Culture Shock: Home Edition


Before studying abroad, we all had to attend a meeting at school to learn about culture shock. Now granted, this was more important for the students who would spend whole semesters in places like Japan or Costa Rico, but for me – preparing to kick up my heels in Italy for one glorious month – it didn’t seem necessary. I was completely sure I would never experience this emotional overload, and I was right… at least for Italy.

Here in Iceland on the other hand, I began experiencing culture shock within the first week, even on the first day. Here’s the thing though: it had nothing to do with Iceland. In fact, sometimes I kind of forget I’m even on an island in the North Atlantic. This is a culture shock I could experience just as strongly in any American state, even on the very street where I grew up.

When you have been raised in a very particular style, and you have almost no long-term experience with any other style, finding yourself in a home run almost oppositely of what you are accustomed to can be… well, an adjustment. That’s my diplomatic version of the situation. If you knew my mother, her rather strict parenting methods, and her love of cleaning supplies, you are probably already nodding in understanding. But let me be a bit more direct:

The shock lies in finding myself surrounded by young children who have been raised much more freely than I was. Who don’t have the same appreciation for certain things that I had, nor the same adherence to certain rules and standards. It lies in trying to feel at home in a house drastically different than I lived in all my childhood. A house much more “relaxed” to put it nicely; “disastrous” to put it as Mother Dear would have.

None of these changes have to do with being in another country. Iceland (and Europe as a whole) is not some primitive, under-advanced nation without modern conveniences. Their lifestyle is extremely similar to its small-town American counterpart. They drive on the right side of the road, they watch sports and cartoons on TV, they run to the convenience store when they are out of milk. English is so commonly taught that I haven’t even bothered learning basic Icelandic phrases. They even have peanut butter!

Nor is there anything wrong with the lifestyle of this household. They are comfortable and happy, the kids are sweet and very intelligent. Just because I was raised differently doesn’t mean they are being raised incorrectly. It is however, an adjustment. One much like the stages of culture shock.

We learned in that class three years ago that there are four stages to culture shock: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and mastery. Not everyone experiences them all, and they could change in order or at least duration. In this instance, there was very little honeymoon stage. The frustration set in quickly and continued to expand. Technically, I’m still in this stage, but in the two weeks since I originally began writing this, I’ve been able to blend in a lot more adjustment. I really don’t expect to achieve mastery in this particular instance, although I can certainly aim for that.

Let me note that this kind of culture shock – the adjustment to living in someone’s home and experiencing life with them, no matter what kind of life it is – is the exact reason why I chose to travel with Workaway. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who will go through culture shock as a result of a foreign country (at least not a European one). I’m simply too realistic about the negatives in advance… plus I always end up feeling very at home in European cultures. However, I am definitely going to experience culture shock in every new home I enter, guaranteed. That’s a big part of why I am doing this. Wandering around a foreign city, riding the train in the countryside of another nation, living in hotels and hostels – none of that is stepping out of my comfort zone. I love that stuff. That is my comfort zone. Settling into someone else’s established home life on the other hand… that’s hard for me. I’m a very private person at home, I’m an introvert, and I need quiet time by myself to recharge so that I can be around people again. A small house with four young kids in it is not ideal for that. We all share one bathroom. My bedroom is also their playroom. There is no privacy or quiet as long as they are home and awake. And I have to learn to deal with that until mid-July. That’s stepping out of my comfort zone. That’s stretching myself. And that’s what is going to lead me to learn and grow.

So what is your comfort zone? Do you struggle being immersed in a language you don’t understand? Are you most at home in your own bedroom? Do you cringe at the thought of living on a farm or living in a crowded city? Why not take a shot at something new, something you never thought you would do? You may end up surprised by your own reaction.

If you are considering long term travel, I highly recommend using a program like Workaway. It’s one thing to see another country, and another thing entirely to live with other people. Whether you are an extrovert, a lover of kids, a great conversationalist, or just a quiet introvert trying desperately to move past the frustration, it will challenge you, and you will change for the better.

In four weeks, I’m off to a new country and a completely different host, and the culture shock will start all over again as I try to settle into her home. Maybe it will be easier, maybe harder. Regardless, I will have great stories from my time in Iceland and in my host’s home, even if I never “mastered” the exact lifestyle lived within this house. Building character is not supposed to be comfortable, but it will always be an adventure. Step out of your comfort zone – for real – whatever it may be, and see where adventure takes you!


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