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How to Lower the Voltage on Your Culture Shock When Teaching Abroad

Joelein Mendez

It’s inevitable, entering any new environment makes one likely to experience some form of culture shock. There’s just no avoiding it. Even you, yes you on the other side of the internet, have experienced this to some degree. What’s that, you say? You’re reading this because you have never left the country and are trying to avoid embarrassment. Think again.

Though not quite as “shocking” as moving to another country to teach, chances are you have already experienced some form of divergence from your own culture. Remember that friend of yours? You know the one I’m talking about, the one who seamlessly slips into a different language when talking to their grandparents. I’m sure they’ve shocked you a few times. Heck, I’ve been that friend. Having lived my whole life on the border of Mexico, I have stunned several of my out-of-state friends with stories of local dishes (tripe tacos) and superstitions (La Llorona).


To an even lesser degree, the first time you went to a classmate’s house as a child must have been a bit disquieting. So tell me, what did you do when you were told you couldn’t wear shoes inside your friend’s house? That’s right, after sliding around in socks for 20 minutes, you got used to it and moved on. That’s what relocating will be like, trust me, after the food, language and customs start to sink in you’ll feel right at home.

For those who still want to reduce the initial shock from the strength of a lightning bolt to that of a 9-volt battery, it’s never too early to start preparing. Once you know your destination use every medium possible to learn customs and etiquette. Travel books are an obvious option, but nothing beats the age old adage “watch and learn”. Sampling television shows and movies from your future home will not only help you get used to hearing the spoken language, but you’ll also be able to see any hand gestures or other body language that accompany it.

Once you know your destination use every medium possible to learn customs and etiquette. Travel books are an obvious option, but nothing beats the age old adage “watch and learn”.

Another way to ease into a different culture while you are still in your hometown won’t surprise anyone familiar with cooking shows: befriend your local grocer. At the nearest ethnic market, that is. The fish monger at my local Asian market is a lovely, older gentleman prone to startling unsuspecting patrons with live crabs. Not only has he explained several Korean customs I saw on TV and didn’t quite understand, but I am also savvy to any upcoming sales. Find people around you who can help navigate you through your new life; you might just get a friend out of it.


As language teachers we can agree that the best way to become familiar with a culture and its unique traits is by learning the language. Enrolling in a course or studying the language independently can be a great way to get to know a specific culture in a more intimate manner. When we teach a language we are not only teaching words and grammar structures, but we are also teaching cultural aspects related to the language. So why not allow yourself to be on the other end of the classroom setting for a change?

Though preparation is important, remember that locals will usually see the effort you put forth and help you along the way if you ask. So get out there and try your best to fit in with your students and new friends! In the end, you might be the one who shocks them.

And what about you? Have you ever experienced culture shock while visiting a new country? How did you handle it?

About the author

Joelein is a sassy stay-at-home mom and part-time writer. She enjoys Korean soap operas and reading everything from classics to children’s books.