“Though we travel the world to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
Through the glass doors I could see distant lights that were diffused by a copper haze in the night. The automatic opening of the doors triggered in me a similarly automatic response of movement, and soon my feet felt the transition between tile and concrete. The heaviness of burning plastic and petrol smoke attacked my lungs as I processed my surroundings. A cyclone fence topped with spiral razor wire boxed me into a 60 foot (20 meter) square. I could see a cow on an overpass ahead and a crowd of about 10 men deep pushed up against the perimeter of the fence. The only way out was through an opening guarded by a gauntlet of increasingly frantic men in odd dress who were desperately shouting and raising their hands at us as we approached. I was afraid. I wanted to run back inside the terminal and wait for the next flight home.
The year I’d spent preparing for this trip was threatened in that moment. I didn’t feel ready to walk past the threshold guardians at the fence, and into India. The mob of men stood before me threatening all I had dreamed and planned for. Though I well outside of my comfort zone, I continued to move forward anyway.
Though it can be extremely uncomfortable, culture shock caries with it the seeds of 8 profound benefits. There are countless types and ways in which we experience it. Whether we take employment in a new field, have a baby, experience a divorce, or travel to a distant land, we all experience culture shock to some degree. It’s a disorienting step (or nudge) outside of our comfort zone.
As we pushed through the cloud of people in the scene above, I was feeling the onset of that lost-in-a-supermarket feeling when I was a kid. With four times the population in one third the space, India has a relative factor of twelve times the people as compared with what I was accustomed to back home.
Before that moment, I had never felt so awake. It was a bit like the moment before the whistle starting one of my high school wrestling matches. At the time, I felt my survival depended upon that lucidity. The heightened awareness of culture shock can place us into a frame of mind much like what a warrior or athlete experiences at the height of a contest. It’s an absolute mindfulness where time seems to slow, where our judgements come quickly and where we’re ready to react before we cognitively process the threat.
I later learned that the people pressed to the fence were only awaiting relatives and that the overzealous gate keepers were just hungry cab drivers. What an entrance experience though.
With the heightened awareness that comes from being in a new environment, a foreigner will notice the gorgeous architectural appointments, the deep lines on the face of a elderly man tilling a field or the spectacular colors in the the clothing of children at play that a local will take for granted. The drama is in the details, and we are far more aware of the details from the framework of the shock of being immersed in a novel environment. Inspiration tends to come to so many while on a journey in a strange place. The novel situations seem to evoke this inspiration.
It didn’t take me long while traveling to become a quick judge of the intentions of people around me. Within a couple weeks, I learned to quickly determine whether a local was interested in talking to me because he wanted to take advantage of me, or because he was genuinely interested in having a conversation with me. this intuition was awaken while I was traveling and has stuck with me in the years since that first trip.
Growth occurs when we step out of our comfort zone. It is important to know that stress is not a bad thing. We learn when we are in stressful situations. People who consistently avoid stress don’t grow (…until they are forced out of their comfort zone by a good teacher or life experience). People who constantly seek comfort, grow at a much slower clip than people who push themselves into the unknown regularly. Our experience should be an ebb and flow between comfort and stress. To grow on our own accord, we need to bring ourselves into reasonably stressful situations, learn a lesson and then return to comfort. Culture shock is one source of this stress that promotes growth.
Once we are outside our comfort zone, we see things anew like a child. While I was in India, one of my favorite places to visit were the local markets. From the vibrant colors of fabrics and bindu powders to the odd fruits being sold. The lack of refrigeration of meat and dairy was difficult to process too. Culture shock allows for some fresh perspectives on life and the various ways it can be lived. I had an opportunity to live closer to the ground an learn new skills which taught me about myself in the process.
There is vulnerability in the experience of culture shock. One thing I found while traveling the world (especially solo) was that I was far more open to the company of strangers around me. There is safety in numbers especially when those home sick feelings creep in. I made great friendships with people who i met in hotels/hostels, in restaurants, on busses and trains, etc. On this planet, we really are more alike than we are different. This comes out readily while we travel. Culture Shock helps this along.
William Pollard is credited with saying: “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement.” Culture shock has a way of exposing our deepest values, motives and prejudices. Not all are clean and friendly. Travel is a pursuit that oddly brings us home to our core with greater ease than if we’re sitting comfortably in our armchair at home. Being exposed on the outside exposes us on the inside too. Taking advantage of this exposure is an opportunity for personal growth.
There is a limit to how much we can endure as humans, but the truth is, our limits are far further off than we can ever begin to imagine. Culture shock is an opportunity that positions us to discover our mental and physical endurance (or lack thereof). Arriving in a new city in the middle of the night with no reservations is a chance to learn something new about ourselves. Stumbling into an alley empty of all but the most unsavory people and stray dogs is a chance to push through the boundaries of what it really means to be “safe”. As we survive the experiences that inevitably arise through the culture shock of travel, we find our limitations flee from our conscious.
Growing as we spend time outside of our comfort zone is necessary for our development. Taking comfort in this is a muscle that needs to be worked. It’s a skill that can be developed. I’ve found no more immersive way than surrendering to the inevitable feelings from culture shock that arise as we explore a culture different from our own.
Featured photo credit: CandyBoxImages/shutterstock.com via shutterstock.com
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