Experiencing My First Culture Shock

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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.

The Paradise Island Controversy

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The past five days we’ve been on an island that at first glance felt like one of those paradise islands you see on TV or in travel magazines: coconut trees, bright blue ocean and drinks at the sand beach.

When we came here, I was ready to relax by the sea after exploring the north of Thailand.

So, we booked an Airbnb-apartment owned by a lovely retired French couple who fixed us up with a scooter and gave us recommendations on the best beaches and restaurants.

The first day, we took the scooter up the steep hills to a place called The Jungle Club and sat there for three hours just taking in the view. I even cried a little, to be honest, because the view over the sea was so beautiful and I felt so relaxed after the 28-hour-long bus journey from Chiang Rai to Koh Samui.

But after a day or so, the paradise island began to feel like there was something wrong. In a way, at first, we were seeing this one side of the island but then starting to realize the other side of it – like two sides of a coin. One side of it was the perfect beach days and drinks at sunset, while the other side of the coin was a modern colony.

It sounds harsh, I know, but I’ll try to explain why this feeling came to me.

The Expat and Tourist Island

Koh Samui is an island in Southern Thailand with a population of over 63,000. It’s one of the more popular tourist resorts of the country but in addition to a great amount of tourists even in the off-season (as the rainy months are rolling in), there are many expats who live on Koh Samui year-round.

The active expat life is clearly visible on the island.

While driving around the island with the scooter (I was the one sitting in the back and in charge of navigating so I had time to look around while my partner focused on driving alongside all the other vehicles), I could spot French boulangeries, English and Irish pubs, restaurants serving French food or the German currywurst.

The Thai culture, however, shined with its absence in many parts of the island – at least that’s what it felt like while we explored the island.

Of course, there are many local restaurants owned by Thai people and in many of the restaurants, hotels and spas the workers are Thai – but they are all there to serve the tourists, to make them feel comfortable. This is done by serving the food the tourists know and like, and by having the menus in foreign languages the westerners are familiar with.

Or if they are not the ones in charge of the usually small family businesses, they are the ones to do the service work for the westerners. They drive the car, clean the house and the pool, cook the food or provide other necessary services. The Thai people just as the rest of us need to make their living – and the rich westerners are there to give it to them.

In one way, there’s nothing wrong with this. But the thing is, it comes with a cost.

Oh, The Controversies

Koh Samui is a paradise – if you have the right kind of house, scooter and car for it. All around the island we could see new construction building up these houses that are advertised as luxury pool villas. The houses with many bedrooms are built out of concrete painted white, a terrace looking over the view and a pool to swim in.

But oh, the controversies in this perfect picture.

Water is regarded as something precious here and tourists are asked to save water whenever possible – but the villas need to have their pools to be attractive to those with the money to buy them.

Concrete is far from the more environment-friendly building materials – but it’s cheap to use for building and the demand for villas is growing.

The main source of income for the island is tourism and the streets are filled with small food stalls selling fresh fruit shakes, pork and chicken on a stick and coconut water – but there is nowhere else to put the plastic trash than on the ground. The amount of trash in this country is shocking.

It’s like the westerners have taken over the island and they do it at whatever cost on the environment and the local culture as long as they get their paradise.

Missing the Local Culture

The tourism and the expat life on this island are the ones that make it thrive, yes, but at the same time they are the ones killing the island, slowly but surely. During our first two weeks of travel, I had gotten used to the northern cities where it was often a struggle to find a way of communicating with the locals, where in many restaurants the menus were primarily in Thai and the city was about their own culture. I can’t say they have the same here – and it makes me sad.

It even feels a bit wrong to be here, to support the very western culture of this island and I can’t help but wonder how the local Thai people feel about the development. Are they truly okay with working for the westerners? Are they aware of the environmental damage this kind of tourism is doing to their beautiful island?

As we are leaving the country to the next (hello, Malaysia!), I’m left with mixed feelings about the South. I loved the Thai food here, the ocean and the amazing landscape, but the enjoyment comes with a cost – even I, a westerner, am adding to by being here.