Culture Shock


“India was never just a country; it has always been a dream, an idea, an elusive vision that attracted travellers from all over the world for thousands of years.  The mystique of India impelled the journeys of Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, and Vasco da Gama.
The images that the word “India” conjures up are diverse and often contradictory, suggesting that one must be the real India, and its only a matter of finding out which one.  If only if were that simple!
To understand India at all, you must be able to hold on to completely contradictory images, and realise that both represent the true India”.

Culture Shock, A guide to customs and etiquette, Gitanjali Kolanad.


No other quote could sum India up so perfectly.  

conflicting messages,
complex religious, caste and social rules.

This is India, for sure!  

Its no wonder that every person that comes here experiences some form of ‘culture shock

Culture shock

“The personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.

One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign environment.

The most common problems include: information overload, language barrier, generation gap, technology gap, skill interdependence, formulation dependency, homesickness (cultural), infinite regress (homesickness), boredom (job dependency), response ability”


Naively I’d always assumed culture shock was something short term.  An initial reaction to something new, that, depending on the individual, is something you get over relatively quickly.


Concept image of a signpost with the five or six Ws

However, culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases:
Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery.
Typically the emotional journey goes like this.



“During this period, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. For example, in moving to a new country, an individual might love the new food, the pace of life, and the locals’ habits. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends”.


I think I skipped through this stage pretty quickly.
Those that have asked me why India, why do you like it so much will have heard me say, I just feel very comfortable and at home here. Which is particularly strange when you compare life in India to life in the west, they couldn’t be more different. But the sense of ease, relaxation I felt as got outside Delhi airport is something I’ll never forget.
One of the volunteers recently said to me, “I’m not surprised by anything here, it’s what I expected but I still find it totally crazy”.
Same for me but I don’t find it crazy. From the start I just accepted that ‘this is India’ in much the same way Indians might?
Accepting things so quickly here I thought I’d skipped culture shock altogether!


Negotiation phase

“After some time, differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety”.

20th September 2013 – Model Farm, Chinnupatti


My first taste of life as a volunteer and experiencing India on my own.
My first proper experience (as I see it now) of ‘culture shock’.

If you read my posts this is India and settled into farm life you will read the exact impact ‘culture shock at this stage had on me.  

I just didn’t get the strict cultural rules
dress code,
expected behaviour of women,
not shaking hands with men,
reaction of some of the local men to westerners being there.

Walking past the same half drunk men sneering and sniggering at every morning was not particularly pleasant.

Suddenly having to be so aware of
what I wore,
what I said,
how I was,
where I went,
who with and what time I was home,

Was not just a shock but frustrating and confusing.

The full definition of the ‘negotiation’ stage of culture shock is:

“While being transferred into a different environment puts special pressure on communication skills, there are practical difficulties to overcome, such as circadian rhythm disruption that often leads to insomnia and daylight drowsiness; adaptation of gut flora different bacteria levels and concentrations in food and water; difficulty in seeking treatment for illness, as medicines may have different names from the native country’s and the same active ingredients might be hard to recognise”.

It wasn’t the practical difficulties I struggled with but two particular aspects.

1.  The way people are with each other
2. The ‘pace’ of how things are done here.


1. I’d like to think I’m a pretty open, friendly person, happy to express my opinions and thoughts about things, people and places.  I wouldn’t say I go around telling people my life story but if I’ve had a bad day or bad evening then yeah I would go into work the next day and talk to people about it, in much the same way they do too.  But this just isn’t how things are done here, work is work and personal life is personal life.

It wasn’t long before I’d made a bit of a major error in trying to be too familiar with people. Assuming that how we are in the west with our familiarity and interest in peoples lives was ok here.   I hope I didn’t make people feel uncomfortable, that certainly wasn’t my intention but it was a bit of wake up call that I’d have to behave differently with Indians than I did with the volunteers.

This of course fuelled the frustration. Coming from a culture where everyone is encouraged to talk about things to a culture where people just don’t was bizarre. And I really wanted to understand the culture here, particularly for women but to ask direct personal questions just isn’t acceptable.
It kind of reminds me of Britain years ago and still the standing joke of the stiff upper lip.

I accept that now and try and let things go, most of the time!

But I still struggle with how Indians cope with this. The amount of frustration, anger and hurt people must store up is incredible.

Or maybe they don’t, who knows?

Maybe we’ve got so used to talking about our emotions that we’ve become a bit obsessed with it?

2.  The standing joke here is ‘operating on Indian time’. Everything is done at its own pace, in its own time and try as you do you can’t hurry things along, create a sense of urgency or make things happen.

I wonder if this is a cultural thing linked to religion.  People are very clear about auspicious days and doing things at the right time according to various factors.  Simply if things don’t match up that day things don’t happen.

I certainly struggled in a ‘business’ ‘work’ context to understand the differences and it certainly caused sleepless nights.

My problem and I know its entirely my problem is a lack of patience. Both in the speed in which things are done and a lack lustre attitude to the quality of things. This was as much of a frustration for me at home as it is here. I guess mixed into that a real desire to make some tangible difference to the project didn’t help.

April 2014

Weirdly, just as I’d managed this stage of ‘culture shock’ I was immersed in a situation that tested it all again.
From April onwards I started work in Manur, Tirunelveli.

Again I skipped the first stage.
I was so familiar with India now, its food, transport, some of the quirky cultural things but being based in a rural village with people I didn’t really know and being the ‘only white person in the village’ was another adjustment.

An episode in hospital, challenges with technology and a lot of things happening from the previous location I had been at did little to help with this transition.
It was no-one’s fault but its no surprise to me that it was during this period that I had my complete meltdown.
See blog ‘a particular low point‘.

The vast contrast in the cultures became more apparent by the day. I just didn’t get stuff, didn’t understand why one person would say one thing and another the complete opposite, yet both views being within some shared opinion of what is accepted.

It was also at this stage that I become acutely aware of the colour of my skin, the clothes I wore, my hair cut.
Being laughed at at the bus stop became pretty normal.
Hard to take at first, particularly when people are talking in Tamil and you have no clue what is being said.
Now it happens less and less and if someone on the bus mistakes me for a boy I put this down to their ignorance and fear of something different.
Understandable but definitely their issue not mine.

I’ve certainly moved out of this stage of ‘culture shock’ but there continues to be a few things I really don’t get.  They don’t worry me or frustrate me and I accept that perhaps these things are so complex to understand that I never will and importantly perhaps I’ll never really need to.


1. Skin colour

The fascination with white skin. Constantly stared at, gawped at. I often feel like a specimen in a zoo or maybe like this kid in the photograph.
It wasn’t until I got to India that I even thought about ‘being white’.

culture shock4

I don’t get it and its perhaps because for me to see an Indian, Kenyan, Jamaican, Chinese or Malaysian person in the UK is as likely to see rain. You just don’t notice.

When it comes to people in a business context, it’s the things they say, the way they say them, the actions they take that earns them respect.

I was horrified and still am that people in India will listen to me more than someone from their own country because I am white! The colour of my skin does not make me an oracle on world issues or able to provide the right advise to a community here!

2.  The lack of diversity

Definitely takes some adjusting to and I mean that in every sense.
The food, its all Indian.
Perhaps that isn’t a bad thing staying true to their heritage and routes.
The food here has always been excellent but again coming from a country where in an average week I would have Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Italian and Thai food, I find it a little weird to have Indian breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Same goes with beer. Only Kingfisher, nothing else.  Whereas this is one of maybe 100 different worldwide beers you can buy in supermarket in the UK.

Its then the broader things about the people here.
I can’t say too much about the dress here. Yes it’s variations on the same theme but when I think of the west I think the same is true.

As you will be aware arranged marriage is the norm but what I hadn’t quite appreciated was how ‘arranged’ it was.
Your religion, your caste, your sub-caste, your standing in society all have to match up.

For some it even involves then going to see an astrology who will match your exact time, day, month and year of birth against your prospective husband/wife. Simply if the stars don’t align then the marriage does not go ahead.
I guess that’s where the phrase ‘its written in the stars’ comes from?

But it always makes me wonder what the heck Indians do if they can’t conform to this tradition.
Those that want a love marriage because despite all the ‘ducks lining up’ you can’t help your feelings for someone.

Perhaps its because arranged marriage is such an ingrained institution here that the thought that anyone could want anything different, have a choice is mind boggling.

But what really makes me curious is what people do if they are gay or transsexual.

In the UK the political debate is about gay marriage in a religious setting, its not about whether being gay is right or wrong.

Here it is still illegal

protests delhi

This is the message in the UK openly displayed on a London bus!



What a contrast!

The most bemusing comment I’ve heard is, there are no gay people in India!
Maybe they should read the Indian newspapers!

Surprising for such a large democracy that this is still a legal issue.

Perhaps it’s a belief that it is only an exposure to this “bad lifestyle choice”, exposure to western media that would turn someone gay.
Would someone really actively choose to make their life about a million times harder, risk losing their family and friends through prejudice and potentially make themselves a social outcast if it was a choice?

Strangely transgender is more accepted.  Transgender people are better protected by the law and I often read articles in the papers about people winning legal battles regarding fair employment and equal status.  It still must be something that for those individuals is incredibly challenging to deal with here.

I particularly like this picture

protests delhi 3

India, the largest democracy. Yeah it is but it many ways it isn’t, people don’t have freedom here.
Equality and equal rights have such a long way to go.
For all sectors of society.

Disability seems to be something that is feared.
People are often segregated from society, particularly orphans, almost shut away out of site.
Maybe its a lack of resource and technology to fully support individuals to live an independent life?

But a stark contrast from UK.
London 2012 saw the staging of the “greatest show on earth”
The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house for any event and it transformed people’s views.

Suddenly people saw ABILITY not DIS-ability.
Realising that Paralympians, in many ways are much more able than your average person.  Something to be respected and admired not ignored and feared.

The diversity or lack of it is something I’ve come to accept and guess makes me appreciate the UK and its multi-culturalism even more.
How lucky to have grown up in a country which has people from every corner of the world, large populations of every religion, access to every worldwide food and an opportunity to learn about different countries directly from people whose roots are from there.

Adapation and Assimilation

I’ve been in India a year now.  

A good year, a really good year despite its up’s and downs. And coming back to India this time I’m much more relaxed and at ease with everything about living here.  

“Again, after some time (usually 6 to 12 months), one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more “normal”. One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture and begins to accept the culture’s ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense, and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced”.

I respect the culture and values here and I’m finding ways to do some of the things I would do in the UK here.  Like exercise, access to western TV, music and radio, managing powercuts and making my ‘home’ here more comfortable.

The culture here is fascinating but as I learn more about the restrictions on people’s lives, particularly women, the more I hold on to my western values.
Neither is right or wrong, it’s where you feel most comfortable but its for this reason there are a number of things that I absolutely refuse to compromise on.

Clothing and hair

As much I like the clothes the women wear I have little desire to follow suit.
The dress code is fine but I can’t help but think in some ways it causes more issues. Women are not only expected to be covered head to foot but also conceal any shape or curve in their body. 
Women are apparently honoured here, objects of beauty but clearly ones that have to be hidden away. 
I can’t help but think covering up creates this real mystery about women, an unhealthy curiosity.
I’m not suggesting everyone should walk around half naked.  Let’s face it when we have our one day of summer in the UK and everyone reveals their bodies to the sun you spend most of the time wishing they wouldn’t.
But hiding women behind layers of clothes, in this heat too, to apparently protect them, is crazy!

People laugh at what I wear. I am apparently dressed as a boy, but I like it and I’m comfortable so…….
Hair cut
, again, here, considered being a boy!

In the west short hair is not uncommon but perhaps the style I have is. Commonly termed androgynous. Which I like, why put people in boxes or stick to traditional stereotypes?


It’s an obsession and a clear definition of who you are here.
Everyone has a religion.
To not somehow defines you as a lost soul. 
Perhaps I am?
Or as I see it lucky enough to exercise the ultimate in freedom to choose what I believe.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against religion but having seen and experienced how religion can completely manipulate someone, control their lives and cause them absolute misery, stop them from being who they are and living the life they want I find it a little hard to put my full belief into one set of ‘rules/religion.

I often get comments like ‘how can you not believe?’

Simple really, it’s not that I don’t believe in something greater than all of us but I don’t believe conforming to a particular set of ‘rules’ makes me a better person.

Conversely not having a religion does not make me a bad person.

The best conversation I had with someone is when they said, but it was the British that brought Christianity/catholicism to India, how can you not stick with it?

Firstly, urm actually it was the Portuguese, secondly this was in 1498, the British didn’t arrive until 1600. Thirdly, things in the UK have moved on significantly since then.



My life here and in the UK couldn’t be more different. What is an accepted social norm in the UK is complete taboo here.
The consumption of alcohol, a prime example.

A massive taboo here, again particularly for women.
The concept of social drinking and having a cold beer on a hot day to relax and cool down is a completely alien concept. People are either sober or beyond paralytic drunk, there is no in between.

But, as I do at home, I enjoy a beer, with my friends/family or on my own reading the paper.
The hotels in Madurai are used to me now and perhaps it isn’t such a good thing that when I walk in the first thing they say is, “Hi mam,how are you? Beer and bottle of water right?” 
At least I have water too.
But sitting on the roof terrace early eve with a cold beer reading the paper is one of the few luxuries I have here. It doesn’t make me a bad person and nothing will persuade me otherwise.

Physical contact

At home I’m quite a tactile person. To meet my friends with a hug is completely normal. Male and female.
To sit next to a stranger on transport with maybe our arms touching again is just part of life. It isn’t some great statement about desire for them.

So if I get on the bus and a guy is kind enough to offer the seat next to him of course I’ll take it and if by doing so there is some contact between us so what.
Most of the time they do all they can to avoid it and if some idiot thinks it’s an opportunity to try his chances believe me I’m not afraid to make it clear to him and everyone else on the bus it’s not acceptable. It’s them that should be embarrassed not me.

Generally here, I might be a bit too tactile with people but for me to touch someone on the arm, hand as a friendly gesture is confirmation that I respect and trust that person.  It’s not a declaration of love or sexual desire which I’m aware with the wrong people could be interpreted that way!

Being me

Perhaps the biggest thing.  I don’t think I’ve tried to change myself, well I can’t, no one can change who they are.  But its pretty clear now around the ‘adjustment’ stage I become totally consumed with worrying about fitting in, doing the right thing, not offending anyone and of course worrying what people thought of me.

Now I’m definitely a lot more relaxed about it. I’m just being myself.
There will be things people don’t get about me, the way I do things.  Why would they if they’ve never visited the UK and experienced the culture there.
I still worry what people think of me, I think we all do but it’s no more than in the way I do at home.
But if my honesty offends people then that’s kind of their look out.  I’m not going to adopt the custom here which seems to be telling people what they want to hear rather than sometimes admitting that you just don’t know.
I trust my judgements much more now too. Gut instincts count for a lot and even though it’s a different culture people are still people, you still get an instinct about someone or a situation.

So a year in India!

Someone suggested it should be the title of my book if I wrote one.  I’m not sure I’d ever be able to explain all that has happened here, its cultural context, its contradictions and my interpretation of it all.  But who knows…….

As I settle in to what is now ‘normal life’ my challenge is trying to balance the expectations between the two cultures.
The fast paced, high demand, instant world of the west against the more laid back, slow paced, developing world in India.
Challenging yes but what a great position to be in.
The luxury of two cultures, two lifestyles and doing work that I really enjoy doing!

And thanks to this video I have even started to master the Indian head wobble too.



culture shock3

One thought on “Culture Shock

  1. Helen B

    So you’ve reached the point of fitting in where you can fit in 🙂 By sounds of things, the areas of India that you’ve been based in are not the areas with huge access to what goes on in the western world or even in the rest of India/Asia. It may well be the case that it isn’t people not wanting to change things or open their eyes/lives to different ways of doing things just that without the exposure they’ve never even thought about it! I’m certain that the people who’s lives you and the other volunteers have helped are overjoyed that others have worked so hard and put so much time into helping strangers, all just for the experience and sharing your knowledge. Keep up the good work 🙂 The man who moved a mountain started by moving pebbles. I think I read that somewhere?!?!?!! 😉

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