How I Overcame Culture Shock as a New Teacher
Culture shock. Let’s be clear from the start. It’s not extreme homesickness, fatigue or frustration with a new diet of foods that we deem unsuitable for our ‘rich’ (bland) pallets. In fact it’s a combination of all of these things with so much more to boot. Everyone who has experienced culture shock will tell you that it’s a real challenge and that it’s something that has to be beaten actively. It won’t pass unless action is taken.
Culture shock is, in a way, a joy to experience. It’s one of the final barriers to truly immersing yourself into a wonderful new culture and surpassing it will enrich you and give you a newfound perspective on all the different things you encounter.
I overcame culture shock in a particularly strange way. It was relatively early on in my experience living and working abroad. I still remember how it happened vividly to this day.
I spent my first couple of weeks in Thailand relishing the energy of other like-minded westerners all experiencing a new culture. These were really exciting times. Everything was intriguing, inspiring and just so different. I must admit, I found myself thinking ‘this isn’t so bad’ numerous times. I honestly never once truly felt homesick and rarely thought about my friends and family back home. I felt positive and, most importantly, present in every waking moment. I made the decision to practice daily meditation and yoga, enjoy a relatively healthy diet and focus on building close relationships with the people around me. I felt like this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I felt secure, wanted, and happy to be a part of something much larger than myself.
These feelings only lasted up until the day I left to my first school placement in a small market town called Ban Mi. I was incredibly emotional on my journey to this new adventure. I felt like my entire world was falling apart and that everything that I had just achieved was for nothing. I admit, while I am an emotional person, I just didn’t feel prepared and I was afraid that I’d made a poor decision leaving so soon.
When the tears subsided and I felt the warmth of the sun pouring through the van window, I suddenly felt peaceful. I knew that the real challenge was about to begin and that this was my chance to start over. Once again, relatively quickly, I thought that I had overcome culture shock, that my low point had passed and that now I can do anything.
I have a habit of speaking too soon and this was most definitely one of those moments. My biggest challenges were yet to come.
My first few days in Ban Mi were initially rather exciting/terrifying in equal measure. I’m not the traveller type, I’m certainly not fearless and I did thrive from the reassurance of friends & family. I came to Thailand to realise a dream of becoming a teacher in a foreign country. I never thought my first major issue would be plucking up the courage to go and buy dinner from somewhere other than 7-11. I eventually found somewhere to eat that would be my go-to place for the duration of my stay. Still unsure of myself, I ate the same dish every night for two weeks. It was good but hardly adventurous.
I’m the type of guy who thrives from routine, any time I’m derailed it’s a serious setback. Things have to happen on time, when they’re agreed and must play out to all of my many expectations. Having these expectations when living in a place like Thailand is simply asking for trouble. My first few weeks were spent becoming frustrated with everything around me. Nothing was going how I wanted it to, people weren’t adjusting to me and I was beginning to resent everything and everyone. I was feeling miserable, tired, homesick and didn’t really feel like being a teacher anymore. I avoided ‘conversations’ with the locals and just spent most of my days in silence apart from teaching. There were many days where I wouldn’t have a single exchange in English to anyone. In hindsight, I’d begun to alienate myself as I refused to accept anything other than my own way to be the ‘right’ way. This..is culture shock.
Early one Monday morning I woke up with a particularly bad attitude. I didn’t much feel like teaching, let alone going to school. Reluctantly I got myself up, headed out of the door and started the relatively short walk to school in 45 degree heat. This journey took me through a market where I diced with death as a pedestrian amongst a million scooters. After the fifth near accident I scraped through the market and made it to the outdoor gym I often used in the evenings. As I walked up I heard a sound coming from a pile of rubbish on the side of the road. As I got closer I noticed a box. The sounds were coming from inside. I carefully opened the box, expecting some sort of death dealing monster to be inside, but was surprised to find four new-born puppies, most of which still had their eyes closed. Why these puppies were placed in this box and put there to be taken away by the refuse collectors I will never know or understand.
All of a sudden, I had a purpose. I was going to take care of these animals to make sure they had a fair shot at life. I carefully took out each puppy and placed them in a safe place, away from harm, outside of the gym. I covered them up and went to work at the school. On my return after school, I got them out from my improvised kennel and fed them some milk, which they hungrily lapped up. I returned to this place every morning, lunchtime and in the evening to take care of these little guys. They grew so fast and I was quickly becoming a popular sight to see in the local community.
The Foreigner that Cares for Stray Dogs
The locals started taking notice and I would often have local kids come, play with the puppies and help me feed them. Some were a little rough and had to be taught how to treat animals, but we got there in the end. I believe that the efforts I made, especially out in the open to take care of these dogs who couldn’t fend for themselves, helped open up the community not only to me, but also to eachother. People banded together to feed and clean the dogs, play with them and give them love. The dogs became part of the community, as did I. People often approached me to chat, to offer food and many times invited me into their homes. I realised that I wasn’t just giving these dogs the opportunity to have a good shot at life, I was giving myself one too. Before making this chance discovery I had all but given up. Now I had a community that supported me, friends, family and the greatest little buddies by my side. I got through culture shock by not focusing on myself but by finding a way to channel my energy into doing good.
By becoming selfless I had realised that the only barrier to overcoming my issues was myself and my own perceptions. So to all of you thinking about coming over or who have just begun your journey, get out there, do good things for others in your community, forget about your troubles and start living.
Culture shock is a necessary rite of passage for any long stayers. It’s also one of the most humbling experiences I have had in my life and I would live it over and over again.
Check out the video of Jon telling his story on the XploreAsia YouTube channel.
Jon is a former teacher in Thailand. Now working for XploreAsia, Jon focusses on marketing and managing the blog. Jon is a passionate movie and music lover as well as having a keen interest in new cultures and ideas.
For more insights in starting out as a teacher, check out his blog here.