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Dealing with Culture Shock When Volunteering Abroad

A graphic of question marks.

While most of my friends who have worked or volunteered abroad have positive, life-changing experiences, there’s always the risk that your trip may not go as planned.

After going abroad on seven different occasions, I’ve had my share of shaky adjustment periods, but I always ultimately benefited from the experiences. If you’re abroad and you’re having second thoughts, the first action step to take is to figure out what’s wrong. This can be easier said than done, because being abroad can bring up a wealth of thoughts and emotions that being at home doesn’t. Is there an issue with the program or work? Or are you experiencing something much more common – culture shock?

Dealing with culture shock

To assess if you’re experiencing culture shock, answer the following questions:

  1. What am I feeling? (Anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, exhaustion?)
  2. Who or what am I associating with these feelings? (A person, the organization, the host country, people in the host country?)
  3. Is there a particular trigger for these feelings? (An event, a statement, an inability to communicate, a living condition?)

Then, to address the issues, ask yourself:

  1. How am I coping with my emotions? (Sleeping, calling home, disengaging from the required tasks?)
  2. Are my physical needs met? (Am I eating enough fruit or protein, or something else I generally have at home but not in my host country? Am I having caffeine or sugar withdrawal? Am I sleeping enough or too much? Am I exercising enough?). Physical needs while being abroad are all too often overlooked, and often have the largest effect on our emotional wellbeing.
  3. Is there a way for me to gain a local perspective on my problem? (Talking with a friend or member of the organization? Researching the difference online?)
  4. Am I making any assumptions about my work or host country that might be clouding my perspective on the benefits of being here? (Do I think a task should be performed a different way – my way? Am I truly taking into account the needs of the organization or project?)

Examples of culture shock

Discomfort or frustration is often a sign of culture shock, and it’s worth digging deeper into the issue to understand the cultural bias you may be grappling with. Culture shock is generally categorized into four phases, but the most difficult of these phases may include feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, homesickness and depression.

This phase results in a natural desire to disengage the host culture. For example, you may want to sleep, get online to see updates about friends, or call home to talk with familiar voices. However, it’s the opposite behavior that will be most effective in helping you overcome, and in the best-case scenario, integrate your culture shock experience: You must engage the host culture – and if possible, specifically the triggering event. Engaging may mean talking with a person from your host country, attending a local event, taking a language class, or exploring your surroundings more in depth. To give you an idea of the range of culture shock indicators I’ve personally experienced, as well as the ways I handled the situations (or could have handled them), take the following examples:

A Different Pace in Accra, Ghana

Indicators: While doing HIV/AIDS education in Ghana, I initially felt frustrated and even anxious that we were spending only 2-4 hours per day touring schools to give lessons. The rest of our days were spent cooking, playing with the neighborhood kids, carrying water from the well, and taking periodic language lessons. These tasks seemed less important to me than our school outreach, and I thought we should be doing more work in the schools. I began to think the program I was working with was being ineffective, which made me even more upset.

Action: After several days of frustration, I decided to speak with the program director about the schedule. He was quick to explain that we were working as many hours as we could within the limitations of the schools’ schedules. He also explained that the activities we were doing outside the workday helped volunteers experience a small part of everyday life in our neighborhood.

Result: While speaking with the director, I realized that both my definition of work, as well as my sense of urgency, is a product of growing up in the goal-oriented U.S., and the strategies I would use at home to meet our project needs would not be effective in Ghana. I was also taking for granted the opportunity to learn more about the work tasks that composed everyday life for the people I was living near. After recognizing that the source of my frustration was my own cultural bias, I gained an appreciation for the difference in work styles and settled more comfortably into our routine.

A Violent Protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Indicators: On a regular trip to the gym via motorcycle taxi, I noticed a line of policemen along one of the bridges on our route. The route was much busier than usual; traffic was so packe`d that the driver had to physically push us through the crowd to reach the street. I knew something was wrong, but had no way of knowing just yet what had happened. The following day, the headline in the newspapers was about a garment worker protest that had turned violent, and one bystander had been shot and killed. Reviewing the details of the events, I realized I had been in the area within minutes of the shooting. I also saw that the factories the workers were protesting made clothes for international retailers where I had shopped many times. I felt vulnerable, angry, sad and guilty.

Action: In order to process these emotions, I brought the event up with my Cambodian students and asked them to talk me through the issues surrounding the protests, including the working conditions and pay in the factories. Asking my students to work through this with me was appropriate in this context because we already had regular weekly discussions about current events as ways for them to practice both English and critical thinking.

I also researched the issues online, and found an internship opportunity for my students with an activism organization working to improve communication between workers and managers in factories. I posted about the shock I was experiencing on Facebook, and received several insightful responses from friends. I also found a blog post about the event from another foreigner traveling in the city at the time, and commented on that post with insights I gained from my students.

Result: Seeking multiple perspectives – and most importantly, local perspectives – as well as being open about my fears and reflections helped me process that moment in a remarkable way. While I still feel grief about the tragedy, I’m able to contextualize it in a broader system, rather than blame an individual, or worse, a country for the many issues entangled in this event. I emerged with a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding labor costs and national politics, as well as the tensions between poverty and international investment on a community. I also experienced a dramatic and lasting shift in perspective on my own consumerist choices.

Buying Cheese in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Indicators: While my experience in Cambodia had clear connections to culture shock, often the trigger is more subtle. Near the end of a 6-month study abroad session in Argentina, I stopped by a grocery store that I had frequented to buy cheese. When I asked the man behind the counter for the cheese I wanted, he asked me to repeat myself. I repeated my request, adjusting my pronunciation of the vowels to hopefully sound more Argentine. He still looked confused. He called over another man to listen. I asked him as well, and he also didn’t understand. I pointed, said in Spanish that I didn’t know if I was pronouncing the name correctly, but did my best to show them the one I wanted. It was of no use – they laughed at our inability to communicate. Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming wave of helplessness and frustration and I needed to escape the store.

Action: I did leave – without purchasing anything – and found a private place to decompress. I now can clearly point to that moment as a culture shock experience, but at the time, I could only identify the anger I felt at the store employees. To process this experience in a constructive way, I could have asked my Argentine roommate to go with me to the store and teach me how to pronounce the word (and then bought cheese for us to share!).

Result: Had I engaged this small frustration in a constructive way, on the most basic level, I would have been able to buy cheese in the future and probably would have forgotten about the snafu altogether. But bringing up the issue in conversation with a local may have also opened the door to a broader cultural discussion. One time when returning from the same grocery store, I told my roommate with surprise that there was no milk left. She then let me know that farmers were protesting a new tax and that was the reason the milk supply was low. When you engage a local about an issue, no matter how small, it is an opportunity to deepen your understanding about your host country and culture.

There are countless other examples of culture shock, and I encourage you to assess your situation in comparison with other travelers’ experiences. For another take on the subject, check out this beautiful photo essay. For more tips on overcoming culture shock, check out this list.

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About the Author | Shannon Yarbrough is an interactive media specialist who believes education and accessible technology will change the world. She recently returned from volunteering in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the Harpswell Foundation, a leadership center for Cambodian women in college. Connect with Shannon on TwitterInstagramPinterst, and

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