One of the most rewarding and challenging experiences on a year abroad is dealing with cultural differences. Whether you’re comparing the UK to France or China to the UK, just about everywhere in the world will offer a distinctive cultural difference.
It is very normal to deal with culture shock, this goes beyond just the language barrier; it can also extend to the difference in what is defined as ‘normal’ everyday life and values to which each country adheres. On my year abroad I went to Hong Kong, so from touchdown there was a change in language, climate, landscape and culture – all in all, everything was completely different, meaning the cultural shock was hard to escape from.
Living standards were low, spoken English was limited, and an Asian way of life was far from anything else I had ever experienced. Everything went at a much slower pace of life; including the pace of walking. There was also incredibly strange foods, and the local eating habits were (in regard to my British mentality) “impolite”, because they were distracting and noisy. On the other hand I was unable to use chopsticks and therefore to the Chinese that was considered “impolite”. I soon realized how important it was and so I learnt how to eat with chopsticks.
Some of the other culture changes I quickly learned about were that if you went to a traditional restaurant, then sitting with strangers to fill a table was totally normal. Also, sharing food with friends is essential, and having noodles for breakfast or for a midnight snack was just good logic. Although my example here is distinctly Asian, food culture is especially dynamic across the entire world; in Western Europe dinner is later and a lot more family orientated than in Britain.
Culture changes can make such a massive impact on your normal life, from my time in China I gained a newfound love and respect for my family through this Asian perspective on prioritising quality time together. Friendships and relationships seemed much more genuine, and looking after your elders is considered a moral responsibility.
Most importantly, I learned that instead of being so individually driven, Asian culture valued collectivism. In addition, I experienced a culture influenced by religion, which is why it was no surprise to me that I found so much peace in this chaotic city when Buddhism is its leading religion.
A state religion has precedence on national holidays, so in the West we celebrate Christmas and Easter, but whilst in China, celebrations for either holiday massively diminished which took some adjusting to. Instead of celebrating my usual New Years, I instead got to celebrate a Chinese New Year a month later; along with a host of distinctive Chinese holidays. This was an incredible experience and a massive change but that’s to be expected when living anywhere else in the world. Change isn’t a bad thing, living abroad gives you the chance to celebrate and embrace the country’s identity through its national holidays and values.
Ultimately, different cultures force you out of your comfort zone. This can be both enchanting and terrifying at the beginning, but if you’re willing to embrace the differences, the good and the bad, you will learn so much more about people, place, culture, the world and yourself. I started my year abroad as an English speaker from a small town, who had never experienced culture outside of Europe, and had very few international friends and little knowledge. When I returned, I had (limited) language skills, an international friend group with places to crash around the world, chopstick skills on point, a new culture understanding, a wider perspective and a longing to return and learn more.