E., and have developed into Edo Neo-Confucianism - a popular philosophy from 1600 to 1926 C.E. Confucianism places a strong emphasis on harmony, respect for elders, and the importance of social order – and has had a profound effect on Japanese society. 

In fact, one of the core concepts of Japanese culture is "wa," which means "harmony". Japanese people attach a lot of value to maintaining peaceful and harmonious relationships in every sphere of their lives – be it family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.

Japan also has a collectivist society, which means that the interests of the group are prioritized over personal desires. Politeness is a way to demonstrate one's respect for the group and society at large.

When culture shock makes you healthier: Spain

Youcef relocated to Valencia for work. He had frequently traveled to Spain before, and the country didn't feel new to him at all. That is, until he woke up at 6am one day and saw three of his neighbors jogging. "I never noticed just how many people were running on the beach in the morning. I don't think I paid attention to this before. And then I started noticing more things. Many of my colleagues would bring their own food for lunch, usually something "healthy" and homemade. And nobody ever wanted to order fast food with me. People were windsurfing, hiking, and doing yoga; everyone had something going after work. It took me some time, but I got in on the fun. I started watching what I eat, caring about food freshness and I will even jog from time to time".

Spain is committed to the Mediterranean diet. It's more than just food, it's an important part of Spanish culture. Recognized as one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet includes a lot of vegetables, grains, oil, and lean proteins like fish and chicken. Eating in Spain is generally a leisurely family affair. People like to get together for a later dinner and drinks with quality homemade food and eat and chat into the night. The concept of "fast food" is much less popular in Spain than in a lot of other countries.

When culture shock is good for the environment: Sweden

Dimitry moved to Sweden after being a long-term expat in China and was surprised at how environmentally-conscious his new community was.

"I moved to Sweden after living in China for a long time. And I don't want to sound negative, but in a lot of China, sustainability is barely an afterthought. Of course, a lot of people try – but it's not really something you focus on there. When I first moved to Sweden, I couldn't believe how conscious everyone was of the environment. And it wasn't words or motivational posters. It was more about small, everyday things. Everyone sorts their trash, everyone saves water, and public transport is all about low emissions… I'll be honest: it felt too much at first. I wasn't used to having such a big part of my life be about the environment. But if you want to be part of the community, you need to adapt. I am still not quite there yet – but I am so much more aware of everything I do and the impact it has."

Sustainability in Sweden is not so much about sweeping policies and grand gestures. It's more about daily habits that have now simply become part of life. However, the legislation is also catching up. As of 2024, there is a law in Sweden declaring that everyone must separate their food waste  - and this applies to both businesses and households.

When culture shock makes you happy: Thailand

John moved to Thailand just like many U.K. expats do (his words) - "on a whim". "I honestly didn't have much of a plan. A couple of mates of mine from college went to Thailand and really enjoyed it. And I didn't have much going on in the U.K., so I followed. And, like many Brits do, I quickly found a job teaching English. At first, I looked at it as something I would be doing for just a few months till something better comes along. I have a degree in accounting. But it's been two years, and I don't want to change anything".

During his time in Thailand, John felt his life slow down. But he didn't expect to like it. "I was a very stressed person in the U.K., for no reason, really. It may sound cliche, but in Thailand I learnt to enjoy life, regardless of the circumstances. I was working with this teaching assistant, a Thai, and every time I was getting angry or stressed, he would just say something like "just have fun instead". I didn't pay attention to it at first, but now it has become almost like a mantra for me. Thailand showed me that it's okay to enjoy very small things".

There is a concept in Thailand called "sanuk". It describes a philosophy that focuses on finding fun and enjoyment in the simple things in life, no matter how mundane they may be. So, whatever task Thai people are doing or whichever situation they are in, they will try to make it "sanuk" and approach it with lightheartedness and a sense of humor. For expats, this may be a difficult concept to practice – but if you do manage to get the hang of it, you will have a much better understanding of Thai society.

As we can see from the above, culture shocks can, indeed, be different. Sometimes, they signal a discomfort that we are not used to. But sometimes, if we pay attention, they may actually reveal areas for improvement that we never considered before. Have you ever experienced a culture shock that challenged you to a positive change?