Culture Shock When Volunteering Overseas

Travelling of any kind requires an adjustment period once you touch down. If you’re a volunteer, you’re probably going to immerse yourself in a community very far away from your own. You’ll be living in conditions and performing tasks out of your comfort zone. Volunteers can undergo a range of emotions while settling into their chosen project and accommodation.

Once you’ve recovered from jet lag, you might have some doubts about the suitability of the project you’ve chosen. You might miss family and friends at home more than you bargained for. You might worry that you haven’t packed correctly for your trip, that you won’t meet people you can get along with – there are any number of reasons for even experienced volunteers to feel a little bit on edge! You might, quite simply, be experiencing a well-known phenomenon known as culture shock.

Culture shock is defined as the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life, following a move between social environments. How do volunteers know whether they are experiencing the normal tiring effects of travelling, or if they are experiencing culture shock?

To figure out what’s going on in your head, ask yourself the following questions.

  1. What are you feeling? (Exhaustion, anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness?)
  2. What or who are these feelings associated with? (A particular person, the volunteer organisation, your host country, the people or community you’re interacting with?)
  3. Is there something specific that sets off these feelings? (something in your immediate living environment, something that was said to you, not being able to express yourself?)

Once you’ve assessed your emotional state, go through the following checklist and you should be able to get some direction and figure out some solutions.

  • What are you doing to deal with your emotions? (Calling or e-mailing your home, sleeping, disassociating from the tasks your project requires, disassociating yourself from your fellow volunteers or the people you work with?)
  • Are your physical needs being met? (Getting enough protein and vitamins, missing something you’re used to at home but can’t get in your host country, sleeping too much or not enough, getting sufficient exercise?) It’s important that volunteers remember to take care of their basic physical needs – these can be neglected if you’re overseas in an unfamiliar environment, and can impact your emotional wellbeing.
  • Can you get some outside perspective on your problem? (Talking with a member of the volunteer organisation, or a fellow volunteer, or looking for resources online?)
  • Are you assuming things about your hosts or the work you’re doing that might be blurring your perspective, and making you overlook the benefits of your work? Are you getting annoyed when you see a task isn’t being done the way YOU would do it? Are you being truly open-minded and performing your duties for the good of the community in the long term, not short-term?

Once you’ve had a good old self-analysis session, you’ll probably be able to spot issues that are frustrating you or otherwise making your experience seem harder or less pleasant than it should be, and you can work through those issues.

It all sounds a bit serious, but in actual fact it’s perfectly normal and common – you aren’t going crazy, and you’re not unequipped to be a good volunteer! Human beings are wonderfully complicated creatures – we love stability and comfort, but at the same time we want to challenge ourselves, to get out of our comfort zone, to help other humans despite the costs to ourselves.

So how do you as a volunteer spot the “symptoms” of culture shock? You could be feeling a fairly high level of discomfort or frustration as you deal with challenges that arise in the course of your volunteer trip. Be brutally honest with yourself - you might have underlying cultural biases you were unaware of. Don’t beat yourself up though – as a species, we are extremely adept at hiding things about ourselves, especially TO ourselves! Unfamiliar surroundings can often challenge these hidden biases in unexpected ways and make you feel unfamiliar things. But this is a good sign –you can expose them to the light and get to work on them.

To deal with culture shock, volunteers should learn to pinpoint underlying issues, so you can deal with them “in the field”. For example, you might be at an education project where you’re not spending as much time with the students as you would like. You might be asked to perform other “non-educational” tasks, and this is making you feel as though the project is ineffective and your time is being wasted.

Think about it from another perspective. Many Westerners are goal-driven and tend to rush around, work towards self-imposed deadlines, and organise things pretty rigidly. This isn’t the way in other cultures, though. As a volunteer in a developing country, you have to fit in with the timeframe, schedule and needs of its communities – not your own! Perhaps it’s just as important for you to interact with the community teachers out of school hours, as it is to assist them in the classroom. Perhaps one of the project’s main aims is for volunteers to experience the community lifestyle and interact with all its members on a more intimate level than just in a classroom or on a sportsfield. Chat to your project organisers about your concerns – you might well find that they are utilising your skills in the best way possible for that particular project at that particular point in time.

Perhaps your culture shock manifests itself in being overly fearful of the poverty or even violence you might be a witness to. It’s a fact of life that where luxuries are non-existent and even basic survival is a daily struggle, things can happen that can be very jarring for Western sensibilities. People can be punished very harshly for what seems like very minor infractions, or obvious suffering can be seemingly completely ignored. Things happen in public that are kept behind closed doors in developed countries. A well-organised project will be run by people who are well aware of any real or perceived threats in your surroundings and can put your mind at ease. Remember that you’re there to help a little bit, not there to save the whole world!

You might be feeling homesick and lonely, and have a hard time engaging with the people and environment you find yourself in. You might feel compelled to spend a lot of time sleeping, surfing social media to see what your friends are doing or calling your family. This is fine up to a point, but bear in mind that FULLY engaging with your host community will help you feel better faster than hiding yourself away. Talk to the people as much as you can, with genuine interest. Consider attending a local social event or two – nothing breaks down language and social barriers faster than a good party! Perhaps consider reading up on the history and language of the people you engage with, in your spare time, and asking questions – context can give clarity. Explore your local environment as much as possible, and discuss it with the locals.

Don’t be afraid to ask your volunteer organisation for advice if you’re concerned about your safety or the appropriateness of your reactions – they have all been through the same things! You should be able to find a wealth of information and experience by talking to your fellow volunteers as well, especially if you are relatively new to the big wonderful world of volunteering. Communication is the key.


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