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You Eat That? How to Prepare Yourself for a Culture Shock

One of the most common experiences for people moving internationally is the culture shock.  How do you get over a craving for a certain type of food from home?  What will you do if you get lost? What if you can't speak the language -- and need to? What can help when you feel out of place -- but you don't know why? 

When faced with a new environment, just about everyone experiences some degree of culture shock, and the bouts of depression that usually accompany it.  The key for you before your international move is to develop strategies to deal with it before you face it, especially if you are going overseas for a long time.

The first step is simply recognizing it.  You might be in a place where everybody speaks a different language.  Maybe you're having a hard time understanding the local sense of humor.  Culture shock can even be a recurring problem -- after years in a new situation, certain words and actions can send you into a tailspin. 

You don't need to make culture shock a bad thing, and recognizing that you're experiencing it can help you deal with it.  "Culture shock is a necessary part of adaptation," says Patricia Linderman, co-author of "The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad." If you do not feel culture shock at some point, she says, you are not truly adapting to your new situation. 

Culture shock varies from person to person. 

You might feel better if you can talk to another person who has had a similar experience.  Find expats from your country and share "war stories." Write or email others who have traveled – just knowing that others have survived culture shock can lessen the blow. 

Or you might want to spend some time alone.  Stay home and read a book, or exercise by yourself.  You can also try to find a location that feels comfortable to you.  Look for places like restaurants that serve familiar food, or movie theaters showing films from home. 

But the longer-term fix is to understand the culture that is "shocking" you.  At the root of all culture shock is being unfamiliar with it. Once you begin to learn about a new culture and its people, the surprise fades. 

Linderman suggests "taking things slowly, gradually venturing out to meet people and explore."  Befriend native co-workers and acquaintances; read up on the history and traditions of your location; visit important local landmarks and destinations; try out different dishes and find a new favorite among them.

Culture shock is an unavoidable part of an overseas relocation.  It is, however, also part of a successful transition to a new environment.  If you work on ways to ease the severity and shorten the length of the culture shock, you will find that you begin to feel more comfortable.

Laurel Brown is the author of articles on health, diversity education, history, and astronomy.  She has a background in international and outreach education, editing, and observational astronomy. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the history of science.

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