The First Cut is The Deepest (Rod Stewart)
The first time I remember experiencing culture shock is when, as a teenager on a family holiday in France, I was confronted by a public squat toilet. Let’s just say there didn’t appear to be a regular cleaning schedule for this convenience, and its previous users must have had a particularly bad aim. My parents spent the rest of the holiday having to make unwanted purchases in cafes so I could use somewhat better-maintained facilities.
You’d think that having this experience in a country just next door might put me off venturing further afield, but fortunately I persevered, slowly shifting from summer holidaymaker to backpacker.
For some people, the transition from West to East in particular is a difficult one. You’ve got the obvious differences in climate, food, language, and currency to contend with, and in many cases there are different norms regarding things like living standards and how to behave or dress in public. For others, it’s these differences that make travel such a wonderful thing and drive the desire to discover new places, sights and experiences.
Asia – A Different Experience
My first experience of Asia was a solo trip to Thailand. I spent my first evening there, money concealed inside a hidden belt after all the warnings I’d received, wandering the streets of Bangkok in a daze just soaking up the atmosphere and letting my mind process all the sights that were completely new to me – from street vendors selling deep-fried insects, to shops filled with all kinds of colourful Buddhist paraphernalia. Culture shock? Yes, but in the most wonderful way.
Fast forward about 10 years on from my unpleasant French toilet experience and you’d find me staying in a small, damp, dingy room in Indonesia with a shared bathroom featuring just a bucket of water for washing and, yes, a squat toilet (this time a reasonably clean one). I’m embarrassed now to think back at how I was telling everyone that I was “living the local way”; after all, I was still a tourist, living that way through choice, and the fact that I could afford to fly to the other side of the world and travel for leisure meant that I was in a far more privileged position than many living around me.
It’s surprising how quickly these once alien experiences become quite normal to you. For example, a family of five driving along on a moped would no longer make me stare; for many low-income families this is their only choice. And squat toilets – no problem. I did get a shock, however, the first time I went to use the toilet on a train and found that it was actually just a hole. Trying to balance in a squatting position while the tracks whizz by just inches below you is something you really can’t prepare yourself for.
Embrace The Differences
I know that not everyone finds it so easy to settle into a different environment. But if you visit a foreign country and then surround yourself with home comforts, and go searching for restaurants that serve exactly what you’d normally eat, I don’t believe you’re truly experiencing the place. This planet has such a diverse range of cultures and experiences on offer – let’s embrace the differences.