My experience with culture shock

Originally published on ExploreThere.

I was a mess. Cursing as I angrily scooted through notorious Taiwan traffic, I jolted to a stop at the 7-Eleven and kicked my kickstand down as hard as I could. Without taking off my helmet, I went inside, ignoring the greeting from the cashier, and headed straight to the goods. In moments I was at the register, staring down the cashier as my Pringles, Sprite, Fanta, M&Ms, and two packs of Hi-Chews were scanned. Once the transaction was over, I stuffed all my purchases into my tired, faux-leather purse and climbed back aboard my two-wheeled transportation.

Within minutes I was letting myself into my apartment, then into my room, where I lay on my bed, checking Facebook and mindlessly consuming my feelings. Soon I was fighting back tears, and then I was crying. Pathetic, gaping-mouthed, wrappers in both hands, crying like my world was ending.

Several pounds later, I finally figured it out: culture shock. My emotions were as predictable as the weather and often changed even more quickly. The one book I’d read that would supposedly help me with my transition assumed my family had moved with me, and it was about as helpful as a hangnail. I’d quote its sage words, which were written back in the nineties, but I threw the book out during one of my “angry at the entire world” fits that come with culture shock.

It wasn’t until I Googled “culture shock” that I finally figured it out. There are four stages, but they’re not a magical staircase I climbed at an even pace until I reached Perfectly Adapted Foreigner Status. I catapulted from one extreme to the next, one minute angry, the next unbearably sad, and the next relatively happy and civil.

It was a mess I had to go through. Once I stopped feeling guilty for my culture shock and allowed myself to handle it however it felt best, I began to feel better. I met others going through the same emotional turmoil and had a group of supportive friends who held my hand through the most difficult times.

Moving to a new place is starting a new relationship, except one partner does all the compromising. For some people, it’s the perfect fit; it’s the relationship they’ve been searching for, and they fall in love. It takes a few tries for other people to find the right relationship and settle into their comfortable love.

My first love was Austin, Texas, but it wasn’t meant to be forever. Austin taught me more about who I was and who I wanted to be. I love that city, and I always will; maybe, one day, I’ll return. Hsinchu has taught me more than I ever expected, but it’s not meant to be forever. It’s a healthy, but challenging relationship, and some days are more emotionally draining than others. I have no way of knowing where my perfect relationship exists, and I’ll likely go through culture shock again no matter where I move, but hopefully next time I won’t self-medicate with sugar and caffeine.

12 comments

  1. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth schlepping all the way to Taiwan for a short holiday. Is there an email address at which I can trouble you?

    1. I could definitely give you pointers on where to go and what to do. The only problem is that I won’t be able to play tour guide – my time in Taiwan from now until I leave is booked solid! Is that okay?

      1. Oh absolutely, I’m just looking for information right now. I’ve not yet even figured out which continent I’ll be taking my holiday in. But long story short, I need to make up my mind quickly. These questions should cover the major concerns:
        1) How hard will it be to find vegan food?
        2) Will I be able to get around the big cities using English? Are they set up to take tourists (e.g. public signs, understandable maps, public transit coverage)?
        3) How long would you recommend for a stay in Taipei? Is Kaohsiung worth the travel? Is there any other place I should really look out for? For what it’s worth, I have a short attention span and tend to enjoy cities far more than natural scenery.
        4) Is it completely safe to walk around by yourself, even after dark? If there are bad parts of town, are they limited in number and likely to be out of my path as a tourist?

        1. 1. There are quite a few vegetarians, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to follow your vegan lifestyle here. The Taiwanese use every part of any animal they consume, which means lots of chicken broths, random animal parts in dishes, etc. Your best bet would be to stay in a large city like Taipei, Kaohsiung, or Taichung.

          2. Taipei is a piece of cake. The metro is extremely easy to navigate and will get you within walking distance of nearly anywhere. I haven’t visited Kaohsiung yet, but I think Taipei would be the best choice for ease-of-navigation.

          3. Taipei has a lot to offer. You could get in all the major sights in a week. Taiwan is primarily “touristed” for its natural scenery, so if you’re looking for more architectural wonders or city life or history… I’m not sure if Taiwan would be most enjoyable for you. Hong Kong is a really vibrant, buzzing city, also very easy to navigate – plus, you’re close to Macao. Beijing, too. Lots of history in both places. I’m not trying to say you wouldn’t enjoy it here, but between your preference for city life and your vegan lifestyle, they’re just suggestions.

          4. Taiwan is incredibly safe. I go out alone a lot. You won’t feel unsafe, and there’s likely no situation in which you’d find yourself feeling nervous… unless you get in a taxi with a really adventurous driver. Guns are illegal here, and there are gangs, but they tend to leave non-gang members alone. People are polite and helpful, especially when you’re kind and smiling, too. Even the poorer parts of the cities are safe. The most dangerous aspect of Taiwan life is the traffic – like getting hit by a car – but if you’re careful, you’ll be fine.

          1. Thanks, that was very helpful. I’m currently leaning towards Seoul, but I may throw in another city in the region if I can find a good fare.

            1. I’ll be heading to Seoul sometime this summer to visit a friend. You could look into Shanghai – my friends who’ve been loved it. And there’s always Japan, which is an incredible country.

              1. Beijing, Shanghai, and Tokyo are among the four cities I’ve not been to that I most want to see. (Vancouver is the fourth. The Pacific is far from here.) I’ve finally decided that there’s no way I’m ever going to have the time to see all I want to of East Asia at one go. Taking two weeks to really see Japan will cost me an arm and a leg. I’ve not got anyone to travel with this summer, and China sounds intimidating alone.

                So what does that leave? My only previous trip to Hong Kong came when I was about 8, so I don’t mind going back if I can find the right ticket. I love skyscrapers, and it’s where you find the largest number! Getting to Taipei seems harder than it should be, especially since I will have to be done with my visit there in three weeks, for visa reasons.

                In South Korea, there is only one part of the country really want to see, and yet a trip to the DMZ could increase my country count by two rather than one. Plus I can be there and back again in under a week, so I can consider scheduling my visit for next month, before the monsoon gets really bad. So it’s looking like a winner right now. But if it falls through, I can always supplement my photoblog with shots from Tunisia or Turkey instead.

                  1. Tickets booked: I get to Seoul in two weeks, and will break my journey home in Hong Kong. Excitement!

  2. I felt very similarly when I lived in Prague for 4 months. The back and forth is exhausting, but by the end of it, I had to gear myself up for re-entry shock! Those 4 months in Prague were some of the best I’ve yet to experience 🙂

    1. Oh, Prague. I’d love to live there, at least for a while! Taiwan has been nice, but I’m ready for something new, even if it means culture shock all over again. 🙂

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