People on Reddit who have traveled to other countries were asked: “What was the biggest ‘culture shock’ you experienced?” These are some of the best answers.
Originally from India, went to Finland on student exchange. First night there, I’m at a party and everyone is going to a sauna. I’m prepared with my bathing suit and all, and then bam – find myself in a mixed gendered sauna, with all the people I’ve been hanging out with all evening, butt naked.
Then after 30 minutes of sweating, they all went rolling naked in the snow. Took me a while to deal with it, and finally get my swimsuit off.
In India, they do this head-bob that’s part nod, part head shake. After 3 months of living there I still had trouble deciphering it. Sometimes it means yes, sometimes it means no, and sometimes it means “I don’t have enough information to give you a reasonable answer at this time.”
The Indian head-bob is the magic 8-ball of nonverbal communication.
Going to DR Congo where police walk around the streets with what appear to be AK-47s. The traffic is essentially lawless and you’ll have piles of traffic 3-4 cars wide attempting to merge into a single lane because everybody is trying to pass each other using the footpath and the opposing traffic lane. The electricity in the city can by only on in certain areas for a few hours in the dead of night because there’s not enough supply and it gets diverted to the city center during the day and evening. If you are of certain races you are considered rich by virtue of your skin tone regardless of how much money you actually have.
Wasn’t really a “shock” for me because I knew before I visited that this is what it is like, but it could be a great shock for somebody who’s not prepared for it. A very different place to Australia.
Went to Italy in 2011 and had no idea that some people just took an hour or two off of work in the afternoon. It dawned on me that those people were living the life.
My friend and I were walking around Reykjavik, Iceland and we came across a stroller next to a small shop with a baby in it all bundled up. It was a bit brisk but otherwise not too cold. The issue was that there was no one near this seemingly abandoned child. We walked about 50 feet up and down the road looking for the parent of this child.
Turns out the mother was just in the store across the street. It is perfectly acceptable to leave your unattended infant on the sidewalk apparently. Crime rates are so low in Iceland that the people there are much more trusting of each other I suppose.
In Beijing old men do this thing called the Beijing bikini where they tuck the bottom of their t-shirt into the neck to expose their gut. It wasn’t exactly a shock but it was hilarious.
America and their weird tax system. In the UK, what price you see on the shelf is the price you pay.
“Oh sweet! This album is only $9.99, I’ll buy it”
“That’ll be $10.56 please.”
I went to Tanzania alone for a couple months to do research. People on the street would just strike up conversations. It took me a few awkward interactions to realize that if someone you just meets says “we should do something,” or “You should come visit my house,” these aren’t empty words, and agreeing means you’re probably going right now. I didn’t know a soul when I arrived, and by the time I left, I couldn’t walk across town (Arusha-a relatively large city) without stopping to chat with a dozen friends.
Also, complete strangers can ask your marital status within ten seconds of meeting you.
Witnessing different funeral customs in India and Nepal. What struck me is that death is so much more hidden away in North America.
In the south of India, a funeral procession came down the street carrying the body of a young woman tied to a big pink comfy-looking armchair hung with marigolds. In the north of India, I saw bodies burning on the open funeral pyres along the riverside ghats, and even saw human bodies that had been placed in the Ganges floating by.
In Nepal I was invited to a funeral and watched as they built a wooden pyre beforehand. While my Nepali friends and I watched, they told me that it was considered good luck to see a body coming to a funeral.
It was just so out in the open. It was culture shock for me, but I liked that nobody was expected to hold back their tears or hide their grief discreetly away. In fact, my friend says that even if you are not fond of the person who died, you should try to show some tears anyway out of respect.
I was teaching a class in South Carolina (I live in Minnesota) and sat down to eat lunch with all the guys I was teaching. Took a bite of my sandwich and noticed no one else was eating yet. I paused for a minute and one of them piped in that they were ready to say grace. I had never experienced group prayer before lunch, especially in the workplace. Definitely a shock for me.
In many SE Asian countries getting caught trying to scam someone doesn’t have too much a level of shame. It is just throw hands up and damn nice try, we’re still good.
For example, arrive in Hanoi and tell taxi driver your hotel. He drives you while talking on phone, you arrive somewhere that isn’t your hotel, and some nice guy who speaks English comes out to explain your hotel burned down last week, stay here instead. If you refuse to pay the driver until he takes you to see your burned down hotel, everyone shrugs and laughs, then you get dropped off at your perfectly intact hotel that didn’t burn down after all, pay the cab, and all is good.
For me the [weirdest] was flying from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg in 2009 at the height of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe (where I’d terminated several weeks of wandering around southern Africa). At the time you had to take in all your currency to Zimbabwe that you wanted to spend because there was literally no money in the ATMs or at the banks if you wanted to buy something, and many times you just relied on the barter system altogether. The issue was though that even if you had the money there at the time more often than not you just couldn’t buy what you needed as it literally did not exist- for example we traded an old pair of tennis shoes for what was ~US$150 in souvenirs, and the guy we traded them for was so excited because his wife hadn’t gotten new shoes in years as the shops literally hadn’t had any for a year or two. Hell I couldn’t even do my simple souvenir I buy everywhere I go- a postcard- because they just hadn’t printed them in years as there was no paper to print them on.
So with that, I fly to Johannesburg and damn, those few hours waiting in the transit lounge absolutely floored me like nothing else has in many ways. They had ice cream! And sushi! And the Economist! Hell, it was this week’s Economist instead of a gossip rag from two months ago someone was selling for ten bucks!
The Chinese toilets that are just holes in the ground. It is even worse in the countryside, where there are no walls and you just don’t look at each other when squatting, and everything falls in this smelly ditch underneath where you can actually see all the poop.
No butter on the popcorn in British movie theaters. We should not consider these savages allies.
Went to Egypt last summer. We had hired a personal tour guide because there was no way we would be walking around by ourselves in Egypt. The service came with an Egyptian government security guard to protect us, and at one point my mother asked our tour guide (not the guard) what life what he thought of the government right then, and he said it was great. Later when the guard was getting us into a site, the tour guide told my mom not to ask questions like that in front of the guard because he (the tour guide) could be punished for talking negatively about the government. Really scared me.
I live in the Netherlands. Water is all around me. From the sea, to the canals, to waterways dividing the fields between different farms. The first time I visited Iowa and drove around there it took me a couple of days to realize there wasn’t any water between the fields and acres. Sure, there’s a river and what not, but essentially it’s just endless actual ground. It made me feel uneasy for a couple of minutes.
I spent two months in Malawi, Africa and it is not uncommon for men to hold hands as they walk together down the road. This is just an indication of friendship and not romantic involvement. It still took a little getting used to.
When partying in Reykjavik at a ground level apartment the police came around midnight and told us to be quiet. Being a tourist I was so scared we would end up in some sort of ice dungeon (or whatever they do for jail) until the cop politely suggested we take a couple of beers for the road and head to the bar.
They proceeded to joke around with us and offered some directions to their favorite watering holes.
Coming from a city where I’ve had a boot on the back of my neck for way less than a noise complaint, I was truly in shock.
Moving to Bulgaria from England. In Bulgaria shaking your head means “yes” and nodding means “no”. You don’t even realise how hard it is to reverse a lifelong habit until you try, it’s really disconcerting. (Also, if you screw up – imagine asking someone if they want a bag for that and having them nod at you while saying “no”.)
Going to Egypt and becoming invisible. I read the government websites, knew how to dress respectfully/ be safe and that I could expect a certain amount of verbal harassment for being a Western woman. What didn’t occur to me was that I would only exist in conversation for as long as it took local men to say hello, after which they only spoke to my (male) partner. Even if they asked a question that I could answer and he couldn’t, I was still ignored.
In Japan, the level of trust is incredible.
I went to a convenience store with no staff. You simply pick your items, drop your cash into a box, and get your change. There is an open box of money in the middle of the store.
I visited Morocco once and saw the walled city of Tetouan (part of the Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed there). It was a bit freaky to step back in time by about 2000 years. Only part of a desert was visible from where we were but we saw a Bedouin riding a camel like they had for thousands of years. Then I noticed he was wearing a Sony Walkman and was singing out loud:
“Bottomed girls you make the rockin world go round!”
It is not necessarily a culture shock from traveling to another country. I’m from London, but am of Irish decent. I stayed with some friends (one American, the other Scottish) while I had exams in Scotland. I stayed with them for about 2 weeks. 5 days in, I called my mum and asked her if we ate potatoes more than most because the whole time I hadn’t had potatoes. I ended up going 12 days without potatoes. They didn’t even have baking potatoes.
Garbage trucks played “Fr Elise” as they rode around, and it sounded like ice cream truck music.
Taiwan. I sort of miss hearing it in the distance.