Moving abroad is a big deal. Starting a new job is a big deal, especially when it’s an entirely new career. If you teach English as a foreign language abroad, you’ll have to deal with both of these issues simultaneously. This can lead to culture shock, which is a real thing, no matter what anyone tells you. I know this from experience.
My name is Kirsten, and I’ve been a TEFL teacher since 2003. I’m from South Africa but I’ve taught in Thailand, China, the UK, Spain, and Qatar, as well as South Africa. I’ve experienced culture shock a few times on my travels, and this is my story.
What causes culture shock?
When we look at the situation TEFL teachers find themselves in, there are a number of factors which we can see contributing to culture shock:
- You aren’t familiar with the country so you don’t know how to get anywhere, or even the best way to get around. Even simply outings like going to the supermarket can be challenging and tiring.
- You probably don’t speak the local language so communication with the local community is a problem.
- You’re starting a new job, which is stressful.
- If you’ve never taught before, you’ll have first-day nerves.
- It’ll take you some time to make friends so you can get lonely.
- You’re far from home so you will miss your friends and family.
When you put all of those things together it can add up to a very stressful situation. While you might expect to be excited and intrigued by your new life, you might not expect to feel homesick, despondent or even angry. But these are all common emotions when settling into a new life in a new country. This is culture shock.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock is the feeling a person may experience when they find themselves in a completely new, different environment to the one they are used to. Culture shock is a real phenomenon and many people who travel because of TEFL may find themselves experiencing culture shock to some degree.
There are a number of misconceptions about culture shock which you might have heard:
MYTH Everyone has the same experience of culture shock.
MYTH Culture shock is short-lived.
MYTH You only experience culture shock in a country that is very different to your own.
MYTH There is nothing you can do to counteract culture shock.
In actual fact, culture shock is different for all people. We go through similar stages of culture shock but how we react and respond to these stages depends on the individual and their circumstances. Culture shock can be short-lived but it is more likely to go on for months. Culture shock is something you are likely to experience in any country you move to, regardless of how similar or different the culture is to you. Luckily, there are ways we can deal with the different stages of culture shock so that we can mitigate the more challenging effects. The last thing we want you to do is to go back home because of culture shock!
What are the different culture shock stages?
The honeymoon stage
The first stage – commonly known as the honeymoon stage – is when you first arrive in a country. Everything is new and exciting, from your first taxi ride into town to the local cuisine you try for the first time that night. While your new lifestyle is perceived as different, any differences are seen in a positive light and are appreciated.
For myself, I experienced culture shock the worst during my first TEFL contract. As soon as I had finished my TEFL qualification in Cape Town, I jumped on a plane to Thailand. As I wandered around Bangkok, I fell totally in love with the sights and sounds of the city. I couldn’t eat enough Thai green curry; getting lost was a novelty; I enjoyed the freedom of re-inventing myself every time I met someone.
The frustration stage
Then the honeymoon stage ends, which it always does. Next comes the frustration stage. At this time the differences are no longer seen as fun and exciting, but are more frustrating and irritating. Language barriers, a different lifestyle, social customs and a lack of social connections all contribute to making you feel very lonely and homesick.
After a few months of giddy excitement and wide-eyed wonder, I woke up one day and found myself being annoyed with everything. There was always traffic; the heat was unbearable; I was always late because I got lost every time I tried to go somewhere. I had friends but they didn’t really know me. Nothing was easy. This went on for quite a while.
At this stage I really thought about coming back to South Africa. To a braai with my friends and a chat with my parents, and my local soapie on TV. But I didn’t leave. I stuck it out. This wasn’t because I am an amazingly adaptable person, but because I recognised my priorities and realised that travelling was important to me.
The adjustment stage
However, when this stage passes you will find you are more accustomed to your new circumstances – possibly even know how to speak the language – and you find your situation more normal. You will be open to finding new friends and experiencing even more new adventures, so you will enjoy your time much more. This is the adjustment stage.
I think what changed for me was learning to speak Thai. My Thai skills are not great by any means, but I could communicate with people more easily than when I first arrived. I got to know my way around my local area, I learned how to tell the taxi exactly where I wanted to go, and my body acclimatised to the heat. I missed home, sure, but I chatted to my friends and family as often as possible and I made sure to explore the beautiful beaches of Thailand whenever I had the chance – and those beaches definitely made the homesickness go away!
The acceptance stage
The final stage is a stage not everyone reaches. Sometimes you will find yourself in a place that you just can’t get used to. It will all feel too difficult and not worth the effort. Other times, you’ll find that after a while you feel like you’ve been living there your whole life and you don’t ever want to leave! This is the acceptance stage.
I ended up living in Thailand for two years before moving on to China and other countries. I didn’t come home for 10 years, and I will always remember those years fondly. Was it easy? No. Did I think about leaving my job? Many times. But I realised the problem wasn’t Thailand, it was me. If I went back home I would feel frustration in other ways, so why not be uncomfortable in a gorgeous foreign country rather than be uncomfortable at home?
How to deal with culture shock
The first thing is to recognise that culture shock is a valid process. If you’re feeling down or lonely or frustrated, don’t let that make you book the next available flight home. Give yourself some time to get comfortable. Having a positive attitude is a must. Be good to yourself and spoil yourself by having new experiences which wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. Try to learn at least a few words in the language, as this will help you feel more at home, and it will help you make new friends.
Keep in touch with family and friends back home, which is really easy to do these days. Find the shops which stock products from your country and treat yourself to something familiar every once in a while. If all else fails, Skype home and ask your mum to send you a parcel with all your favourite goodies from home!
Culture shock and TEFL
Having said all this, sometimes a TEFL job or a new country is not suited to you. If you find yourself in a country with a very different work ethic to what you are used to, you might struggle in your job. If you don’t enjoy the culture you are living in, you might never get used to it and will always find it challenging living there.
If you really feel like it’s not culture shock but something more, then leave. If you are working on a contract, read your contract and find out what restrictions are placed on you. Sometimes if you leave a contract you will be penalised financially. Schools can do this by requiring you to pay back any costs they may have covered, such as your flight, or withholding the amount from your last month’s salary.
This is the reason many schools will initially pay 50% of your flight costs and the other 50% only at the end of the contract. This is also why many schools offer an end-of-contract bonus.
But if you feel like you really need to leave – and your mental health is very important – the least you can do is give the school a month or, preferably, a term’s notice so they can find a replacement teacher. Remember that if you decide to teach English somewhere else, you may have to use this school as a reference for future job applications.
A final thought is for when you finally return home. There is another stage of culture shock, known as the re-integration stage. You might find, when you get home, that your friends are not the same as they were before. You would have changed and so would they, and maybe in different ways.
When I came back home, many of my friends had gotten married and had children, while I was still loving a very independent lifestyle. Some of my friends had also moved away. Others had worked their way up into very high positions in their jobs. The thing is, you change and adapt and move with the times, so you find your new normal – and life goes on…to the next adventure!
As a TEFL teacher of almost twenty years, I cannot recommend doing a TEFL qualification highly enough. TEFL can change your life in ways you can’t imagine. And the time and money is all worth it when you step off a plane into a classroom for the first time – trust me!
Let me know if you have any questions – I’d be happy to answer them!