In 2016, I did a semester in Galway, Ireland as an exchange student. Before leaving, we were warned several times about something called the culture shock – “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”
In Ireland, I never experienced those feelings of disorientation because the country is very western and pretty much what I had expected. It was easy to adjust to the culture, to start saying ‘how are you’ to random people on their morning stroll and ordering a pint of Smithwick’s in the pub.
And even after the exchange period, I didn’t even think about culture shock because wherever I went, it was easy for me to adjust and navigate through the customs and norms of the different countries.
But that was when I was traveling in Europe. Now I’m in Southeast Asia – and things are a bit different.
Bugs, Dirt and Worn Out Towels
From Koh Samui we took the bus back to Bangkok and then flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We were welcomed by the business city of magnificent sky scrapers and the taxi drive from the airport to our hotel into the middle of the bustling city center felt exciting – something so different after the small cities and islands of Thailand.
But then we checked into our hotel.
“A New Hotel!” the sign said, and the name of the place even had the word royal in it. But when we got into our room… I’ve never cried because of accommodation but now I did. Partly because I was so very tired after many days of energy consuming travel, but partly because of the shock of how much worse the room was compared to the thai standard we had learned to know and deal with.
Why it was a shock, you wonder? Well…
The bed sheets were filled with holes and dirt that doesn’t come off anymore. The walls were dirty, the paint was peeling off, the towels felt and looked like they had been used for 10 years already. The wi-fi didn’t work, there was a smell, we had no window in the room and worst of all – there were so many bugs who liked to spend their time crawling on the beds.
I wanted to check out from the hotel the same second we had checked in, I was sure I couldn’t take it for the three nights we had booked at this place. However, my partner convinced me to wait a moment, that we would consider everything after we had eaten some food.
Realizing the Social Norms
Food helped me take a breath, to gather my thoughts. The friendliness of the locals also helped a great deal. We decided to look around the nearby city quarters, check out the Chinatown and even hop on a tourist bus to see the city. For a few hours, everything was okay and I managed to forget the hotel room I didn’t want to return to.
But then the evening came and I started noticing more things that didn’t feel quite alright. How there were almost no women on the streets, only some other female tourists and a few Muslim women with their husbands and families. How no one asked me what I wanted, only what my partner wanted because he’s a man. How I wanted to avoid eye contact with the men on the street because it didn’t feel safe.
It felt confusing not to see what you’re used to and realize that in this city there are different social norms that steer the society.
After a one-hour hop-on hop-off bus tour we hopped off in the city center and went for dinner at the busy food street next to our hotel. There, I was again faced with things I had not been expecting.
Noise, Always Noise
I was overwhelmed with what I saw, what I heard and what I felt.
I saw people who had lost some of their limbs; a man with severe burn marks on his face; another with a physically distorted body – all sitting on the ground begging for money from the tourists walking by.
For me, it was so hard accept that I couldn’t do anything to help them.
And if the local people weren’t there begging, they were doing everything in their power to try to sell me food or other products (or mostly my partner because he’s a man and the culture in the country is very dominated by men). They were ringing bells, yelling, honking, shoving menus in our faces, some of them walking after us persuading us to eat at their restaurant. It was so primitive – to use noise to attract attention, because if they get your attention it’ll be easier to sell you things.
I wasn’t enjoying the city at all – how could I? Kuala Lumpur was filled with noise, always noise wherever we went, whether it was noise made by people or the honking cars. Or there was always people trying to get your attention – there wasn’t room or silence to sit down and think.
I just wanted to get away from everything, I just wanted to find a quiet place.
For a while I thought I wasn’t fit to travel, that I couldn’t do it – I wasn’t even having fun.
But after a couple of day of negative reactions to everything around me, I realized what was happening. I was experiencing a culture shock, something I had heard about years before.
It explained why I had so much trouble adjusting to the new country.
Peace Through Understanding
When I realized this, it became a bit easier to understand the awful feelings and thoughts inside my head. This was a natural reaction when exposed to something completely new – and the most important thing was to know that even this feeling of disorientation will pass. By understanding it became easier to sleep in the room (after getting rid of the bugs); we started going somewhere less crowded where there weren’t bell-ringing or yelling locals trying to get my attention, and I got used to seeing more men than women on the streets.
Still, I felt very happy happy when we traveled North to Georgetown in Penang three nights later. This is a small city with less sound, less tourists and better accommodation. This place is also chance to breath out, to realize what has been happening inside my head and give Malaysia a new chance.
Experiencing a culture shock was awful and for a moment it felt like traveling wasn’t anything for me. But after realizing what was happening, what I was experiencing, I thought that at the same time, the rollercoaster of feelings and thoughts about the city and its culture was a valuable lesson in the process of learning to know myself.
Now I know one of the possible downsides of travel and how I react to these things. I also know that I can deal with rooms without windows, I’m okay with taking a shower above the toilet, and I know to walk away from areas that are too touristic for my own good.
And the most important thing – despite the heavy shock I’m still on the road, still backpacking. I’m ready for the next adventure, the next town and the new people we’ll meet on the road.