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Culture Shock: Friend or Foe?

by Andy Flores
Overcoming Culture Shock in Costa Rica | AIFS Study Abroad

Last Updated on June 21, 2019 by Andy Flores

Before I had traveled to Costa Rica, and even during my first day here, the process of culture shock was explained to me.  Culture shock occurs when one travels to another culture and must adapt to that culture. The process can be mentally challenging and take it’s toll on travelers. I wasn’t really worried about it at all. I have traveled quite often and thought that this was going to be a piece of cake. I thought I would adapt like it was nothing.

Another culture is something to explore, like a forest or mountain. I was very excited, but as everyone tried to warn me about, culture shock set in right when they said it would.  If it had not been for a solid defense strategy, I may have ended up in a hostile phase and would have had a much different experience my first two weeks in San José.

My first week, I started strong. Orientation was great. They had a little pizza party for us and had traditional Costa Rican dancers come in, typical for parties. These dancers made us interact with one another and see who wasn’t afraid to do something out of their comfort zone. I was hesitant at first, but I eventually joined in and followed the line.

After all of that was said and done, we got to explore the city and learn some history of our new culture. We had ice cream and talked with our Resident Directors. Everything was simply perfect. I remember walking home from my first day of actual class. The professor was beyond nice and my classmates were awesome. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is amazing.  Everything is perfect and this is going to be the time of my life.

What I had done was entered the “honeymoon phase” of culture shock. Everything seemed like a dream and too good to be true. To me, it was better. Even walking home in the pouring rain, because I didn’t bring an umbrella, was an amazing experience. I was on cloud nine and felt like nothing could bring me down.

The first week was filled with meeting tons of new people. A group of us from the AIFS program would go out to walk around or eat. We had all gotten along better than I could have hoped for. I wasn’t expecting the honeymoon phase to end so quickly.

AIFS planned an excursion for us to go to Manuel Antonio National Park.  There, we were to see beaches, monkeys, and possibly a sloth or two.  So we set out that Friday afternoon and headed down. The first night we had dinner in this restaurant that was actually a plane and just spent the night in the hotel. The next day we went to the park and had a guided tour. During this tour, we were told that mango trees are apparently in the same family as poison ivy plants, but that an extremely small percentage of people were actually allergic to it, so I didn’t worry about that in the least bit.  We spent the morning walking around learning about various plants, animals, and insects, then spent the afternoon just hanging around the beach.

Overcoming Culture Shock in Costa Rica | AIFS Study Abroad

Overcoming Culture Shock in Costa Rica | AIFS Study Abroad

After my friends and I had climbed every rock we could find and traveled remarkably far into the ocean, we decided to hike around the forest a little more. During the end of our first hike, it started to drizzle, and by time we made it to the entrance of the trails, it was a complete downpour. It was the sort of rain where it felt like you were in a low-pressured shower. I wrapped my towel around my backpack and just let the rain hit me; after all, it is Costa Rica.

What I hadn’t thought about was the fact that about before my arrival to Costa Rica, I had gotten in some poison ivy — okay, a lot of poison ivy. Walking through hundreds of mango trees with the rain pouring down on me after hitting those trees made my body react. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was once again covered in the rash. I wanted to curl up in my bed and sleep until it was time for me to go home. Not home to San José, home to the United States. I began to feel so homesick I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. Should I tell someone? Should I keep it to myself? I took a much needed rest and when I had woken up, my room was filled with a few of my friends.

When I did get back to San José, it had only gotten worse. I laid in bed most of the day and only really left for class. Culture shock had set in and I was in the “hostile phase.” I wanted to go home, but I did the only thing I could think of at the time: I talked to people.

Overcoming Culture Shock in Costa Rica | AIFS Study Abroad

I told everyone I could what was happening to me, and believe it or not this was the best decision I made. I told my host mom, my friends, even the Resident Directors of the program — and they all supported me. It was this reassurance that I wasn’t alone that had helped. It was knowing that there were people in Costa Rica that actually cared about me that helped me through this phase.

My host mom gave me medicine and my friends tried to take me out to lunch. The utter feeling of loneliness had slowly crept its way out of me until, eventually, so did the poison ivy (or Mango, whatever it was). By the weekend, I was free and clear and had become so close with the people around me, I had started wishing I could get that week back. It wasn’t the “readaptive phase” and it wasn’t adjustment, it was finding the right people at the right time and trusting them to help me through it. And even though they had no idea how much they had actually helped, they brought me from a homesick wreck to having the time of my life.

To anyone out there reading this who may be feeling the same, whether it be poison ivy or a cold or even just plain old homesickness, I can speak from experience that it does get better. The feeling will go away, and you do not want to spend a second missing out on what’s in front of you. Don’t be afraid to trust your cohort, and do not close your eyes and wish for time to escape you.

This post was contributed by Andy Flores, who studied abroad with AIFS in San José, Costa Rica.

Overcoming Culture Shock in Costa Rica | AIFS Study Abroad

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