Culture shock is inevitable. Whether you’re traveling within your own country or internationally, you will experience moments that spark anxiety. Especially as a solo traveler, this is NOT easy to overcome! But the good news is – you’re not alone!
Here’s how I managed to navigate culture shock when moving to Thailand on my own!
While traveling, I came across a sign that read, “Don’t be annoyed if we can’t speak English; we’re not upset that you can’t speak our language in our country.”
1) Embracing cultural humility
Cultural humility is “a process of self-reflection and discovery,” where a person maintains an open mindset towards another’s cultural identity (Yeagers & Bauer-Wu, 2013). When embracing cultural humility, a person reflects on their “filters” (one’s upbringing that’s shaped their perception of the world), while upholding a willingness to learn from others’ cultural backgrounds.
Prior to entering Thailand, I knew absolutely nothing about the country other than their fame for exceedingly spicy food. Honestly, I didn’t make any effort to learn about their lifestyle and values before heading off; I was caught up in the sheer excitement of living abroad.
- What behaviors are perceived as respectful and disrespectful?
- Are there any colors I should wear or avoid wearing?
- Is there a cultural norm of attire I need to follow?
Those are just a few of the MANY questions that arose when I arrived. Was I truly prepared to immerse myself in this foreign lifestyle? Had I considered personal factors that would influence my experience abroad? Was I only focused on sharing my American customs with the Thai students? Or was I open to being influenced by their values, culture, and lifestyle?
A shift in mindset: culture shock to cultural humility
When I first arrived at my apartment and saw the bathroom, I was SHOCKED. I asked the owner, ” … where’s the shower?” Turns out, it was behind the door about 3 feet from the toilet.
My first few weeks living in Thailand were clouded with culture shock:
- “I will PANIC if a snake comes up through the toilet” (this actually happened to someone I knew)
- “How can you even shower in here without getting everything wet?”
- “Wait … you’re telling me FROGS can jump through these pipes??”
- “This bathroom will never reach my standards of clean.”
Back home, I had a typical American bathroom – a bathtub with a sliding door, a shower head with multiple settings, a toilet, and a sink with a good amount of counter space. My Thai bathroom was compact with the sink, toilet, and shower all within an arm’s reach of each other.
Four months later, I found Thai bathrooms to be incredibly efficient! Having everything within reach made my nighttime routine so much quicker!
I’ll admit I was dramatic in assuming everything would get wet, because in actuality – it didn’t. Sure, the toilet got sprayed, but it wasn’t a big deal because in the morning, everything was dry.
And when it came to cleaning the bathroom, it was SO quick and easy! After wiping down the sink and toilet, all I needed to do was spray some cleaner on the floor and use the trusty bum gun to rinse it. How easy is that?! Back home, it took at least an hour to clean the bathroom. In Thailand, it took no more than 15 minutes.
My initial culture shock sparked an underlying feeling of superiority – this is the bathroom?! What I have at home is so much better! But is it really all that better? Or simply a difference in lifestyle that I could learn from with a humble mindset?
Developing cultural humility showed how my filters of having an American bathroom hindered my perception of using a Thai bathroom. No culture is “better” than another. Living with a Thai bathroom taught me I don’t need an abundance of counter space, or a multi-functional shower head. Through cultural humility, I came to love living a simplistic lifestyle!
2) Working through ethnocentrism
None of us are immune to the sudden shock of unfamiliarity. Growing up, we all subconsciously develop an ethnocentric mindset that triggers an assuming response of superiority (like my initial encounter with the Thai bathroom).
Ethnocentrism is “the process of judging another culture exclusively from the perspective of one’s own,” otherwise believing a person’s own way of life is superior to another’s (Sawe, 2017). American social scientist, William G. Sumner, claimed ethnocentrism fuels one’s “vanity, contempt of others, and pride”, believing their lifestyle trumps anything different (Sawe, 2017).
My encounter with the Thai bathroom proves that ethnocentrism subconsciously filtered my view when introduced to the unfamiliar. We are so quick to assume that our habits are the norm, when in the grand scheme of things, they may not be.
Recognize how ethnocentrism influences your perception of new cultures
When doing laundry, I learned that dryers were a rarity since importing them was quite expensive. I couldn’t imagine air drying socks and underwear – wasn’t that a long gone part of history?
To me, dryers are an essential part of laundry! I mean, not only do they save time, but they play a crucial role in keeping your clothes soft and lint free (for the most part).
Then it hit me – I’m actually privileged to have both a washer AND dryer in the comfort of my home. Growing up with them ingrained the assumption that everyone had them at home, and if not, went to the laundromat where both were provided.
This specific privilege fed into my ethnocentric outlook at the time, where I thought their way of doing laundry wasn’t as good as mine. I thought it was sensible to have both a washer AND dryer … wasn’t it?
Similar to my bathroom story, I learned the practicality of air drying in Thailand. The Thais took advantage of their hot and humid weather by air drying everything. So why invest in a machine that’ll do what the environment does in the same amount of time anyway? Funny how many foreigners condescend the rarity of dryers in Thailand, when back in America, people are praised as “going green” for doing the exact same thing.
Overcoming culture shock as a solo traveler through developing cultural humility out of ethnocentrism does not happen overnight. However, recognizing that we each have a cultural filter influenced by our surroundings is one small step towards embracing a willingness to learn from others’ differences.
Acknowledging the influences of our upbringing and beliefs is vital in appreciating differences (as opposed to allowing them to divide us) when interacting with cultures worldwide.
Whether you’re visiting a country for the first time on your own, or moving to an unfamiliar place alone, learning how to deal with culture shock is critical! Not only does it ease your transition to experiencing new customs, but also allows you to recognize that there is so much to learn from others if we humble ourselves.
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Sawe, B. E. (2017, August 9). What is Ethnocentrism? Retrieved April 2, 2020, from https://www.worldatlast.com/articles/what-is-ethnocentrism.html
Yeager, K. A., & Bauer-Wu, S. (2013, November). Cultural humility: essential foundation for clinical researchers. Retrieved April 2, 2020, from https:www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23938129