What “Culture Shock” Means to Me

Holly Gregory is a student at Central Michigan University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Meknes, Morocco.

Before I left for Morocco, my school’s study abroad department, ISA, and other study abroad students warned me many times about this concept called “culture shock.”  I listened and I prepared myself, but since it was my first time going abroad I had no concrete idea of what “culture shock” would be like for me.

I expected culture shock to set in soon after I arrived to Morocco, but this wasn’t the case.  I was so fascinated by the language, scenery, food, and foreign atmosphere that I can honestly say that I was perfectly content for the first week or so.  But as I settled in and found myself with some occasional free time, I started feeling this “culture shock” thing.

So what is culture shock, really?  It’s setting a countdown timer on your phone in the middle of week two called Homeward Bound with an airplane emoji.  It’s video chatting your mom and wanting to be sitting next to her on the couch watching Judge Judy.  Culture shock is the urge to snuggle your cat and lay in your own bed and watch Criminal Minds on CBS.com (fair warning: most shows on CBS aren’t available online in Morocco).  It’s wanting to ask someone on the street how to get to the supermarket without confusion.  Ultimately, culture shock is a subtle yet constant longing for the familiar.

Here’s the thing, though: culture shock is all of these things while having the time of your life.  The absence of your favorite TV show paired with a language barrier when talking to locals is the perfect formula for enriching experiences.  Because I have learned to embrace this, culture shock hasn’t been a big problem for me, nor do I think it will become one.

My Homeward Bound countdown timer on my phone says that I have 12 days, 3 hours, 50 minutes, and 20 seconds until I begin my journey home.  This is helpful because, while I am looking forward to going home, it reminds me that I need to enjoy the time that I have here in this new, foreign place.  It reminds me that once I am back home enjoying the things I miss now, adventure will be tugging at my sleeve yet again.  Considering this, I would revise my previous definition of culture shock to “the infinite conflict between a desire for the familiar and the urge to travel and have new experiences in a new place”.

Everyone’s experiences abroad are very different, so no two perceptions of culture shock will be the same.  For instance, I am only in Morocco for five weeks, so my life abroad might feel very different than that of someone who is in a foreign country for an entire semester.  Nonetheless, I hope that this helps future study abroad-ers conceptualize what their experience of culture shock may be.  My final word of advice is to remember is that no one is ever alone in feeling homesick, lost, or scared while abroad.  If you are feeling this whole “culture shock” thing set in, your peers probably are too and it is okay to talk about it.  Most importantly, never hesitate to reach out to your local site staff.  Here in Morocco I often go to the ISA office and do homework, relax in the air conditioning, and chat with the site staff about anything and everything.  It is a reminder that, even though I am in a completely new and different place, I have a “family” and a “home” to come to.

Children play in the narrow streets of the Medina of Meknes.
A shopkeeper sits among his colorful wares in the Medina of Meknes.

No matter what “culture shock” is for you, make sure to make the most from your time abroad.  Enjoy and grow from the things that make you uncomfortable (like the language barrier in Morocco) just as much as you enjoy those that you can’t stop snapping pictures of (see both photos of the Medina in Meknes above).  That way, you’ll return home with a confidence and appreciation for the world that you didn’t have when you left.

The world awaits…discover it.

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