As an educator originally from Costa Rica, I have had the opportunity to teach abroad twice during my career; I first taught abroad with Participate Learning (formerly VIF) in North Carolina, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The cultural exchange aspect was amazing, and I felt very excited and proud to take part in such a wonderful program. I also later had the opportunity to work as a kindergarten teacher at an international school in China. In my classroom alone, I taught children from twelve different countries!
Years later, I am now an international admissions specialist at Participate Learning, which means that I get to work with the teachers throughout their admissions process. Once in the U.S., the Teacher Resources department helps take care of ambassador teachers during their transition to a new life and job, since many of them will experience culture shock.
Experiencing Culture Shock
As rewarding as it was to teach abroad, it also came with an element of culture shock. I had heard about culture shock but did not think I would experience it myself. Not only did it happen in the first days when I was familiarizing myself with my new environment, but it happened throughout the following weeks and months too. I felt overwhelmed, and if things were not working out the way I wanted, I became frustrated.
It took me a few months to be able to adapt to my new living area, my new job, and the new culture. Once I adjusted, I felt more relaxed and understanding of the differences. I had a more positive outlook on where I was living and didn’t try to compare everything with my life back in my home country.
I made friends, found great supermarkets and shops, explored local places, and discovered my favorite restaurants! I decided that I had to make an effort in understanding my cultural environment. I learned that I did not have to agree with or make sense of this cultural context but just be willing to accept the cultural differences in the world around me.
Language plays an important factor in getting over culture shock. In China, I had this barrier to overcome. It is important to try to learn the local language to feel more included in your community. Even though I learned a few basic phrases and words, unfortunately, I didn’t learn Mandarin quickly enough. This made me become more frustrated because communicating was part of my daily routine. Then I found new ways of communicating to overcome this barrier, like using WeChat to translate what I wanted to say.
For me, the most important elements in overcoming culture shock were developing friendships in my area, staying in touch with family and friends back home, and traveling to get to know places better. I had always dreamed about visiting Thailand but had never thought it would be possible. However, it was so close to where I was living in China that it was an opportunity I couldn’t let slide by. I am glad that I took the leap of faith and would encourage anyone living abroad to dream big and take chances like this.
Adjust, Adapt, Acclimate
All of my experiences abroad made me more resilient in my daily routines. I learned that I can adapt to many different situations in life if I overcome hardships in a positive way. I grew a lot, not only professionally but personally as well. I was not the same person after living abroad—I felt stronger, and somehow, my overall quality of life had improved along the way.
When coming back to my home country, Costa Rica, I also experienced reverse culture shock, which is when you go back to the environment you were living in before and expect everything to be the same. But I had changed—I had learned to adapt to a different culture, and now I had to readapt to my old one.
The experience of living abroad has helped me adjust to changing circumstances in many ways but especially as we adapt to life during the current COVID-19 pandemic. This is an unpredictable situation with so much change, and we all have had to learn to adapt very quickly to this new reality.
My time abroad has helped me tremendously in acclimating to my new normal and being resilient in the face of change. So, how can others incorporate this into their lives too? Stay in touch with family and friends, build connections, take care of yourself, set future goals, stay positive, exercise if possible, and always seek help if needed!
Culture shock is a reality for so many as they adjust to living in a new culture. For more on culture shock, read about the four stages many experience when moving to a different country here. Interested in teaching abroad like Silvia? Check out this web page.