5 ways I’ve experienced culture shock in Spain

culture shock in Spain

Friends, I’ve experienced culture shock in Spain. In fact, I’m experiencing it now. All of my close friends and family members already know that I’m an open book. I like to talk about my struggles and as a highly sensitive extrovert (God that’s the weirdest combo, by the way. You have overwhelming feelings and aren’t afraid to verbalise them … sometimes not in healthy ways either), I always feel the need to talk out my feelings with at least 10 people. You add in the fact that some of these people speak only your second language, and it can feel isolating.

So instead of posting one of my fun travel posts, I’ve decided to push that one back a few days and write about what is actually happening. I promised you all that I would paint an accurate picture of what life in a foreign country is like. And culture shock is a part of that experience. Everyone experiences culture shock, we just all experience it in different ways. And some don’t want to or need to talk about it. However that’s not that case for me. So I figured I would share my experience here for several reasons.

  1. You may be living overseas and experiencing similar feelings. You are not alone.
  2. Perhaps you may be living in your home country, but some of your close friends or housemates may be foreigners. This may help you understand where they’re coming from a bit more.
  3. You may have experienced this in the past … ah nostalgia.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock, according to merriam-webster.com, “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” Now I will say that I’m not sure how much preparing would prevent this. It’s inevitable that you may grow weary and tired of the differences. I can only speak to my own experiences, but I will paint a picture for you of my two experiences with it.

Nicaragua

In summer of 2015, I packed up all my things to move to Matagalpa, Nicaragua. In fact, that was the initial reason I learned to speak Spanish. I had the desire to not only live outside of the United States, but live in a culture with a different socio-economic status as the United States. At the time, I thought the only culture shock I would experience or was possible to experience was in relation to the poverty there. People have dirt floors, tin roofs and homeless children wander the streets. I remember thinking “well I’ve seen documentaries about third world poverty. It won’t shock me.” And I was right because it didn’t.

However I still experienced culture shock and I experienced it about three weeks in. It’s after your initial honeymoon stage with the country that you start to notice the little differences and they add up. Personal space and the language barrier are what did it for me. I remember riding the city bus and sitting right up against the side. A Nicaraguan girl sits down next to me and her arm is right up against mine the entire ride. I had no space on my side, so I couldn’t move. Yet it didn’t seem to bother her in the least bit. This would not happen in the US and of course made me a tad uncomfortable.

I also remember speaking Spanish and having a hard time understanding people, or having them understand me. In the end, I had to go back to the United States because my mom went to the hospital, but my time in Nicaragua will forever affect the way I see the world.

Spain

So because I had been to Spain once and experienced no culture shock (I was only there for two weeks, though) and had experienced culture shock in Nicaragua, I thought I could again avoid it here. Do you ever just laugh at your past self? I do all the time. While Spain and Nicaragua are both Spanish-speaking countries, their cultures have a lot of differences. I’m sure a Spaniard moving to Nicaragua and a Nicaraguan moving to Spain would also both experience culture shock.

I was completely right that the language barrier and personal space wouldn’t affect me that much. Yes, Spaniards do tend to not say sorry as much when they bump into each other, but overall it’s better than Nicaragua. And after a year working at a bilingual organization, my Spanish is now lightyears beyond what it was in Nicaragua. It’s still not perfect, but it bothers me way less when I don’t understand or need someone to repeat something.

At the end of the day, not all culture shock is the same. Different things in different cultures will wear on you in different ways. And while some may seem small, they can add up and seem bigger. So from now on as I continue traveling, I’m going to except something and not try to guess. Here are some of the things that have been wearing on me while in Spain.
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5. Children

I think I’ve noticed this one because children are a big part of my life here. I work at an elementary school three days a week and teach 12 hours of private English lessons each week and the majority of my students are children ages 3-8. And before I start this, I want to preface it by saying that I truly love working with children and all of my students have been a joy to get to know.

However having worked with children in the US, things are just different here. I worked at an elementary school in the US for two years, and the teacher I was in the classroom with was able to control the classroom calmly and without raising her voice. She set the boundaries and inspired the students to do their best work. Kids need boundaries and good examples for sure. She would use positive reinforcement (praising the kids doing what they were supposed to in front of everyone. Ex: “thank you to Johnny for standing in line quietly. I can tell that he is listening.” It’s magical because the other kids want that positive attention and start listening too).

Here in Spain, it’s not uncommon for teachers to yell. They yell when they are excited and yell when they are upset. One teacher I work with wants the students to repeat the vocabulary words loudly, for example. I think to him he thinks that loud=more engaged? And I don’t entirely think that’s false.

In general, children seem to have less boundaries than in the United States. I remember when I was waiting for my BlaBlacar in the Malaga train station a few weeks ago. There’s a McDonalds on the second floor food court and there was a birthday party happening. The kids were just running around in the open walkway area and the adults were doing nothing about it. As a teacher, I wanted so badly to tell them to stop … but of course that’s not my place, so I just ate and tried to read my magazine. And then one kid feel down and I couldn’t help to think “well, you are running around uncontrollably.” The Spanish Pizza Hut employee’s response was to ask him if he was okay. That was nice … I wasn’t feeling nice. I was feeling annoyed.

One of my private lessons I honestly dreaded each week because the oldest boy was very hard to work with. I will say that a majority of the kids I work with are fine and all of the parents are there to help me. They all tell me to let them know when their kids are misbehaving. That can be a hard one for me to use as I’m so used to controlling classroom behaviour on my own. I also find that I have to break the no Spanish rule I try to maintain and tell them to behave in Spanish. They respond better in their native language, of course.

Overall, though, it has been a joy to work with children and families here. I have gotten to know all my students a little better each week and have seen them all make improvements in their English. That makes me happy.

4. Cuisine variety

Those of you who live in the United States, please be thankful for all the food variety that you have. I can think of at least 25 different Indian restaurants in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. And Cincinnati is not some major city like Chicago. We’re just an average, mid-sized city in the Midwest. We also have Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and so many other choices. I think I always took for granted the variety I had when asked “where do you want to go for dinner?”

Here in Granada, there’s like one Indian restaurant. Furthermore, most Spaniards have not even tried Indian food. That just blows my mind. Every time I go to an Indian restaurant, it’s such a treat to me. The food is so amazing and good for you. You come home full and guilt-free. It’s the best.

So what’s my plan? 1. embrace the Spanish food in my town and 2. when given the opportunity, eat other cuisines and be thankful. 3. introduce my Spanish friends to Indian food.

3. What “on time” means

When planning to go out with a bunch of Spaniards, adjust what your definition of “on time” means. In US culture, if we say meet at 10:30, I may arrive at 10:45 at the latest. However with Spaniards, it’s best to tell them a half an hour or an hour ahead of when you actually want to meet. Here’s a good equation for you:

Time that you actually want to meet – an hour = the time you tell a Spanird to be ready. I need to employ this more.

2. Being the foreigner everywhere

So when you first arrive, you welcome all the “where are you from?” questions. However it does get old after awhile. Furthermore with me, I eventually want to just blend in. Like I would love to get to the point where I speak almost perfect Spanish with little to no accent. Of course that day is far off and when I’ve worked through all of this crap. However I still just am finding that more and more, I just want to blend in. Furthermore with the recent election, I find myself having to explain that crap to people. And sometimes I just don’t want to. So the other night, I was telling everyone I was from France which is CLEARLY not true. I have a very North American accent when speaking Spanish.

What to do? Just accept that you are “la Americana” and that mostly, it doesn’t mean anything bad.

1. Spain has racism too

So I am someone that hates racism with a passion and does all I can to stop it. This change occurred inย me about five-six years ago when I was living in Washington, DC. I attended a weekend-long anti-racism workshop. This experience really got me to see how racism in the United States is a systemic thing and that I needed to be aware of my white privilege. Before that, I would have said that I was not personally racist. And that was true in part … I always accepted people with an open mind. However that workshop got me to re-evaluate my way of thinking and address some prejudices I wasn’t aware I had.

With the recent election and what has happened with African-Americans in our country over the last several years in regards to the police, I’ve had some conversations with Spaniards about this. They’re always like “oh yeah, I can’t understand why all that happens. It’s awful.” And now with the recent election of Donald Trump, the reality is that foreigners think that half our country is racist. Sorry, but it’s true.

At first, I would think “wow, they are really progressive. That’s awesome.” Then you see what they think about the Gypsies and the Chinese, and it just feels like it’s all a wash. Let me break down what I’ve seen with both people groups. Also I completely understand that I’m seeing this as a foreigner. However I still maintain the anytime you make an assumption about a person because of their race or where they come from, that is prejudice and it is not good.

  • The Chinese:ย In recent years, lots of Chinese immigrants have been moving to Spain and starting up businesses here. Many of the convenience shops and “everything” type shops are owned by Chinese families. And of course there are also Chinese restaurants. What I hear from Spanish people is that their culture is way different than theirs, they all hang out together and don’t mix with Spanish people (which is totally normal in a foreign country and something Spaniards apparently also do when they are in the UK. Not surprised. It’s human nature to find people from your own culture in a foreign land) and they work hours that Spanish people don’t (through the siesta, on Sundays and on holidays). It’s normal for kids and sometimes adults to pull their eyes back imitating the eyes of a Chinese person. That has ALWAYS been VERY offensive to do in the United States. Bottom line, of course the Chinese have a different culture than the Spanish. However I don’t think one is more right than the other. Both are just very different.
  • The Gypsies: In Spanish, the name is “los gitanos.” They are a people group who have been living in Europe for hundreds of years. They are thought to have emigrated from India originally, and their culture is vastly different from the rest of Europe. And so for generations upon generations, they have been discriminated against. There happen to be lots of them living in Southern Spain, and still people don’t have the nicest things to say about them. They often keep to themselves, probably because Spanish people aren’t nice to them. They have kept their traditions, many of which Spanish people don’t understand. And the general stereotype is that they are up to no good. And while some are thieves, many are just normal people living their lives. I will say that I do not have the whole story about them, . However I refuse to treat someone differently solely based on where they come from. I always prefer to get to know them first.

Anyone who knows me would have guessed that this would be the thing that grates on me the most. It’s just so important to me to treat all people with dignity and respect. And that includes the people group you’ve seen your parents and grandparents say mean things about all your life.

I will admit that this one is hard to get past. In the US, a new phrase has come about. It’s called “being woke” and it refers to an awareness of social issues. I’ve decided that instead of getting annoyed when Spaniards cannot focus the mirror on themselves, I’m just going to remember that they’re not quite “woke” on this yet. I will also remember that I’m not always “woke” on everything yet.

And moving forward

So the best thing to do when in the midst of culture shock is to take some time for yourself. It ebbs and flows, so it won’t be around forever. Get lots of rest, sleep and eat well. Take walks and just enjoy life.

Have you lived abroad and experienced culture shock?

 

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73 Comments

  1. I like how your list starts at 5 and ends at 1. Before I started to travel, I always thought American were pretty racist. Well, I’ve been traveling the world for the past 15 years and with the exception of Canadians, Americans are probably the least racist people I can think of as a whole. I’ve been to 41 countries and every state except Alaska.

    1. Hahaha I like a countdown I suppose. Yeah I think in the United States amongst more progressive folks, there’s a general understanding that you need to examine you own racism and work against it. That thought process is just simply not in every country. I wish it was and maybe one day it’ll be different.

  2. Wow this post is GREAT. I had a chuckle especially with the McDs incident because you were honest where you were at. I love that you notice the bad with the good with other countries too. Sorry you had a huge culture shock.

    1. Well first, I wouldn’t say it’s huge. It’s just enough that I’ve noticed it changing my mood, so I thought I would write about it. And of course you always notice the bad. I think the main difference is between visiting and living abroad. Living there is completely different.

  3. I definitely know what you mean about personal boundaries in Nicaragua. I went on a mission trip and I remember experiencing the same thing!

    1. That’s awesome you’ve been to Nicaragua. It definitely is a tad odd for us for sure.

  4. I have lived abroad and am currently living abroad. I have definitely experienced culture shock and it can be quite challenging to overcome. Thankfully this last time when we moved back to Norway I really didn’t experience culture shock. But I have lived here before.

  5. It’s tough to get used to a place especially if they have a totally different culture compared to where you grew up. I think this is normal and you’re right, you just have to give yourself some time.

  6. I wouldn’t have expected to experience a culture shock in Spain, especially in Granada. But when you live there I guess you do notice different behaviors and ways of life. I do have a lot of Spanish friends and it’s so funny what they mean by “meeting at X hour”. Haha

    1. Yeah I thought the same thing and didn’t experience it when visiting. I think the reality is that you will experience it in some way if you spend a long enough time in a new culture.

  7. Oh, yes! I have experienced culture shock severl times in my life when moving abroad but also when I have (tried) moved back to my home country. So many things were changed when I was away so I didn’t always know how to act in different simple situation for example in bank or post office, and people thought I was a bit weird.

  8. Culture shock…I bet!

    I’m heading to Ethiopia in the new year and am expecting to get the eye-opening experience of a lifetime!

    I’ll let you know.

    1. Have fun in Ethiopia! Depending on how long you are there, it may not be super strong.

  9. I love to travel and have yet to experience culture shock. I hope you can enjoy your time spain! It is so beautiful and you’re lucky to be there!

    1. Well like I’ve written here, it is inevitable if you actually live somewhere abroad vs. visit. I rarely experience when only in a country for a few weeks at a time as a tourist staying at hostels and such.

  10. I’m living abroad. Yes, I totally agree that the culture shock is not easy to overcome. For me it’s rather different mentality. For me, living in Germany (coming from Poland) it’s not about culture shock. The challenge is: mentality. It’s really the most challenging part.

  11. It is really fascinating to see the culture shocks in Spain. The food was one of them when I went to Spain while studying abroad in England. As someone who at the time at meat, but not a lot of pork…I was shocked with how much ham and pork products there were.

  12. The culture shock is not easy and every city`s or coutries are different but love to know and visiting. I would love to travel

  13. You and I had very different experiences. Just spent a bunch of time there and I found the food to be diverse, fresh, organic, non-GMO and delicious, I found the people gentle and kind and I enjoyed great diversity among the people. I also loved how beautifully dressed the children were. I did not notice the behavior but I was not in a classroom as you were. It is too bad Spain was not what you had hoped.

    1. Thanks for your response Heather. First, I want to say that I am loving my experience here. I was expecting culture shock because it happens to us all when we spend a significant amount of time in a foreign culture … just not everyone wants to be open about the bad times. I, however, like honesty. I’ve always been an open book.

      The food is for sure delicious. However myself and American friends teaching in other parts of Spain have all commented on how they miss other cuisines such as Vietnamese, Indian, sushi, Thai food and so forth. We are only speaking to our experiences and it is a fact that there is less variety of other cultures cuisines where we are. When you are living somewhere vs. visiting, you do start to miss that stuff at times.

      Yes of course Spain is diverse. However I’ve spent time getting to know Spanish people as I work with them, live with them and have made friends with them. Hearing their comments and behaviour towards the two people groups I mentioned would never fly in my country. So of course that has been a shock, especially because at the end of the day I just want everyone to be treated with dignity and respect.

      Of course the children are beautifully dressed. Unfortunately that has absolutely nothing to do with their behavior.

      At the end of the day, everyone experiences culture shock if they consecutively spend months upon months upon months living life somewhere vs. just being a tourist. It’s just that not everyone wants to talk about the ugly.

  14. I’m a third culture kid and I know the shock of culture shock. It can be quite tremendous a burden but as you have rightly said, find a way to take it into your stride and then all will be well.

    1. Oh for sure. People end up living years upon years in foreign cultures, so I know it’s possible.

    1. No problem. I like sharing honest experiences on my blog from time to time, even if they don’t include pretty pictures.

  15. This was really interesting. I experienced culture shock when I studied in Denmark and also some reverse culture shock when I returned home. Maybe that will be another post!

    1. For sure! The thing people don’t realize is that it happens everywhere. Denmark is a nice, developed country like Spain. And yet traditions, customs, inter-personal relationships, norms, etc are always different between countries. And yes, I’m sure reverse culture shock will be another post come this summer or whenever I visit home next.

  16. This is a very eye-opening post. I’ve always wanted to visit Spain, so these points are so intriguing to me. I hope you still enjoy the culture though!

    1. This is for sure not to steer anyone away from visiting Spain. I absolutely love it here, at the end of the day. However culture shock is something that happens to everyone when they live in a new culture … it’s just that not everyone talks about it.

    1. You should still for sure come! Also the likelihood that these things will be noticeable for a visit is low. With my blog, I want to paint an accurate picture of what living life abroad is vs. just visiting. This is part of it.

  17. I love that you posted this, it opens up room for discussion. My mother is Nicaraguan,and it was definitely a culture shock when I first went there. I currently live in Hawaii, and i was surprised at how different the culture is here despite being in the us I feel like I’m in a different country. But I am loving the strong Polynesian culture. It’s so different and welcoming from what I’m typically use to.

  18. I love that you have written this and been so honest. I never been to Spain so I can’t relate but I do understand where you are coming from as I have traveled to other places in the world. xx

    1. Thank you! Yeah culture shock happens when you spend a lot of time abroad in one place.

    1. Girl it surprises me too. I mentioned how pulling back your eyes to imitate an Asian person is seen as offensive in the US to one of the teachers I work with. She’s like “solo una broma” (it’s just a joke). I was a little shocked that as an educator, that was her response to her students doing that in class.

  19. Oh wow, interesting read! I too, moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines, and had a phase where I experienced culture shock. It’s crazy how different the cultures are!

    1. Yeah I think it’s something that happens to everyone when they move abroad vs. just visiting. It’s good to know you got through!

  20. These are all incredibly interesting aspects that I most likely never would have thought of. It’s so important to take note of this big and small differences when you’re working abroad.

    1. Yeah they are definitely things that don’t come to mind when just visiting a place. However on some levels, it’s neat to experience these things because you can only see this stuff by really getting to know the people and living in the culture for a while.

  21. Thanks for the honesty! Ive never traveled to Spain, but I moved from the east coast to mid west in the USA and experience culture shock as well! It was a difficult transition, but it gets better with time and an open perspective.

    1. Yeah I can see even different parts of the US being tough to transition to. I for sure think it will get better with time.

    1. Hahaha. Yeah I have one American friend here who got placed in a small town to teach. Every time she travels to a larger city, she looks up all the different cuisines she has been missing.

  22. I’m from Asia and I’ve met many expats (both for work and social) and I’m at the receiving end of their culture shock. I’m always glad to explain to them what are the norms here and what is considered rude, etc. Some expats love it here but some prefer what they have back home.

    I guess learning a different culture comes with the territory of living abroad and away from one’s comfort zone. Actually as a tourist to some countries, I can already feel/notice the cultural differences.

    All the best with your time in Spain ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks! That’s awesome that you are there to help them along. Culture shock is just all part of the process.

  23. I’ve lived in 3 countries and I’ve experienced culture shock every time I moved abroad. When I came to the US from Europe, I thought it would be much easier than my previous move to Turkey, because the cultures are much more similar. Well I was wrong. The daily life in Southern California is in fact more different from the daily life in France than it was in Istanbul… and I had a really hard time adjusting. No one outside in the streets, no sense of community or belonging in the city, having to drive everywhere, the lack of small cafes where people chat, no building older than 100 years… that was really hard in the beginning.

    1. For sure. And I love that all the things that bothered you about your time in the US are the same things I hate about the US and an American. I wish you didn’t need a car to go everywhere, I wish people lingered more in cafes and I wish there was more old architecture. I totally see where that would be hard.

  24. I love Spain! I’ve been a couple of times, and can totally relate to the culture shock thing. However, I felt the most culture shock when I went to China on my own, that was a rough trip!

    1. Oh wow, yeah I can imagine China would be way different. At the end of the day, I can speak decent Spanish and still share many things in common with Spaniards. So on that level, it hasn’t made it hard to get to know locals. But then getting to know locals is how I noticed a lot of these things …

  25. Things are different indeed in every place. Don’t worry, you will cope up well soon, and have fun with the food and beautiful locations there!

    1. It for sure is. The thing people don’t realize until it happens to them is that you never know what it will be about, but it will happen.

  26. Hi Nina!

    Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving me a comment!

    Love this article and sure have been in the same boat a couple of times in my life. I guess cultural shocks are a natural way to learn about another nation and see life trough a different prospective! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Happy Thursday!

  27. Thank you for this. I am a highly sensitive extrovert (from Canada) who has been in Spain since October 2016.

    I have had a hard time with saying “chino” (the Spanish name for what we call dollar stores back in Canada) as I find it such a racist term. It goes against every one of my “woke” fibers. I have not found a great alternative, I’ve just been using “tienda” and not getting more specific about which one.

    The biggest culture shock I am personally experiencing in Spain is the gender roles and assumptions. I feel very safe walking on the street alone at night. I am grateful for that.

    However, I get so tired of making male friends and then finding out that they want to sleep with me, and they thought my friendliness was a come-on to them. Also the aggressive sexuality of the Spanish men is such a turn off. I have been repeatedly touched, pawed, sexually assaulted and too often had the aha moment of realizing this “friend” I am sitting and talking with only really wants to sleep with me, and isn’t really interested in what I have to say as a person.

    This has led to me withdrawing from social interactions, lately. Very isolating.

    I love so much about Spain, but at the moment I am counting the weeks (6 to go) before I return to Canada.

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