He Said/She Said: Culture Shock

He Said/She Said: Culture Shock

Two weeks, four countries: the poorest of the third world to richest of the first: curry with roti through street Pad Thai to Michelin Star Dim Sum to fish market sashimi platters.  In a trip of extended stays, getting to know the culture, this was a whirlwind we rarely take.  Traveling from Yangon, Myanmar to Bangkok to Hong Kong onto Tokyo, the world changed.  Here’s what we both saw.


I was sitting on a friend’s couch in Hong Kong talking about Myanmar.  I was sure he wasn’t as interested in it as he acted, but for my sake was listening when I realized I was going on.  Why was it on my mind so much I wondered?  Then I realized: it had only been a week prior that I was in Myanmar, yet it seemed so far behind me.  We had reset ourselves in our “home” in Bangkok; then jetted off to Hong Kong.  This was just another stop to our next, long-term destination of Japan, beginning in the “big city” of Tokyo.

Shifting cultures and places by itself is an awakening of senses, but doing it multiple times, so drastically, is culture shock.  The people in Hong Kong earn more in a year than those in Myanmar may earn in a lifetime.  The things people take for granted in Tokyo are luxuries beyond comprehension in Bangkok.  A single meal in Hong Kong or Tokyo costs more than a day’s room and board in Myanmar.  Even if there were drinking fountains in Thailand or Myanmar, I would still buy bottled water.  When they are in Hong Kong and Tokyo, I stop for a sip.

While people in Myanmar literally die for clean water, so “easily” made with proper infrastructure, it’s a pipe dream.  The food preparation standards of Hong Kong, unacceptable by American standards, would substantially improve food safety in Thailand.  Those things that we hold so true and self-evident, are not so.  Those things that we hold as “rights” are not rights at all.  Though we live in the same world, our worlds’ are not the same at all.

Having traversed a substantial part of the world, spending months in each place, knowing locals more than superficially, the culture shock has less affect.  It doesn’t make me think we should try to correct wrongs in the world or swoop in with water filtration.  It reminds me that when we see foreign news told through our cognitive filtering, we have to realize that what happens “over there” needs to be seen within their perspective.  Without understanding their side of the story, without stepping into their world, tasting their food and getting their water-borne parasites, one can never really understand.  Without such culture shock it is hard to understand that while we may live on the same planet, we live in different worlds and different histories that shape what we believe to be true, right, and comfortable.


This may sound weird, I said to my friend when we arrived in Hong Kong, but can you drink the tap water here? He replied, “you could…but why would you when you can just get cold bottled water that tastes better from the 7 Eleven across the street, it’s open 24 hours.”  Being that I had just come from Bangkok, the largest city in Thailand, where you cannot always reliably drink the tap water and before that Myanmar where you may not even have a tap to get water from I found this answer bemusing on many levels.

Having covered four countries within the last month culture shock doesn’t fully describe all the changes that we have seen and experienced.  Many of them have been good, but several have been tough especially on our wallet. For example the price of a meal in Myanmar was about $1.50, Bangkok $3, Hong Kong $6 and Japan $10. The affects of such rapid change haven’t been as tough personally and financially as they have been thought provoking.  It’s not often in life that you move from dirt roads to bullet trains in the matter of a couple weeks. Observing that type of change was almost like traveling in time rather than space.

Surrounded by the tall buildings of Hong Kong and having a 7 Eleven on every corner was refreshing after Myanmar, however I couldn’t help but feel a little out of place.  In Tokyo it was even worse, everything was so bright and all the people in such a hurry.  I felt awkward and confused, not by the language barrier, but by the stark differences of the sterile enviroment of the clean streets to the commotion filled, vendor packed, dirty back alleys I had grown accostomed to in Myanmar and even could find in Hong Kong.

The most overwhelming emotion of our whirlwind four country tour was guilt.  It’s hard to go from one of the most poor countries in the world to one of the top ten richest in a matter of days and not feel at least a little priveledged.  It is only through those eyes that I could have ever gained the perspective that I was seeking in leaving for this trip in the first place.  The most important lesson I have gained from the last six months and the last six weeks in particular is that you really can’t take anything for granted.

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» Donna :
Jun 29, 2011

I think that, while many people travel to different countries, most never experience true culture shock … especially in the sense that you have. In my own experience, moving back to the US over 35 years ago from Germany was a culture shock to me, though not in the magnitude that you’re seeing. For me it was living across the highway from a Byerly’s store that was open 24 hours a day AND on Sunday! Using credit cards instead of cash or checks. Telephone service that provided cheap and reliable communications. Of course, the Byerly’s brötchen never quite measured up to the German staple for breakfast!

On the other hand, my whirlwind trip through Spain by myself provided much brain food for me when I saw people living in Roman ruins … I had gotten so used to seeing them turned into museums that it was difficult to comprehend that people were so poor that this was acceptable housing for them.

Mild comparisons to what you’re experiencing, but I think one has to have experienced culture shock to understand what it is. I suspect that you’ve got many more such experiences in store for you before you put away your backpacks!


LOCAVORista Reply:

Donna, culture shock comes in so many different ways I can’t imagine the culture shock from living in a place for so long. It is fun to hear everyone’s insights on culture shock as many people have experienced it in some form or another.

» Kate C :
Jun 29, 2011

I really enjoyed reading this post. It was so well written by both of you.

I have once in my life experienced culture shock on a perceptible level. After 4 months in South America, speaking almost exclusively Spanish, my brain had become accustomed to not understand all that was spoken around me. In order to understand my companions well, I focused in on them and tuned out the rest. But our brains are so tuned to English that we actually hear pretty much all conversations surrounding us, whether we want to or not. So on the plane home, hearing English from so many sides physically hurt. It gave me a headache and made me so cranky! Arriving home, everything was so wrong! Processed foods, super portions, driving everywhere… took me a few days to just accept that the world has differences and that those differences aren’t always wrong. It’s just that developmental path that one place took in comparison to another. It’s good to experience the differences, as it broadens our world views. It grounds me, knowing how others live.

I will admit to grumbling for a week after returning home over the prices here in the states compared to Asia, though!

LOCAVORista Reply:

Kate, we are still grumbling about the price differences between SE Asia and Japan and South Korea. Glad to hear we aren’t alone in the culture shock experiences.

» bka :
Jun 30, 2011

i have one hour of work, before formal retiremnt……..that feels like culture shock at the moment……..yes, we all do live in very different worlds as well…….we leave for our month of canandian rocky camping on tuesday……another culture shock……”change/perspective”, comes in all different forms and levels and times and places……yours are a bit more shocking/thought provoking than ours, me thinks…..love you guys……be safe…….dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, congrats on your retirement! That is definitely a form of culture shock, while different than traveling it provides a very different perspective to no longer have to get up and go to work every day. More time for travel!

» Suzanne Kramer :
Jul 2, 2011

Greetings you two!!!
Actually, after watching the movie “The Company Man” with Ben Afflect last night, about our economy, and the humbling an dramatic slap one can get when fired/let go/downsized, or whatever” whipped cream on dog poo” one wants to call it…. I awakened today thinking about culture shock on a whole different level. The abrupt change in lifestyle, affluence and options that are the hallmark of our economy right now. Going from a great job to unemployment. Going from being valuable in your 60’s to being a “dixie cup”.
And, starting yesterday, going from employment to State of MN to shut down. My stepdaughter, who is getting married in August, and her Fiance’ BOTH work at the State, and are now, ostensibly, unemployed.
Your perspective was a whole ‘nother level of poverty and struggle to contemplate today. Thank you for your
insights and most of all, your hearts. I am living vicariously through your phenomenal experiencs. Love you Suzy

LOCAVORista Reply:

Suze! Glad you’re enjoying following our adventures and it’s so fun to hear from you. We have been following the MN State shutdown and your points are excellent about the experience of culture shock without even leaving home. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I hope that the situation in MN is resolved soon. Thanks again for your insightful comment!

» Cindy :
Jul 17, 2011

Excellent well-written analyses by both of you. I think we often don’t realize that compared to the rest of the world, we in the USA live in Disney World.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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