Culture shock is hard no matter what. Dear newbie, be gentle with yourself.

by Katherine Seat

Dear Friend,

I’m so excited to hear you are getting ready to leave your passport country and move to my host country. It’s great to hear about all the preparation you’ve been doing over the past few years to get to this point. Now you’re at the point where you actually have to think about what to pack!

You asked what apps were good for language learning. Sounds like you are eager to get a taste of the local language even before your formal classes start. From the way you asked, it seemed like you assumed I would know. It took me a while to realise my answer:  I used cassette tapes when I was at your stage.

My first year in our host country was difficult. Transport and medical care were constant challenges.  I spent a good portion of my first year sitting on the back of a motorbike taxi trying to direct the driver. After all those bumpy roads my back needed physiotherapy.  The drivers didn’t read maps, and the map only covered a tiny part of the city anyway. So it was up to me, my sense of direction and my brand new language skills. I was often lost and wishing public bathrooms were a thing.

But now that tuk-tuks are easier to find, I haven’t been on a motorbike taxi for years.  With internet on our phones we can see the whole city map — game changer! Combine that with ride hailing apps, and you might not need to spend so much time taking scenic routes. My back is happy there are so many smooth, sealed roads these days. So you probably won’t have the same transport troubles as I had.

Options for medical care stressed me out. I was told there was one clinic I could go to, but one doctor’s appointment cost about the same as a month’s rent. Other clinics cost only $2.50 per visit, but I was told they were only for locals. Not only had I moved to a place with more diseases and traffic accidents, but there was also reduced access to good medical care.

Things changed quickly. In my third year a new hospital opened. It was cheaper than the other good option, and better than the cheap options. Hurrah! Finally, good affordable medical care. But now more than a decade on, I consider that hospital too expensive to go to. These days I overhear expats discussing which doctor they see. I even know of several foreigners who have given birth in-country. So you probably won’t have the same fears about not being able to see a doctor as I did.

Discovering all my first-year stresses don’t exist anymore, I feel jealous. Perhaps your first year will be a walk in the park compared to mine. In fact, you can literally go for a walk in a park right near your house. One of the things I missed that first year (and in the years since) was being able to go for a walk anywhere, let alone a nice, green park with smooth paths.

However, I know changing countries remains a huge adjustment despite some practical things appearing easier. You are already hitting a few of the top stressors just by relocating. Plus, you are in a different family and work situation to me, so you will have added challenges I won’t even be aware of. And despite some of the changes making things easier, other changes make things harder.

I had thought that after all my hard work making it through that first year, I would have some advice to share. I’m frustrated to realize that I don’t have any practical tips for you, but there is something I wish I had known at the time. Well, I did know it, but I didn’t get just how true it is:

Culture shock is really hard, so go easy on yourself.

Yep, that’s all. It’s hard, go easy.

Maybe you are already well-versed in this. I know I thought I was. I remember telling myself it’s unrealistic to get those 10 things on my to-do list done. It might have seemed doable in my passport country, but now I’ll be happy if I just get one of the 10 done.  Culture shock is just so exhausting, and you don’t know how things work in your host country or what to expect.

Although I told myself that at the time, I’m only just starting to realise now, all these years later, that what I was up against was even harder than I had thought. Why did I even have a to-do list?

And while you are being kind to yourself, be kind to those of us who have been here longer.

You might hear us say “You can’t get fresh milk in-country” when clearly you can.  Or “Don’t go out after 9 pm” but then find you are expected to be at a weekly work meeting that goes past 10 pm.

We’ve spent so much time and energy learning to live here that we feel we have expertise to offer, but we don’t know everything anymore as things keeps changing.

Some of my hard won skills are now obsolete. I felt I had conquered so much, but some of those achievements aren’t useful anymore.

So be kind to yourself. It’s harder than you think: you are going through culture shock.

Thanks for your graciousness towards me, and be kind to those who have been here longer than you. We might be going through culture shock upon culture shock.

And let me know if you want to borrow the language learning cassette tapes.


Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. Read Katherine’s other posts at Linktree and connect with her on Instagram.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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