Peace, Love & Giraffes

Chasing dreams and adventure in South Africa

How to deal with culture shock

The first time I visited South Africa was for a month-long vacation. I remember being surprised by the way people said hello and goodbye (what was with all the kissing?), unsure of what to order at restaurants and frustrated when people couldn’t understand me. Because I was on vacation, I didn’t expect to feel like that, but I definitely felt a severe longing for home in my third week.  It was almost impossible to connect with friends and family due to the state of the internet, and I knew absolutely no one except for my then boyfriend, now husband. Some days I really enjoyed myself, and one day I nearly broke down at the fact that the store didn’t carry bagels and WHAT WAS I GOING TO EAT FOR BREAKFAST??? It turns out that I was not insane.  I was experiencing culture shock.

When it comes to moving abroad and integrating with life in your new home, you hear a lot about culture shock. Culture shock is “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to.” (Merriam Webster)

Although culture shock and homesickness is perfectly normal, and while my last trip was amazing overall, I do wonder how it would have been had I done a little research on culture shock and how to deal prior leaving.

This time around, I am in Joburg for a year. I knew I’d have a different set of challenges living here vs. vacationing so I came up with a few ideas to alleviate the culture shock. If you are taking an extended holiday or moving abroad they may help you too!

Here are things I do on an almost regular basis to help with culture shock:

1. Take a walk – Breathe in the air of your new home and soak in all the exciting new sights and sounds. Not only do walks acquaint you with your surroundings, but they also center your mind.  For those in a non-pedestrian friendly city, try a drive.

photo (10)

2. Be in the know – Read the local newspaper. I’ve found this to be the best way to get the pulse on the community. I discovered the heritage day hike on the Melville Koppies by reading an article in the paper. I also subscribe to my community’s HOA e-newsletter and Facebook page, and when I see shops or businesses I like i’ll subscribe to their pages as well.

3. Establish a daily ritual – My routine has been pretty non-existent since arriving. If you aren’t working yet, life can be just a blur of unpacking, sleeping, and figuring out how things work in your new country. At one point I didn’t even know what day it was. Make sure to establish a daily ritual to give yourself a little bit of serenity each day. Some ideas may be meditating, writing in a travel journal, daily exercise, etc. My little ritual is waking up and enjoying a hot cup of coffee. If the weather is nice I’ll go out on the patio, enjoy the view and remind myself how lucky I am.

coffee on the patio

4. Find comfort in the familiar (sparingly) –  While you do want to get to know your new culture, enjoying something from your home country (in small doses) can lessen your anxiety and definitely put a smile on your face. The internet makes this ridiculously easy. Listen to your favorite radio station back home using Iheartradio, or download your favorite television series (I bought a season pass to one of my favorite series, Nashville, on Itunes). Non techie ideas include making a favorite meal or reading a beloved book. Be careful with this. Lunging yourself into all things “back home” could cause an increase in homesickness.


5. Connect with friends and family – This time around I am extremely lucky in the fact that I have actual family here. Mother-in-law, brother in law, sister-in-law, a nephew and a few cousins. Nevertheless, connecting with other family and friends back home is important.

  • Before you leave, figure out what applications you might use while abroad and teach your friends and family how to use them. I made sure to set up my parents with Viber (where you can text and talk for free with a wifi connection) and Skype for video calls. Another good option is Whatsapp.
  • Get an internet connection. Our first week here we made it a priority to get an internet connection so I could connect through Facebook, email, Viber, etc.
  • If you are in a country where the internet connection is not so great, your best bet is to find an internet cafe/coffee shop to connect.
  • If there is a massive time difference, decide what hours are best for both you and your family back home to talk. Tell them that you are most likely to call at this time so they’ll be prepared. For me, the best time to talk is before my family goes to work in the morning, which is about 1p.m. here.

6. Maintain an open mind
The fact is you WILL long for the familiarity of home at some point. Allow yourself to feel a little doubtful or nervous in your new space but not for too long. Remind yourself that yes, you are not in your home country, but you are lucky enough to be in a country that has a lot to offer and teach you. The opportunity to live in another country is a tremendous gift. You will find make new friends, enjoy new food, and discover new ways of doing things that are “better than back home.” Embrace your new home and new culture.  Explore your new surroundings, allow yourself to grow, and above all, choose happiness.



Want more tips? Here are some others from

How have you dealt with culture shock? Leave your comments below!

By | October 1st, 2013 | SHOW COMMENTS (3)

3 Responses

  1. Chantelle says

    I really enjoyed reading this and seeing SA from your perspective:) Keep up the good writing:)Keen on reading more about your experiences.

  2. Karen says

    Hi Nicole! I really enjoyed reading your posts, will definately keep up with reading while you’re living there. Hope you’re having an amazing time!!

    • Nicole_Ehrlich says

      My experience has been awesome so far! Thank you for reading and commenting. It’s encouraging to have support from the USA! xo