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The Culture Shock

One of the health problems that has a lot to do with overload, is the culture shock. Culture shock is not known in some dictionaries, but it means a state of mental malaise, caused by the tourist simply no longer being able to mentally process the influx of travel impressions.

Well-known examples of the culture shock take place in India’s major cities, which are overwhelmed by the often obvious misery and poverty and whose mental resilience is not matched by the confrontation with, for example, homeless people, leprosy sufferers and beggars. Fair Tourism has stories of holidaymakers who locked themselves in their hotel in India, no longer wanting to go out on the streets, and started waiting for the day when their plane will take them home. A culture shock also leads to emotional howls, overstimulated reactions or lethargy. In the end, tourists remember their trip as a nightmare, not a valuable experience.

A former colleague once met a Dutchman in China who had read into Chinese culture in every way possible and had prepared himself for everything except… in the toilets. To his dismay in China, he had to miss the basic privacy he was used to in the Netherlands. Travel preparation is not just an intellectual process. Imagine how you might react when your normal necessities are gone. 

Aggression among travellers is often a symptom of a culture shock. An example of this is an American tourist who at a bus station in Egypt shouted: ‘Give me a gun! I will kill them all!’ Probably all situations where tourists begin to threaten or offend the locals, are the results of a culture shock. “These people here are all retarded,” a fellow tourist can be heard saying. Or, “The next pushy salesman who dares to touch me, I’ll hit him in the face right away.” Sometimes you even have open arguments with the population, when tourists have lost their temper. It is plausible that these are all expressions of a mental overload.

It is clear that the culture shock is not conducive to sustainable tourism. The holidaymaker does not develop any understanding or respect for the population. The population gets to know Westerners as being arrogant and/or aggressive. So the question is how to prevent a culture shock.

  • First of all, you do so by choosing a destination that suits you. India, mentioned above, is a notorious travel country when it comes to culture shocks. If you don’t have travel experience in the tropics, it’s probably wise to choose another country. The Middle East – for example, crowded parts of Egypt – can be a risk area. The major metropolises of South America, such as Lima, Recife or São Paolo, can put holidaymakers to the test, as can China and many countries in West and North Africa (e.g. Morocco). The likelihood of a culture shock is probably lower in South-East Asia, southern Africa and southern South America. Despite the large differences with the west, poverty here is often less acute.
  • The chance of a culture shock is less likely in the countryside than in a large city. The big cities are a rallying point of all the social problems that a country is struggling with. In the countryside you often find villages or smaller communities, where one does not always have a lot of money, but where the village population is often able to make a living. Harrowing contradictions between rich and poor are less prominent there. Secondly, you can avoid a cultural shock by spending parts of the journey in the countryside, and not just travelling from one metropolis to another.
  • Third: your travel pace. Cultural shocks arise from a combination of overtiredness and an abundance of impressions. You will notice that the slump, for example, often strikes right after a miserable and exhausting bus trip. At that moment, a negative spiral occurs. The fatigue means that you can no longer process the impressions. You get into a confused state, so you can’t find peace. This makes you more tired and you can control the impressions even less. Resting well, sleeping, eating, a well thought-out travel pace with sufficient rest moments are therefore important elements to prevent a culture shock.
  • A fourth factor in the culture shock is the climate. In a hot, oppressive, tropical climate, we are less able to control our emotions. As mentioned earlier, there are cool refuges in many countries in mountains, lakes and rivers and by the sea.
  • As a final factor: the culture shock is characterised by the overriding, negative feeling that ‘nothing is right here’. So a culture shock has everything to do with the appreciation you can bring to a country and its people. Developing countries own universities, libraries, concert halls, theatres, museums and cultural centres: some tourists find the appreciation they risked losing in the turbulent vortex of their journey.

The culture shock is certainly not a Third World monopoly. Millions of cities in the United States also have homeless people, vagrants and beggars who have to survive there in stark contrast to the luxury of the ‘American Dream’. Dutch tourists, for example, suffered a culture shock in Los Angeles, where they never expected it.

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