Travel: How to NOT cope with Culture Shocks
Last July I moved to New Delhi from a village in England. I was 20, had never been outside of Europe and the only things I knew about India had been gleaned from watching the IPL (Indian Premier League cricket). I resolved to make the absolute most of the change.
I stepped off the eight-hour flight already having pulled two all-nighters. The first was due to pre-Christmas- levels of excitement and the second because I couldn’t fall asleep on the plane. Expecting a stress heart-attack from all the caffeine keeping me upright, I managed to hail a cab. When I reached the hostel, the sensible thing would’ve been to sleep, but I was still wired and had the number of a hot guy I knew was in the city that night.
My first day at my new job—copyediting—was conducted after two nights of partying with said guy (consequently four straight nights without sleep). I tried to edit, even though words had little-to- no meaning. When asked about whether I was feeling OK, I promptly burst into tears. I was not. In hindsight, I don’t advise anyone to ‘push through’ jetlag. Grab your eye-mask and curl up on the nearest bed.
My second, brilliant, strategy was to try ALL THE THINGS. Paan is a mixture of betel leaf and nut (and pretty much whatever else the guy making it for you on the roadside wants to mix it with). Sweet paan, to a sleep-deprived, culture-shocked English girl, is borderline traumatizing. I would describe it as like being simultaneously kicked in the teeth by a Turkish delight and grabbed by the nostrils by a particularly vicious liquorice allsort. The mouth starts salivating intensely in what I can only assume is a defence mechanism.
I proceeded to eat so much meat at street-food joints that I had stomach flu symptoms for two months. I reasoned that food poisoning in India is unavoidable. So I chose to hurl myself in at the deep end, forcing my immune system to catch up. In a year, it still has not caught up, and I have become the girl that carries sanitizer everywhere.
A bloody-minded feminist, I also decided “to hell with dressing conservatively”. This found me in a bodycon dress cut down to who-knows- where in one of the oldest parts of Delhi at 11pm. It did not help that the glow cast by the streetlights made my flesh-coloured leggings look like bare legs. I attracted a crowd of about thirty gawkers. Thinking they would disperse if I moved, I started towards the market. They did not disperse; instead they followed me for more than an hour. Sometimes it is definitely worth conforming to social expectations in a new country.
If I could go back, I don’t know that I would change my behaviour. It made for one hell of an interesting first few months. That said, I wouldn’t recommend my approach either. When you travel to such a different place, you become a child again. Everything is new and different, you have questions about all of it and the world can feel overwhelming.
When you arrive in a new country, it’s an important time to take care of yourself. The country will still be there when you emerge from your jetlagged, culture-shocked haze. So the advice of this now-seasoned traveller is: everything in moderation.