Coping with culture shock

Jess wants to visit Vietnam but her husband is a bit concerned about culture shock. Leon offers some simple tips to help him overcome his fears.

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Q. Jess
Loved your articles about Vietnam when you went last year and now I’m planning a holiday with my husband and I want to go there for a week, and also visit Cambodia and Laos. But my husband hasn’t travelled much and has only ever been to England and reckons he’s worried about being in such a strange place. Do you have any advice for him?

A. Culture shock is not uncommon. I remember how nervous I was about my first overseas holiday, which was to the United States, where you’d expect things to be relatively similar to here, but on a much larger scale.

Well, my trick was to go to a smaller city first (Boston), to acclimatise to the scale of the States. But on my first night in New York, I just wanted to hole up in my hotel for the night because the city was so overwhelming.

People experience culture shock in different ways. Sometimes it’s the size of a city, or the amount of people in it. Sometimes it’s the people themselves who worry travellers, but most often it’s the little things, such as food, getting around and basically, anything unfamiliar.

But that’s what makes travel so rewarding, amazing and fun and, well, just awesome.

Meeting those challenges makes the memories.

It wouldn’t be an adventure without challenges.

The trick to coping with culture shock is to remember that all travellers go through it in some way. It’s normal. Just don’t let it become debilitating.

I always take a few things away that make me feel like I’m home. A good novel on the bedside or in my bag distracts me if I get overwhelmed. I’ve had the same stainless-steel lighter for years and it goes with me everywhere. It’s a good luck charm but it also keeps me grounded. I have other good luck charms, too: a necklace made for me by Northern Paiute tribe in Nevada and a survival bracelet made by a kid while he had leukaemia (he survived, so it has to be lucky!). These things are like an earth rod for me when I travel.

Maybe your husband has something like this he could take along.

Also, the best cure for culture shock is to dive into exploring your destination. The novelty of the new will quickly override any fears. Allow him to vent if he needs to, but also point out all the positive things going on around you. Commit to discovering the culture and you’ll quickly be imbued by it.

While his first reaction to most experiences might be to say ‘no’, encourage him to say ‘yes’ (or do it for him). The sooner you immerse yourself in the culture the quicker he’ll get over his concerns.

Connect with people, talk to the locals, ask the hotel staff about their favourite places, find out where the bartender drinks. Living like a local will make you feel like less of an outsider and you’ll be more receptive to your destination.

Find variations of some of the things you love doing at home and do them at your destination. You may love galleries or museums, so look for those places in Vietnam. Encourage your husband to do the same.

Have projects. In Vietnam, mine was finding a locally brewed Indian Pale Ale and, while I had low expectations of finding one, the mission gave my daily travels a fun purpose and you know what? I found two, one of which was in the unlikeliest of places.

The language barrier may be a hindrance, but I can tell you that in Vietnam, you only need to know a few words, such as hello, thank you, yes and no. Do a bit of study before you go and ask the locals how to say these things.

Also, I must say that Vietnam is a wonderful country and the people are so receptive and super friendly. The place itself has so much to see and do, so you won’t be short of activities. The food is great and the beer is pretty good (and both are cheap).

You couldn’t pick a better place to go.

This advice worked for me and plenty of people I know, but everyone is different. I hope you find at least one pearl that gets you and him over there – it will be well worth it.

Can you offer Jess any advice to help her husband get over culture shock?

If you have a Travel SOS question, send it to [email protected] and we’ll do our best to answer it, or find someone who can.

Related articles:
Leon at large in Vietnam
SE Asia should be on your radar
Roaming through the Mekong

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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