When I moved to Guanajuato, Mexico from Ottawa at the age of 26, I loved it.

At first, everything about moving to a new city was so cool, so interesting, exotic and rich and new and omg, ah-mazing (gimme a break, I was 26). Soon I found a place to live and a job, and the weather started warming up.

It was right around then that I started hating it.

I was sick of the food, the language, the everything. I wanted ginger ale, cheddar cheese, pickles, and to be able to do my laundry myself rather than walking it down the street to the place where they put it on a giant scale, charged by the kilo, and hung it outside to dry (and for the whole block to see). More than anything, I just wanted to go home.

Why? Two words, friend:

Culture. Shock.

Culture shock is the gut punch you feel when the novelty of a new place rubs off and the strain of dealing with so much newness starts to wear on you. Humans only have so much energy for new stuff. We don’t realize how much we rely on what we know, like daily routines, familiar faces and knowing where to go to get the damn oil changed, until it’s gone.

Culture shock is sneaky, learn to recognize it

We might not realize it’s the reason we feel so exhausted, so irritable, so fed up. Lots of people blame it on other things. What I hear most often is people claiming the new city is just no good, especially compared to wherever they came from.

But blaming struggles on the new place is usually a mistake. Moving is hard, adjusting is hard, almost no matter where you go, and every place has the building blocks for creating a great new life.

So how do you know if culture shock is what’s getting you down? Symptoms include:

  • Anger
  • Boredom
  • Compulsive eating/drinking/weight gain
  • Desire for home and old friends
  • Excessive concern over cleanliness
  • Excessive sleep
  • Feelings of helplessness and withdrawal
  • Hostility towards people in the new place
  • Impulsivity
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings

Culture shock isn’t just for big international moves, either.

I’ve heard stories of culture shock from people who moved from Edmonton to Toronto, Quebec to Edmonton, Edmonton to Texas… just because some basics like language are similar doesn’t mean there aren’t a million little things that are different (how the school system works, public transit, street naming/numbering, etc.) and throw you off your game on a daily basis.

The big risk of culture shock is that some people never get past it.

Some give up and go home, but studies have shown that they’re not likely to be happy there, either. As they say, you can’t go home again.

Others turn inward, withdrawing from all the newness and strangeness and becoming really isolated.

There’s a version of this where they seek out little groups of people from back home and only associate with them, never really integrating into the culture of their new home. The academic term for this is “cultural enclaves”, and my friends who work in immigrant serving agencies see it a lot.

I saw it in Mexico, too, where a lot of my fellow expats would just hang out with each other, speak English as much as possible, and carpool to the nearest city where you could get products from back home.

This is pretty much the worst case scenario, to turn your back on the new place and its people and try to stay in some version of the place you left. It’s not a full life, and it means you’ll miss out on all kinds of opportunities to grow and build the wonderful new life you deserve.

On the other hand, you don’t want to totally assimilate either, trying to turn into a native of the new place as if your past culture didn’t even exist.

How to manage culture shock

culture shock, moving to a new city, loneliness, starting over

Even though I love Mexico, culture shock made me hate it for a while

The ideal is to achieve balance between adjusting to the new place while hanging on to the old stuff you really love. Be adaptable, basically.

That way you retain your uniqueness while achieving a sense of belonging and comfort in the new place.

In Mexico I eventually achieved full fluency in the language, grew to actually prefer dropping my laundry off for someone else to do, and embraced the beauty of a real taco. I made Mexican friends I still have to this day, and they made my time there so much richer.

But I also kept some expat friends and took comfort in their company because there were things they understood that Mexicans couldn’t. Like how much better baked goods are back home, for example.

(Sorry, Mexico, but desserts are not your forte. Calling jello ‘gelatina’ on every restaurant menu isn’t fooling anyone, it’s not fancy).

It’s natural, it’s ok to be frustrated and have negative feelings about the new place.

Vent, complain to friends back home. Treat yourself maybe a little more than you normally would, knowing that you’re going through something really tough and tiring. Allow yourself a few weeks or even months of that frustration.

It can be just a rough patch on your way to being a cool, engaged and fulfilled part of your new community, as long as you don’t stay in it too long. Beware of getting trapped in that rough patch, though.

Never forget that culture shock should be a temporary state of affairs.

Don’t let it stop you from moving forward, from learning the new things, from pushing on outside your comfort zone. Don’t give in to that temptation to withdraw. Go slower if you need to but keep going.

If you do, you will get past the exhaustion, the anxiety, and the frustration and end up with a life you love, full of people you love. A life that might even be better than the one you left behind. You might have to go through culture shock but you don’t have to let it hold you back forever.

Of course this blog and everything else I do are all here to walk alongside you and help. I want to help you break on through to a rich new life and community. Sign up here to get my emails and make sure you know about every little thing we have to offer you.

Please also pass this on to anyone else who might be going through culture shock. Share directly or to your networks. Help us reach more people who could use a hand.

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