Culture Shock

The moment I got off the plane in Kigali, Rwanda, I took a huge, deep breath through my nose. It was my first time breathing Rwandan air, I thought joyfully, in my sleep-deprived, nervous-excited state. I had never breathed African air before.

That moment was so indicative of how I was feeling—despite the long flight and the relative uncertainty before me, I was intoxicated by this warm, exotic air. I was woozy with anticipation. I didn’t quite know what was ahead of me, but I knew it was going to be meaningful. And an adventure.

That was the first night. Through the first week, the feeling continued. Everything was so fresh and new that all I could do was breathe it in.

Once I had my fill, though, the culture shock set in, around the end of the first month. It’s normal. The people you’re with on your program might experience it at different times, but you will no doubt all experience it. Maybe you get a craving for a specific food you have at home, that food that makes you feel better when you’re having a bad day, but your host family is serving rice and beans, again. Maybe it’s just the way people conduct themselves, and you don’t understand why people don’t think it’s rude when they stare unblinkingly at you in public. You will get frustrated. You will see that this is a real place that you are living in, and like all real places, it’s not perfect.

This is the learning part. The part when you learn that not all people think the same way. The part where you figure out that where we come from has an enormous impact on how we see the world. You might say that you’re not like other Americans—at least, not the Americans who never own a passport—but there is a part of you that is wholeheartedly American. This part tends to dictate how you feel things should be done, especially in a foreign country. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you just have to make sure you make room for a new part, the part that will come from your new home.

If you let yourself, your host country will have an impact on you and your identity. Even if it just manifests itself in small ways when you return – like the nightly cup of tea with honey that reminds me of my host mom – you get to take parts of your new identity home.

The cultural frustration is just part of the process. It will pass, and then you’ll feel in love with everything again, and then you’ll probably hate it for a moment until the love comes back. Ultimately, the good moments will be one thousand times worth the bad ones.

Take a deep breath and drink it all in.