A First Time Traveler’s Guide to Culture Shock 

A First Time Traveler’s Guide to Culture Shock 

Hey y’all! My name is Amanda Voyles, and I am currently completing a marketing internship in beautiful Khao Tao Thailand! I am a first time traveler, and thanks to Greenheart’s First Time Traveler Scholarship, I get to live out my dreams of traveling the world, all while getting real work experience. Whether you have already booked your trip or are considering taking the leap, if you are a first-time traveler, this post is for you!

When you are planning on traveling abroad, one phrase you will hear a lot is “culture shock.” No matter how seasoned the traveler, everyone goes through some degree of culture shock when traveling for long periods of time. For first time traveler’s though, the effects of culture shock can be stronger, and the “typical timeline” is usually different than for those who have traveled before. While it may take someone else a few weeks to start experiencing culture shock, a first time traveler might go through a few different stages of shock all within the span of a week. 

Let’s get to the question on everyone’s mind. What exactly is culture shock? 

To me, the phases of culture shock kind of felt like the phases of dating, and experiencing a new culture felt similar to starting a new relationship. First, there’s the honeymoon phase, where everything is new, exciting, and wonderful. You want to be with this culture forever, nothing could ever go wrong, and you never want to go back home. The food is amazing, everyone is always smiling, and things move at a slower and more leisurely pace.

As we all know, the honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever, and the stage that quickly follows it is frustration. Everything that you used to love is now the source of your anger and sadness. You can’t find the food you want on the menu because it’s all in another language, you feel like you are always running late, and no one ever seems to express how they are really feeling. The smallest thing could trigger you, and all you want to do is go home to where not being able to find your sunglasses doesn’t ruin your entire day.

Luckily this stage doesn’t last forever either, and things start looking up in the adjustment phase. You start to feel more familiar with your surroundings, and you begin to establish friends and feel part of a community. You start getting used to the things that made you frustrated or uncomfortable and learn new ways to cope with your emotions.

The final phase is acceptance, where you feel like you can thrive and survive. This phase doesn’t mean that you completely understand and love everything about the culture, but you stop questioning or trying to change things, and you have the necessary resources to face challenges. 

This can be a confusing and highly emotional process, so to help you cope, I compiled a list of tips, tricks, and mantras to help you through! 

This was taken my first day in Bangkok as I roamed the streets in search of food. I quickly realized that most things were written in Thai, and little shops and markets lined the streets everywhere. This used to overwhelm me, but now I love it!

Tip #1: Repeat this phrase over and over. “Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

This is something that a fellow intern told me my first day at Rescue P.A.W.S., the amazing nonprofit I work for. You are going to experience and see a lot of things that are very different from your culture. My best advice is to embrace it; purposefully put yourself in situations where you experience the things that are frustrating you. The easiest way to get trapped in the frustration stage of culture shock is to pass judgment and assign right or wrong values to things that are different. If you repeat this phrase enough, not only will you believe it, but you will start celebrating the differences instead of dreading them. 

Tip #2: Your support system is there for a reason. Use it! 

If you are anything like me, you are stubborn to accept help from people, even when you really need it. You don’t want to feel like a burden or as though you’re complaining about things, and you think you can handle everything on your own.

Take it from someone who has been there, culture shock is not something you can get through alone. If I didn’t have my support system to vent to and get advice from, I would have booked the next flight home. Your coworkers, friends, and other people you meet during this experience have all gone through or are going through culture shock as well. They will be your sounding board, your voice of reason, and the people who will help you get through the tough phases of culture shock. Developing friendships and getting out in the community is the main way you get out of the frustration stage and into the adjustment period. 

Tip #3: Give yourself a break! 

You decided to leave everything you know behind and embark on an incredible adventure. You are challenging yourself in a way that most people never dare to. Don’t expect to be perfect the entire time you are traveling.

Try not to set impossible expectations for yourself; you are allowed to have days where you contemplate why you travelled in the first place and want to go home. Travelling to another country, especially one with a completely different culture, is a huge undertaking and requires a lot of courage. Remember to be kind to yourself. The only way you will grow and learn from this experience is if you allow yourself to.  

A few of my friends and I at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. A great way to get through culture shock is to experience the history and culture with friends!

Tip #4: Don’t compare yourself to others. Just don’t. 

All too often we find ourselves comparing every aspect of our lives to others. Whether you’re comparing yourself to someone you follow on social media, or someone you know in real life, this practice is dangerous. I’m guilty of it too. During this experience, I compared how I was handling culture shock to how others were. I asked myself things like “why can’t you be as positive as this person?” or “that person has gone through more than you and they aren’t struggling, so why are you?”

I started to think of myself as a lesser person because I wasn’t handling things as well as other people, but instead of motivating me to do better, it only made me bitter and want to give up. I only started making progress when I accepted my feelings as normal and focused on how I could make myself better than I already was, and not better than anyone else. This experience made me realize that comparison to others is the enemy of growth. 

The most important tip I can give you as a first time traveler is to continue to challenge yourself while traveling. We all need days to relax in bed and watch Netflix, but don’t let this become a normal day for you. You didn’t come all this way to give up now, so don’t let culture shock get the best of you. 

Amanda Voyles, from Tallahassee, Florida, is a Greenheart Travel First Time Traveler Scholarship recipientLearn more about Greenheart Travel’s scholarship opportunities to help you travel for a change!

Learn more about Amanda's internship abroad

Marketing Internship in Thailand

One thought on "A First Time Traveler’s Guide to Culture Shock "

  1. Jessica says:

    So exciting! So glad you are experiencing this! You are engulfed in learning and growing – happy for you!!! ❤️❤️❤️ Love that you’re sharing your experience as you go too! Enjoy your time there and like u said keep embracing all that is different! 🥰💯😘

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