In the weeks leading up to my arrival in Oviedo, it seemed that the majority of my conversations tended to revolve around my upcoming trip. And just like those ads on Facebook and Instagram that insert themselves in the center of your feed, the topic of culture shock kept working its way into every conversation. Now, before I make the impression that I’m bashing those who warn of culture shock, I want to clarify myself. Culture shock is a real thing, and yes, there are some travelers who struggle with it more so than others. However, at times I feel like culture shock is painted in a very negative light. Some describe culture shock like being thrown into a freezing cold pool and expected to tread water. However, in my experience, culture shock is more like a refreshing splash to the face with lukewarm water that makes you perk up and say, “oh… alright.” With this post, I hope I can help to alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with traveling.
I would say that the majority of culture shock is very small and practically unnoticeable unless you look for it. For me, a great example of this was the lack of garbage cans in Spain. For my first couple of days here, I was fighting a cold and constantly blowing my nose, so I was always looking for a place to throw out my tissues. However, unlike the United States where there are large garbage cans on every street corner, in every room, and within every ten feet of a tourist attraction, it was an effort to find a garbage can. Additionally, the garbage cans in Spain are much smaller, and are not lined with plastic bags. Nevertheless, having less garbage cans was certainly not the end of the world. Most of the culture shock I have experienced so far is similar to this in that differences are generally trivial and play little role in daily life. Another well known example is that Europeans don’t eat french fries with ketchup. Granted, that means that when I do ask for ketchup at a restaurant I may get strange looks, but neither ketchup nor a strange look are important enough to me to mind.
A stronger shock came for me when out to eat with my group of Temple students. For our main course, the chef brought out an entire roasted pig. Then, as part of the presentation, he took a ceramic plate and proceeded to smash the pig’s back, neck, and head as to show that the meat was fresh and tender. Many of my classmates jumped at the sight and even screamed while I watched intently. Hey I was hungry! The program director had told us there would be a surprise, but I was certainly not expecting that, and by my classmates’ reactions I could tell they weren’t either!
Unfortunately, many people are apprehensive of travel because they fear that cultural differences will put them in situations that can be embarrassing or uncomfortable. However, this is far from the reality of being a foreigner. Part of the experience of traveling abroad is the lessons that culture shock can teach you about your own culture. For example, the lack of garbage cans made me realize how truly wasteful American culture can be. Additionally, the demonstration with the pig helped me understand how removed we are as consumers from the source of our food. At times, culture shock is a bit uncomfortable and can be a bit embarrassing, but at the end of the day, we are all human. Even though our world is divided into a million different cultures, they all belong to a single human race. One of the biggest joys of traveling is the realization that no matter where you go, there will always be more similarities between people than there are differences.