Before I left for Salamanca, Spain, I envisioned my experience to be a very specific way: my host family and I would become very close; my roommate and I would do everything together; I would make many friends; I would learn all of the Spanish I can; I would take many amazing photographs. While all of these prophesies came true to some degree, my experience has included some emotions that I did not expect either, like anxiety and guilt.
Everyone told me about culture shock: what it was, and how to combat it. I did not really expect that I would experience it, though, as I am a very open person. Even though there are many differences between Spanish and American cultures, I was confident that I would adjust fairly well. However, I did not realize the different ways that culture shock can seep in.
It all started when I went to London. I know, the last place you would think to experience culture shock as an American, right? But there are definitely visible differences between the culture in the UK and the US! For example, in the United States, we walk on the right side of the sidewalk. When I went to London, though, I was not sure where to walk: do they walk on the left side of the sidewalk, since they drive on the left side of the road? Or is it the same as in the United States? Although this sounds like a small detail, these small details can add up! It seemed like there was no flow of pedestrian traffic in London, and that people just walked wherever they wanted. As a person who is hyper-aware of my relations with other people, it made me uncomfortable to not know the “proper way” to walk throughout the city.
Similarly, in Spain, there is not really much instruction on how to enter a restaurant. For the most part, each party just seats themselves at any available table, unless there is a hostess stand. However, this was a little stressful when entering my first restaurant with my friends and not knowing what to do! We did not want to be rude and just sit at any table if that was not customary, but it also did not look like anyone was going to come seat us. Even during my classes, I was not sure if it was okay to leave class to use the bathroom, or if I should ask the professor first. Such small details can create some unexpected anxiety.
What proposed the most anxiety, however, was adjusting to the language. I took six years of Spanish in middle and high school, and I took a Spanish 101 class as a refresher the semester before studying in Spain. Therefore, one could say that I have learned a lot of Spanish, especially vocabulary. However, I did not realize that just because I knew vocabulary and grammar rules, did not mean that I knew how to use them in practice. When I met my host mother for the first time, I was totally overwhelmed. I knew what she was saying to me, but I had no idea how to respond! I had assumed that I would have the perfect response for all of her questions and comments, but it turns out I have some stage fright when it comes to speaking Spanish to native speakers.
The first two days in my homestay were stressful, but I quickly realized that my roommate and other friends in the program were experiencing the same anxiety towards using the language and being in a new culture. I learned to adjust, and have become much more comfortable with using Spanish in the home. Having a roommate in the same boat has been a great buffer, as she and I are experiencing the same feelings together. However, there are times when I am on my own. After class, I typically go to the markets and stores alone, so I have to speak with only my knowledge of the language. With more practice, though, it has become easier and my anxiety towards it has decreased.
Now, many people would say, “But Taylor, you are in Spain! How can you be experiencing all of this anxiety, when you are lucky enough to be visiting such a wonderful country?” Thinking about that response from others made me experience some guilt as well. How can I complain when I am in one of the most beautiful countries in the world? I felt like I was being ungrateful; my parents graciously paid for my trip to study abroad and my subsequent experience in a new culture, and here I am wishing I could speak English! However, experiencing anxiety and guilt about that anxiety is normal—there is nothing abnormal about having trouble adjusting to a new culture. Yes, I am in a wonderful place that many people wish they could be in, but this fact does not minimize or negate feelings of anxiety towards learning to live in and adjust to said place.
If you experience some anxiety and guilt while abroad, remember this: although it is important to put things in perspective, do not diminish your feelings. It will only cause further feelings of anxiety and guilt. Understand that your feelings are normal and justified, and in time, you will adjust and learn to appreciate the culture for what it is. Culture shock is nothing to be ashamed of — embrace it and push forward, and you will learn many wonderful things about yourself and the culture you are in!