How did culture shock affect you

Lake Temescal

Every expat knows about the negative effects of culture shock: frustration, loneliness, homesickness,…

Have you thought of the positive effects of culture shock?


Finding your life’s treasure

Santiago, a shepherd boy from Andalusia, has a dream about finding a splendid treasure close to the Pyramids in Egypt. One day, he meets a gypsy woman and an old king who advise him to follow his dream. “To realize one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only obligation,” the old king tells him.

So Santiago sells his sheep and sets foot on an adventurous journey that takes him to countries far away from home. His journey is not easy, since he is struggling with the foreign language, different culture and customs.

Bad luck strikes him when a thief in Tangier steals all his money! Unfortunately, he is now forced to stay longer in Tangier so he can earn back all that he has lost.

However, his year in the foreign place is not wasted since he learns very valuable life’s lessons, which will help him on his continuous quest for the treasure. On the last leg of his journey, Santiago receives guidance from the wise alchemist. Santiago thinks that he has finally discovered his treasure; but …


Power of personal transformation

Last Sunday, I stumbled upon a book ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, hidden between other books that my kids had read in school. I had heard much praise about this novel. As soon as I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. Have you read it before? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

‘The Alchemist’ is full of parables that show us the power of personal transformation. It teaches us about our journey in life and the pursuit of dreams in spite of obstacles. The significance of Santiago’s journey doesn’t lie in finding the treasure, but in the lessons learned and experiences felt during the journey itself.

And here I approach my journey in life. And it is probably your journey as well. A journey in exploring the world, encountering obstacles and setbacks, but we gain knowledge of ourselves and grow our inner resources.

In my last article about culture shock stages, I wrote about my struggles when I first arrived in the US. Like the shepherd boy Santiago, I had to grapple with the cultural differences in a foreign place. However, this journey through the different stages of culture shock will eventually lead you to a personal transformation, to a stronger you.

The alchemist said these parting words to Santiago at the end of the novel: “What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream.” Coelho writes in the  introduction: “The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”


Negative effects of culture shock

You will go through tough times when you are transplanted to a new environment where you are no longer in control as you had been at home.  And this is quite normal and usually unavoidable. Though, everyone might experience the negative effects of culture shock on a different level.

Negative effects of culture shock might include:

  • Frustration
  • Feeling isolated and lonely
  • Homesickness
  • Idealizing the home country
  • Unduly criticizing culture of host country
  • Sadness
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal (avoiding contact to host nationals)
  • Sleeping a lot or unable to sleep
  • Suffering from body aches and pains

You might be surprised to find yourself not able to function normally in the new environment. Usually with time you will adapt. It might take 6 months to a year. Sometimes even longer. It is not a linear process. There are different phases of culture shock, which I explain in What expats ought to know about culture shock stages.

The stages describe a u-curve, where adjustment seems to be successful in the beginning. Then follows a period of ‘crisis’ where you will feel the negative effects of culture shock. Finally you will adjust again and feel more integrated in the new environment.


Positive effects of culture shock

Now, after seven falls, it is the eighth time when you are getting up that will feel splendid! And you will get there. In fact, there are positive effects of culture shock. Hardly anyone talks about them. The experience of living in a different country is a significant learning experience. Like Santiago, you will experience positive effects of culture shock, the effects of living in a different place.

  • Living in a different culture will give you valuable skills that help you in many aspects of your life and are powerful in aiding your personal journey and development. You will grow stronger and more resilient from some of these difficult, and seemingly unconquerable situations, which you will encounter. They will force you to get out of your comfort zone. During this personal development, you will get to know yourself better.


  • Today, schools emphasize diversity and aspire to teach it in many areas. You have that experience right at your fingertips. Embrace the diversity you experience in your new surrounding. Diversity in thinking, in ethnicity, in socio-economic status and in religious believes.  You will gain different perspectives. By looking beyond stereotypes and by appreciating diversity, it will open your eyes and heart for otherness. Especially in this interconnected world, we need to show respect for others and understand differences.


  • Learning never ends! You learn of course so much more about the host culture than the ordinary tourist, who isn’t as immersed in the culture as you are. Inevitably, you will examine the new culture and reflect and compare it to your own. This will also make you more aware of aspects of your own culture and gives you the ability to examine it more objectively.


  • This is one of the biggest benefits of living abroad, developing international friendships! You will get to know people from your host country, like your neighbors, co-workers or other parents on the playground. Of course, you will meet other expats to whom you are drawn like a magnet, since you are sharing the same experience of international living. Thanks to Facebook, Skype and so many other social platforms it is easy today to stay in contact with everyone around the world.


  • To reach full integration into the new culture, learning the foreign language is a must. And what a delight to know a foreign language well! You can only reach full proficiency when you immerse yourself in a language. You will learn words and concepts that don’t exist in your own language. A very mind-expanding experience! I can think of the English word ‘awkward’. What a great word; there is no single word in German that expresses this awkwardness. ‘Stuff’ is such an all-encompassing word as well. Can you think of other words?


Where has your life’s journey taken you? Which obstacles have you met and have hopefully overcome? Did you find your treasure yet? I found mine: the treasure, the gift that international living offers you. What is yours?