Culture Shock

26 Jan

A few weeks ago I was reading the blog of my friend Nicole, who lives on Isla Mujeres. She mentioned in several posts how frustrated she was with the culture and the island, and I realized she sounded exactly like me 5 years ago.

Most people have heard of culture shock, but not many people actually know what it is or how it looks. Surprisingly, many expats don’t know what it is either, even though they’ve probably suffered from it or are currently going through it.

I was lucky. The first time I came to Mexico I was a missionary intern for a summer in Acapulco, and we had to take a course before we came down. The class I remember the most was about culture shock, and I’m really glad they told us about it. That way, when I actually experienced it, I knew what was happening to me.


The first phase of culture shock is the “Everything is amazing” phase. When you arrive in the new culture, you love the scenery, the language sounds beautiful, the cultural differences are charming… you could live here forever, right? This phase can last a few days or a few months, depending on how long you plan to be in your new country. I remember my first night in Cancun, driving through the Hotel Zone with all the bright and glittery hotels. I was in love. Exploring the city was tons of fun. My apartment was perfect, school was amazing…everything was great for a few weeks.


Then comes the second phase… the “Everything sucks, get me out of here” phase. Like the first phase, this can last days or months (or years), depending on how long you plan to be here. Why can’t the Mexicans do things the way I do them… the RIGHT way? Why does nobody understand that my way is better? Why is it so hot ALL THE TIME? Why is everything so slow? Why does every small daily task take 3 times as long as in the US? Why can’t I throw toilet paper into the toilet? Why can’t people drive correctly? Why is nobody ever on time? What kind of idiot puts ketchup on their pizza? (Ok, the last one still frustrates me!) I was a real jerk during this phase.

From talking to other expats, it seems most long term expats start to go through this phase around month 3 or 4, with a strong, pissed off peak at the one-year mark. I remember when I reached my angry peak… I got into an argument with my roommates, which was the final straw. I called my friend Cesar and asked if I could go to his house. At his house, I pretty much bawled and complained for an hour, going through half a box of tissues. I was certain I wanted to leave NOW. Cesar was very patient with me, and told me to wait it out until the end of that semester, which I did. During those next few months, something just clicked. I finally realized that I wasn’t going to single-handedly change an entire culture. I was the one who had to change, Once I opened my mind, things became much better, and I moved on to phase 3…


Phase 3 is the “Hey, Maybe They Were Right All Along” phase. You’re able to immerse yourself more in the culture and learn from it. I learned Mexicans are always late because of their “time is fluid” concept, which is actually a pretty cool way to live once you get the hang of it. I learned people in Cancun have a different way of driving because there aren’t many signs or lane dividing lines, so the people here have kind of developed their own rules… it appears to be just as good as our system because there aren’t too many accidents here.

This final phase will last throughout the rest of your time in the country. You’ll get many “this place is amazing” moments and many “this place sucks” moments, but overall it will just feel like normal day-to-day life.

22 Responses to “Culture Shock”

  1. Kate January 26, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    I was lucky to have been taught all this stuff before I went on my trips too.

    In Spain I was in the Honeymoon phase the entire time. It never left! But if I had stayed longer I know that it would have.

    In Mexico, I missed the entire Honeymoon phase and went straight to hating everything. THEN I went into the Honeymoon phase and then ended the trip in the last phase.

    I’ll have to blog about why I was in the miserable hating everything phase first, I had a CRAZY host family the first 2 weeks so it made it hard to adjust!

  2. joeandharryabroad January 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    Great post- it’s good to know what you’re going to experience. Even though Malta isn’t hugely different from the UK, like in Mexico, time is something different out here. Everything takes longer and no one seems to understand the idea of being on time. It was infuriating for ages but now I just plan for it!

    Also nothing is done in a hurry, if something’s broken, there’s no point getting wound up as it wont be fixed for a while!

    At work there is no union we can go to, to complain and no one can help me fight my landlady to get my money back (except maybe a lawyer but I think I’d spend more than my deposit on that!). It makes me sooo angry, today I am livid with this place!

    But I know it’ll pass and that generally, life is so much better here and these experiences are great for growing as a person 🙂

  3. ELIZABETH January 26, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    Excellent post! I forget who said it, but someone said “The perfect thing about Mexico is its imperfections”…it is so true when you think about it. Once you get past the cultural shock, you can have a great life in another country. It is all in your attitude!

    ps-I am with you and I will NEVER be ok with ketchup on pizza. Never. 🙂

  4. Nikki January 26, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Ha! Culture shock is everywhere. I’m glad you came around. Look at all you’d be missing.

    The slow ‘beach time’ thing still kills me. It takes me a while to remember to head to dinner early or I will die waiting for my food 😉

  5. Ashlie January 26, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Great post Laura! Don’t forget culture shock can go both ways. My first trip back to Vancouver after a year and a half in Cancun (over 15 years ago) I experienced culture shock there. I went to the super market to buy some shampoo and I ended up staring at all of the different brands and types of shampoo for a very LONG time before I could make a decision. I was overwhelmed by the choices etc. Now remember that was back in the day before Wal Mart, Sam’s, Cost Co etc. were here and we had very limited choices for things.Other things also affected me while I was back in Vancouver for that first time.

  6. Ang January 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    I never realized culture shock was a real thing… I always just though it was one of those things people say. It makes good sense though – I’m hoping that while I’m in Hawaii I can learn to relax and enjoy it – I feel like I’m a fast paced person by nature.

    I know this isn’t the same as I’m not relocating… but still.

    Great post!

    • gringation January 26, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

      Don’t worry about Hawaii. I should have mentioned this is only for people in a different culture for an extended time (maybe 2 months or more)

  7. Salt January 26, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    Nice. I like how you broke it down. 🙂 There is a certain amount of culture shock that I experienced moving from one coast to the other in the US and while there was never a language barrier, I definitely went through these exact same stages.

  8. Harley January 26, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    I love this post! I learned about this in college in my Intercultural Studies class and found it really interesting. I also find it really relevant when I go traveling although sometimes I forget (like when I was in Egypt – feeling like a second-class citizen will never be okay with me)!

  9. laurencancun January 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

    Hahaha – great post Laura. I think you nailed it!!

    My first time living in Cancun I went through all those phases. This time I was already prepared, and completely skipped Phase 1. I don’t really know where I am right now. Probably inbetween 2 and 3. LOL.

    I think the language barrier is the hardest struggle, and my Spanish is pretty good considering…

    Great post amiga 🙂

  10. nikolacolada January 26, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    you know– since you’ve told me this I haven’t been having as many “bad” days 🙂

  11. Leah January 26, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Very true, good post. I don’t know what phase I am in, definitely not phase 1, probably phase 3. There are many things I like, but the things that bother me will probably always bother me. Trash, noise, corruption and yes, the HEAT needle at me. And what’s bothersome is that in Veracruz all those things are on the rise. I know that it’s not going to improve, but the question of how to deal sometimes still nags.

  12. Holyoke Home January 26, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Wonderful – as usual – post. I really appreciated hearing about your experience transitioning to another culture. I’ve had similar experiences (in a less major way) interacting with Holyoke’s community.

  13. Leslie Limon January 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    You really hit it out of the ballpark with this post. Excellent job! 🙂

    I too experienced culture shock. But I think I skipped phase 1 and went straight to phase 2. (Hard to believe, I know.) Then after 2 years, and a visit back to the States, I finally made my way into phase 3. Now, after 10 years, I’m in phase 4. I know life isn’t perfect, but I’m used to it and I love my life here.

  14. KfromMichigan January 26, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    Great post! A person does need to accept the way of life in a different country. Challenge .. yes, but in time you adjust. You just need an open mind!

  15. Julie M. January 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    Great post Laura! I went through all that a bit when I was living over in Europe. I think the hardest hurdle for me was the language. Once you get past that, finding happiness in the rest of the differences becomes much more doable.

  16. Krysten January 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    I cannot even imagine what that kind of culture shock must feel like. Hell… I feel like I had that when I went away to college and I ended up moving back home because I couldn’t handle it. And that was only 2 hours away!

  17. Victoria January 29, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    I am Nicole’s best friend from childhood. I also lived on Isla for a few months. She is totally right when she explains that coming for vacation and living on the Island are two separate things. I’ve experienced culture shock in Isla Mujeres, and in Germany.

    And sometimes when I speak a lot of German or Spanish, I forget how to speak English. Ahhhh.

    Love the blog!

  18. The Drama Mama January 30, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    I have never had the opportunity to feel this. In some sense I guess it could be said about how I felt about Chicago, but I don’t know that it was exactly culture shock.

  19. Megan February 2, 2011 at 6:15 am #

    Very interesting. I always love these posts of yours, since I have *no* idea what it would be like to live in a different culture. I’m always learning something over here. 🙂

  20. (Florida) Girl with a New Life February 2, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    Now that I am reading this I think I went through culture shock when I moved to the Midwest. Acceptance and willingness are much easier than they sound.

  21. GRRRL TRAVELER February 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Awesome post, Laura! You lay it out so well.

    Ironically, I started on a similar post a couple months back– only problem was… I didn’t get to your phase three to know what that 3rd should be. LOL.

    You’re so right. It’s like this emotional pendulum. The mood swings for no reason or logic. Sometimes I felt like I was hitting peaks and falls in 3 month intervals!

    2 months ago, I fell in swooning LOVE with Korea again and then last month, I was like– “I need some time off. This is b.s! Why can’t people speak English!”

    No logic.

    I think it’s wonderful that you’ve gotten to phase three and can see beyond the emotional roller coaster of culture shock. I need to get there.

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