When you decide on a new travel destination, there are many things that you can prepare for. What foods you want to eat, what kind of clothes to buy, and what tourist attractions to see are just a handful of things you can plan out. There are some things that you cannot prepare for though.
Like how you will be the only face in a crowd of hundreds with olive toned skin. Or realizing how wasteful you are with your napkins compared to your dining companions. Or how bushy and frizzy your hair is in a sea of well-groomed heads.
Culture shock is the discomfort one feels when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life. No matter how good you are at planning, you will inevitably feel some sort of discomfort when traveling to another part of the world.
But this discomfort is also what makes traveling so valuable.
We travel to other countries to learn about a new way of life. When we feel different and “other,” it makes us re-consider what we call “normal” ways of living.
During the first week in October, I visited one of my good friends in Japan. We mostly stayed in the metropolitan areas, but I still read up on the aspects of Japanese culture that usually surprise foreigners. I knew that Japan is a homogeneous country so the lack of ethnic diversity did not phase me. In fact, I faced culture shock in the last place I expected: Tokyo Disney.
I knew that the Tokyo amusement park has similar rides as California’s Disneyland and its own special rides and specialty food too. What caught me off guard was Duffy, the bear souvenir. It seemed like one in ten people owned the toy and they carried it around the park with them all day.
Is this a special promotional item? Do they get a prize if they hold it all day? Do they ever put the bear down? I finally asked my friend about it. She was shocked I never heard of Duffy. She said that the bear was a gift from Mickey Mouse to Minnie. I searched online and learned that this is a fabricated story for marketing purposes. The bear had no history in any Disney cartoon.
I then asked her the important question: Why do people bring the toy with them in the park? She said that the toy is cute. That was the only reason people needed.
To this day I still don’t know why people carry that toy around and I probably will never get a better explanation. To me, carrying a bear in an amusement park is impractical and inconvenient. But to the park guests in Tokyo, it is perfectly acceptable.
Sometimes a culture is going to do things in a certain way that you don’t understand. In these situations, do not try to rationalize actions and behaviors based on what you know. Take this as an opportunity to better learn a new way of thinking.
Travel is not just a matter of moving from one place to the next. It is about expanding your mind and learning someone else’s definition of normal. We’re so used to looking at the world through one way of thinking and that can stunt our emotional, mental, and spiritual growth. If open yourself to the discomfort and awkwardness, a whole new world will open its doors to you.