It’s happened to anyone who has ever spent a significant amount of time living, working or traveling abroad. One minute you are on a lovefest with this new country, wide-eyed and googley for the sights, sounds and people. Even the dirt and chaos seems endearing, little quirks that make a place special and almost human in their imperfection. Then out of nowhere, someone switches the soundtrack. The dust seems thicker, the noise seems unbearable, and you find a cockroach in your kitchen. You start looking around with that heart-sinking feeling – Where am I and what am I doing here?
The first time someone got up in front of me at a pre-departure training, drew a squiggly line on the board and tried to explain the highs and lows of culture shock it struck me as somewhat comical. So, what you’re saying is it will be the best of times and the worst of times? Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying. Oh, so it’s a lot like life then. But the real value of this lesson is not when you’re sitting comfortably in anticipation, ready to embark on your next big adventure. It’s when you’re three weeks in and it finally hits you that you won’t see your dog for another 5 months. Or your bed. Or Game of Thrones (seriously guys, please stop Facebooking about the Red Wedding. I assume everyone dies but can’t stream it here).
What I’ve realized is that giving this feeling a name actually helps. It’s the same reason doctors give names to useless things, like phobophobia, literally the fear of phobia itself. It helps to put a label on something. Somehow calling “it” culture shock makes this thing known, treatable and common enough to earn a place in the travelers’ lexicon. It means we’re not alone, that countless of internationals before and after us will experience this, and that you will get over it.
After self-diagnosis, reaching out to the best people ever back home (you know who you are – thank you) is the first step out. Although I wouldn’t recommend it longterm, lying to yourself can also get you through those impossible moments, like when a mouse runs under your restaurant table halfway through a meal, or when the local in line behind you hands over half as much cash for the same widget you just bought. A more mental-health-friendly approach is to appreciate the small things, like my co-worker who brought in fresh lychee from his home district yesterday, or the incredible mountain views I get to stare at over my laptop at work. My next strategy is planning a trip outside of Kathmandu, in hopes of rekindling love with a new part of this country I now call home.
This time I really promise my next post will be about work and landmines, you know, the reason I am here and where I spend the majority of my time.