By Kate John
When I first stepped off the airplane to teach English in Cambodia, I was terrified. I had no idea what I’d just gotten myself into, and I felt adrift in a sea of foreign water. I’d read about experiencing culture shock, but never really thought much of it. After all, I’d travelled abroad before. It wasn’t as if I was fresh off the boat with a brand new passport and wide eyes. But it doesn’t matter if you’re a newcomer to transatlantic flights, or someone who is worried about the insufficiency of the page count in a standard passport. Culture shock happens. A year later, I am now at home here, and think of the US as a strange, far-off place sometimes. So it is a mountain you can climb, and once you get to the top, you’ll realize it was maybe more of a small hill.
Here is what I did to overcome some of my Cambodian culture shock...
1. Give it time
Firstly, give it time! The first few days here I was overwhelmed, and felt like I was in WAY over my head. There was too much to see, and not enough time to see it as I walked by. I felt guilty for not immediately feeling at ease. To top it all off, I was super jet lagged. Giving it time helped. Staying put for a while, sleeping, and adjusting to the climate. So the first few days don’t worry. You’ve made it, you’re here. Just relax, and allow yourself to become accustomed to Cambodia.
2. Start small
If you’re anything like me though, being still and accepting your changed circumstances is crazy talk. I am a person always on the move, hence moving halfway around the globe. So I started small, walking around the block where my AirBnB was. It helped to become familiar with somewhere, to recognize the dentist’s office that you turn at to get to the coffee place. This is something other expats can help you with. ITA alumni are always outgoing, and happy to take people to a bar or restaurant and introduce them to the city. You can always reach out to people, on Facebook or through friends. Having a tour guide is really nice when getting settled.
3. Take a tour
However, when your friends, or new friends, are busy you can always take a real tour. Here in Phnom Penh one of the things I did earlier in my time here was visit Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s a cultural history landmark within the city, it describes the brutal history of the Khmer Rouge and their regime in Cambodia. It also is deeply informative about the war, and the effects it casts on the Cambodia of today. Learning about where I live always gives me a sense of belonging. I think being able to understand a little about why something is, helps you be okay with it being that way. So take a tour, see the sights, learn about your new home. It definitely helped me embrace the adventure. [Read: My 5 Favorite Spot in Phnom Penh, Cambodia]
4. Find your new home
Lastly, find your new home. Nothing says “I live here” better than paying rent. Finding an apartment in Phnom Penh is ridiculously easy. So have fun with it! See a bunch of places, maybe meet some new roommates. Settling into a new place, putting up pictures, and making it a home away from home really helped me feel like I was were I was supposed to be. Find your local haunts, your new watering hole, and become part of your new community.
In no time you will feel like you’re at home. Instead of things being strange and overwhelming they’ll be understandable, and everyday. You’ll never know what sort of amazing new friends, and awesome adventures you’ll have until you’re there. So absolutely do not let something as small as culture shock deter you. Being unaccustomed to differences just means you have the fantastic opportunity to learn about something new!
After volunteering for a year in the Denver Public School System, Kate felt like she needed a change. Her and her boyfriend both got TEFL certified and set off on an adventure of a lifetime in the Kingdom of Wonder. Kate is one of ITA's Writing & Content Ambassadors.
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- Learn More about ITA Ambassador, Kate John
- Visit Alumni Ambassador Corner: Cambodia
- Teach English in Cambodia: Country Profile
- Phnom Penh, Cambodia City Fact Sheet
- How to Get Around Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- [Video] Instagram Story Takeover: Teach English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- My 5 Favorite Spots in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Expert Tips on What to Pack for Teaching English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Mobile Phone Apps You Need to Live in Cambodia