Riding the Culture Shock Wave

As I rode the metro home tonight from teaching English to two 8 year old boys, I was struck with a feeling of finally grasping what my life here is like and how I can master it. The epiphany came from a comparison of today to the disaster that was last Thursday. But before I delve into that, I want to talk about culture shock.

We had a workshop run by our phenomenal program coordinator, Amy, about culture shock abroad. When I read that on the schedule, I admittedly rolled my eyes. “Culture shock? I’ve already been here for a month. I get the culture.” In the workshop, we learned about the way culture shock works: not in one dramatic shock, but in waves. There’s the first honeymoon-style wave of oh-my-god-everything-here-is-so-cool, the valley of minor cultural frustrations building up to emotional breakdowns, the superficial adjustment to the culture and the language, the pitfalls of addressing deeper cultural issues, and finally, full adjustment. Most people in the workshop, including me, felt we were at the first drop in the wave of culture shock. And symptoms were not what I expected, but they definitely had marked my first month here. A few of them were: the desire to do something but inability to do it, random fits of weeping, and being devastated when little things go wrong. I mostly identified with the apathy, the overwhelming feeling of being in this incredible new country but not being able to make plans or get out the door.

I hit culture shock rock bottom last Thursday, when I started my two classes at the Complutense University. Up until now I’ve only been taking classes with other American students, so last week was a big change. I dropped my history class after realizing I didn’t need it for my Spanish major, and now I’m taking a literature class and a creative writing class at the Complutense. I thought my creative writing class was 10:30-12:30, Wednesday and Thursday. I showed up to class on Wednesday to find, along with several other foreign students, that the professor had changed the schedule to instead happen once a week from 9:30-12:30 either Wednesday or Thursday, and only Spaniards, who were already enrolled in the class, received an email about the schedule change.

The next day, Thursday, I went to class at 9:30, wary of what a creative writing class in Spanish would be like for me. I take creative writing classes in English at Madison, which I really enjoy, and my inability to fully express myself through writing in Spanish has always bothered me. The class went well, but the professor had us write a short piece for about half an hour in the middle of the class, and then read it aloud right there so he could give us feedback. This was unheard of to me; where was my editing time? My opportunity to translate words that I wanted to use? I read my dull piece aloud to class and left feeling disappointed and anxious.

After class, I took the bus home for a few hours and then back to campus to take my literature class. I walked up to the bus stop just before the bus arrived, and when I tried to get on, an old woman grabbed me and snapped, “Había una cola” (there was a line), pointing me to the end of the line of people getting on the bus. I was so surprised at her tone of voice and the fact that she even cared how people got on the bus, since there weren’t nearly enough people to fill every seat. That set a miserable tone for the rest of the day.

That night, I taught English to two eight year old boys, Lucas and Rafa, for the first time (I had already taught ten year old Sofia twice). I haven’t worked with eight year olds in a long, long time. My age of choice is twelve and up because I like conversations, not screaming. Which is what English class quickly dissolved into once I had ran out of activities: just screaming. It felt like I was babysitting more than teaching anything. I had completely forgotten that the attention span of an eight year olds is approximately seven minutes, and I sure paid the price for forgetting that.

So last Thursday was terrible, and I was questioning why I was here, what I was gaining from my experience abroad. And I hadn’t realized it until the metro ride today, but everything is slowly getting easier: speaking Spanish, my classes, finding the motivation to do what I need to do, and teaching. I used a dictionary in my creative writing class today and was actually pretty pleased with how my story turned out. I found it easier to focus in my literature class, I’ve had more in-depth conversations with my Spanish roommates, and teaching English tonight was a hundred times easier and more relaxed. I genuinely love this city and its culture, and I’m navigating it more smoothly every day. It feels like I’m finally pulling out of the first culture shock dip on my way to adjustment.



Feeling more and more at home.
Feeling more and more at home.

2 thoughts on “Riding the Culture Shock Wave”

  1. What a wonderful example of how the culture shock-adjustment wave actually works! Thanks for sharing your personal experience on adjustment and your reflections on how you’ve put it into perspective. ¡Eres fantástica!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure it is a comfort to many going through the same downs and ups. Good luck!

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