Getting REAL About Culture Shock

As it is midterm season here in Spain, this is a great opportunity to take a break from the typical traveling posts and talk about something a little different. Culture shock.

My first ten days in Madrid, I couldn’t even imagine the thought of ever leaving. Everything was new and so much more interesting than in the United States. I happily sent friends and family pictures and told them how much I was loving Madrid. With school not starting until September, my friends and I were happily floating around the city doing the typical touristy activities without a care in the world.

September 1st came around and it was time to move into my apartment. I was so excited to get out of the dorms and be more independent like I had been in Madison. I could finally be free from dorm food and feeling like a freshman!

Then the culture shock started to hit.

I had heard of culture shock many times, but in hindsight really had no idea what it was. I figured at some point I would just have a moment of literal shock, miss home, and then get over it in a day or two.

For me this was not the case.

I want to share what I went through because when you hear study abroad stories, you usually only hear the good stories, when there are definitely tough times too. When I was experiencing culture shock, I felt lost and alone because I had completely underestimated culture shock and hadn’t heard of anyone having such a hard time with it. Hopefully this will help any future study abroad students who may have a similar experience know that they’re not alone and it is something everyone goes through at one point or another. Everyone’s response to culture shock is different, and it may be no big deal to one person but really hard for another.

Upon moving into my apartment, everything was new. Most of my roommates hadn’t moved in, and I was in a foreign space with no one familiar, missing all the Americans I had been staying with and the comfort of Galdos (which may as well have been a hotel). Having to figure out apartment norms and expectations was stressful with only some roommates moved in and other people in the process of moving out. In addition to this, having a room with big empty white walls and no decorations made it very hard to feel at home.

I started comparing everything to my life back in the United States… even though we were warned not to from the beginning, and I started to get inexplicably sad. Sometimes things would trigger me, like not understanding someone’s Spanish or being misunderstood. Other times I would feel so homesick and out of place for no apparent reason or get upset that no one smiled at me in passing on the street (as is common courtesy in the Midwest). I didn’t feel that my Spanish was good enough and even started to feel that I didn’t deserve to be here. Eventually, nothing was going wrong, but it didn’t feel as if anything was going right either.

Having no routine, not exercising, and eating out for every meal had started to take a toll on me. I didn’t feel at home and started to question why I had even come. I was in Spain for the first time ever, and I didn’t want to do anything. This was a very frustrating feeling because I had been looking forward to this for months and already wanted to go home. What I was feeling during the day even started to carry over to my sleep and I wasn’t sleeping well. This turned into me not being able to stay awake in class or pay attention for the entire first week of school. To say I was feeling defeated is an understatement.

When I finally figured out what I was experiencing had been my first wave of culture shock, I felt such a relief knowing it was normal to be feeling as I was. Coincidentally, a few days later we had a culture shock orientation. After finding out ways to cope and maintain my mental and physical well-being, I started feeling much more excited and ready for the rest of my time here. A few things that helped add some structure and familiarity to my days are cooking, exercising, and having pictures from home on my bedroom walls. Of course I still get homesick every once in a while, but I can finally say I feel settled in and that I’m in the right place. Now, instead of counting down the days until I go home, I’m appreciating every day I have left here and dreading the day in January that I have to leave.