Culture shock and homesickness: that’s the price one pays to see the world. There are always hard moments. Once in Mérida, Mexico, I got lost. My Spanish was failing me, I was thirsty and hungry, and I was feeling claustrophobic in the bustling and noisy city. Another time, when I was backpacking after college, I had a rough go of it in Ireland. I wanted to go home, but I hopped on a ferry to Scotland instead.
It’s always worth sticking it out. It was worth going to Mérida to see the ancient Maya city, Uxmal, which turned out to be a million times better than Chichén Itzá. Scotland turned out to be one of my most favorite places on earth with some of the nicest people: I took a spectacular train ride on the actual Hogwarts Express train, saw Loch Ness, the Orkney Islands, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and went hiking in the Highlands.
While it isn’t possible to eliminate the strife completely, it is possible to make those moments more manageable. Here are several tips to make your experience traveling and/or living abroad:
#1: Understand the different emotional stages that you will go through.
There is actually a predictable cycle that people go through when they travel for an extended period of time. One of the best methods to ensure a smooth (er) experience is just to be aware of the cycle that this very official graph illustrates:
Travel will always have some highs and lows, but if you expect the low parts and understand the cycle, life will be smoother. If you are unaware of the cycle, most likely that fall from a high to a low will be fast and hard and confusing.
This is one that I really struggle with. It might sound obvious, but starving yourself will not enhance your experience. Yet, it can be surprising hard to eat while traveling. Foreign cuisine might look or smell too unappealing. Sometimes you might find yourself on a bus or a train for hours without anything to eat. If you’re traveling on a budget, food options might be limited. In countries like Spain, it can be very hard to find a place to eat when everything closes down for a few hours in the middle of the day. Then there is also the language barrier: the last thing you might want to do when you’re hungry is to feel like an idiot pointing at pictures or miming your way through a menu. But trust me: the minute you get hungry is the minute you start knifing people in the street. Try to have a snack on you. Realize that the moment you get fed you will feel better, so just go to a restaurant and start pointing and mispronouncing everything like it’s nobody’s business.
#3: Find a “safe” place.
A good way to deal with the stress of traveling is to find a place that you go that doesn’t require any sort of cultural interaction. Usually this means spending an hour reading a book in English in your hotel room. Find a popular expat bar. Go to the movies (assuming you can find a cinema with English films). Escaping for an hour or two without trying to communicate in a foreign language or interact with alien customs can recharge your batteries and make the experience more enjoyable. Just be careful not to spend the whole trip trying to avoid everything.
#4: Coffee and Peanut butter.
Everyone has a weakness for comfort food. Find something readily available that offers a little taste of home and allow yourself to indulge a little while traveling. I spend a lot of time in cafes drinking coffee. Here in China, I’ve always got a jar of peanut butter. Such foods offer me a little sensual taste of home. Be prepared though: some foods might offer an approximation of home cooking, not a genuine taste. When I was traveling after college I really wanted a hamburger. I tried to find one in a few different cities in a few different countries without much success. Some places didn’t have hamburgers. Some “hamburgers” were made with mutton, not beef. The closest I came was in New Zealand where I got a hamburger with a huge beet on it—it was actually delicious, although it was more of a beet burger than a hamburger. Just be careful not to neglect the local food in your search for a taste of home.
#5: Moderate your contact with home.
Be careful communicating with friends and family back home, especially if you haven’t traveled very much before. While solace can be found by talking with people from home, it can also slow adaptation to the new environment. Check it with friends and family and keep them updated but focus your energy in making new friends, finding fun things to do, and experiencing the culture.
There are many other helpful tips to successful assimilating into a new home abroad. These are just the top five that I’ve found most helpful. What do you think? Which tips would recommend?