How to adapt to a new culture?

I’ve travelled a lot during my past five years. I have lived in Australia, Hong Kong and China, not forgetting I immigrated to Finland from Estonia. During my living experience in all these different countries I have learned how to master the skill of acceptance: the essence of culture adaptation.

People keep telling me how great it must be to travel and experience different cultures and all that. And yes it is pretty awesome, but there’s a side to it all that no one really know about or ever thinks about. That side is the difficulty of culture adaptation, it’s not all fun all the time and can be mentally very challenging.

During my travels I have also met a lot of different people and unfortunately some of them just couldn’t handle the differences and the adaptation process. To prevent this and help people who are heading abroad for travels or longer stay, I have created a list of phases one will, and in most cases has to, face in culture adaptation. All phases in the list (except number 5) have to be passed to truly adapt to a culture.

The purpose of this list is to raise awareness of culture adaptation and it can work as a checklist when needed to help and recognize one’s situation.
This list is made based on my own experience, the duration of each phase is only a generalisation.

1. The Honeymoon –phase
First weeks, duration around 1-3 weeks; after the first day of exhaustion of travelling; suitable for holiday trips

  • Everything is new and exciting
  • The sun is shining and the birds are singing
  • Ready to explore
  • Trying to learn the language
  • “So different, so cool, my home country sucks!”
  • “Why don’t we have this back home?”

2. The fake adaptation –phase
Right after honeymoon phase; duration around 1-3 months

  • Living your life like anywhere else
  • Creating everyday routines
  • Working days, weekends
  • No time to learn the language
  • “I live here now.”

(3. The Boredom –phase
Stepping phase moving from phase 2 to phase 4; lasts around 1-2 weeks depending on personal tolerance abilities; can be bypassed by some individuals

  • Been there done that
  • This place is really small
  • Home sickness
  • “There’s nothing to see or do!”)

4. The I Hate You All – depression aka The Reality slaps you in the face –phase
Comes unexpectedly out of nowhere; duration depends on the individual;
Warning: can last for long time periods and cannot be passed by some individuals

Note: most people deal with this phase by sticking to expat communities to reinforce their feelings -> enhances the possibility to get stuck to this phase

  • Everything and everyone is getting on your nerves
  • Everything is so different
  • Nothing seems to work
  • Only noticing the negatives
  • Loneliness or extreme loyalty to expat communities
  • Major communication problems with locals arise
  • Trying to understand why everything is the way it is
  • A lot of swearing and anger
  • Any questions beginning with Why?
  • “Argh!”, “This place sucks!” and “I wish I was home.”

5. The acceptance
Can only be achieved if an individual is willing and not fighting against it

  • Culture adaptation
  • Accepting the culture and the environment as it is
  • Appreciating the culture the way it is
  • Not looking for shortcomings or faults
  • Realizing that fighting and blaming won’t get you nowhere
  • Noticing the positive little things
  • Being as local as possible
  • Slowly learning the language
  • Becoming friends with the locals
  • No more “Why?” questions or any questioning of the culture
  • “In a weird way I belong here.” and/or “What a wonderful place, but I don’t think I can live here for too long.”

I have seen many people get stuck in the phase 4 and it’s nasty. It really ruins the whole travel experience when all one has left in their mind is negative memories. The problem seems to be that most, especially us Westerns, are used to question everything and for us it is hard to accept something we don’t understand. This quality gets us stuck in to a phase, where in a way we are fighting against the culture.

Questions like “Why does he do it like that, when it’s more efficient to do it like this” don’t really get you anywhere. The most important thing is to realize that it’s a completely different culture, I repeat, A CULTURE. Things are done and are the way there are because they are all part of the culture and sometimes cannot be rationalized, explained, it just is. When a person realizes this fact, he or she can get much more out of another culture than ever before.

While in living in Shanghai one day when I was crossing a road I got hit by a motorbike, fortunately nothing too serious, few bruises and a fracture finger. In a city like Shanghai road accident happen all the time and instead of putting up a show and fighting with the driver, who had just ran me over. He looked me in the eyes I looked at him and we both left the scene. The acceptance of Chinese culture.

Dressed bunnies are sold in China and Thailand

Dressed bunnies are sold in China and Thailand

People in China like to queue

People in China like to queue

Bugs are a delicacy in most Asian countires

Bugs are a delicacy in most Asian countires


About Yyelenaa

a world citizen located in finland.. trying to figure out the strangeness in the world
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2 Responses to How to adapt to a new culture?

  1. derek says:

    nice categorization yelena. i quite agree with the stages and descriptions. definitely had a very played out stage 4 myself in sh, but i think i can say ive moved onto stage 5 now so i was quite happy and ‘accepting’ this recent visit.

    mind you, there is a difference between accepting being hit by a local chinese driver, and just plain surrendering. maybe it’s a mix of both sometimes haha.

    • Yyelenaa says:

      I like the surrendering part, it should be phase 6: the phase where one goes too far
      starts to look and act like a local, only speaks the local language, doesn’t remember where he/she is from

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