Non Culture Shock: When Your Destination is Too Much Like Home
Most of us are full of anticipation and expectation when we travel. Above all, a key reason we travel is to find something that’s different to what we have at home: otherwise, to be honest, there’s really not much point going anywhere.
That’s perhaps the reason I went through what I like to call “non culture shock” when I arrived to work in south-west Germany. I’d spent the previous year working in the fascinating city of Bratislava, when Slovakia was still emerging from the Soviet era — it joined the European Union while I was there, so it was a time full of change. For two years before that I’d lived and worked in Osaka, and had fallen in love with the unique culture, landscapes and people of Japan.
Then I got to Germany and everything suddenly seemed so familiar. Sure, everybody was speaking German instead of Slovak, Japanese or English, but I’d studied German in school and could understand most of what was going on. In the supermarket, everything looked just like what I could buy back home in Perth. The menus in restaurants didn’t hold any particularly exciting secrets, the pubs could have been taken straight out of Australia, where we have just as much of a beer drinking culture as the Germans, and even the programs on TV seemed eerily reminiscent of what I’d been watching back home. (Yes, reality TV is bad in any language!)
After a month or so in Germany, I began to feel a bit bored and depressed. It took me a while to realize that this non culture shock was the cause. And it took me a while longer to work out how to deal with it. So if you, too, find yourself somewhere that’s just not as different to home as you’d hoped, here are some strategies that might help you out:
Look Deeply for Differences
Even two cities in your home country aren’t alike, so you just might have to search deeper below the surface to find out what’s special about the place you’re visiting. Ask locals for tips on a restaurant, museum or landmark that’s particularly unique for the area. Get hold of local newspapers and visit small events that aren’t generally frequented by tourists.
In Germany I found a photographic exhibition in a tiny castle in the next village; the castle’s owner was so surprised to meet an Australian that he spent several hours giving me a personalized castle tour and told me all kinds of interesting stories about the local history.
Narrow Your Interests and Specialize
It doesn’t matter if you’re staying somewhere for two days or two months, you will definitely find new and interesting things if you specialize your interests into one or two areas.
For example, if you’re a big soccer fan back home, you could learn all about the local soccer team, attend their training sessions and matches, find out about the players and the history of the team.
Alternatively, you might decide that you want to develop your interest in some kind of food that’s popular where you’re visiting. I’ll admit that I became fascinated with berries while I lived in Germany and went on hikes through the forest and mountains with older locals who could identify the myriad of fruits that were growing right in front of me. Before that most berries came from a can, as far as I was concerned.
Avoid the Familiar
While I think there’s virtually never an excuse to eat at an internationally franchised restaurant when you’re traveling, this is the most important time to avoid it. Even if the cuisine is similar to home, at least make the effort to eat in local establishments.
Similarly, you might want to spend time away from the internet and email, to try and put distance between yourself and home. If you take the chance to clear your mind and get a new perspective, you might find it easier to find the different and the interesting at your destination.
And finally, make doubly sure you’re getting out beyond the tourist zones. Resort hotels and shops the world over are beginning to look and feel identical, so make an effort to ensure you’re in the real part of town.
Relax and Enjoy the Ride
We all really take life too seriously sometimes. If you weren’t being stressed out by familiar surroundings, you’d be complaining about culture shock and not feeling at home. So just chill out and wait for the unique qualities of your destination to find you. Of course, the other option is simply to head home. Usually if you consider doing that, where you are will suddenly seem more appealing.