5 Tips for Adapting to a New Culture
Updated: Sep 3
If there is one skill that differentiates humans and other species, it must be that humans are so versatile. We are so quick to adapt to changes; our brains instantly reformulate plans and recalculate paths that we need to take to ensure survival. However, once we get used to a way of living, it can be tough to reprogram our minds differently.
In 2010, I made the choice to leave what was comfortable and familiar in Indonesia and fly halfway across the world to live in Canada, a move that was sparked by my two sisters who had left our childhood home to move to Canada to pursue higher education. As the youngest, I wanted to “join in on the fun”. However, I was so focused on moving away from my life in Indonesia that adapting to Canada and an entirely new way of living became an afterthought.
Once I arrived, reality hit me hard- moving halfway across the world was not all fun and rainbows. I had to adapt to the language, the weather, the food, the culture, and the way I see myself. I had to reroute my brain and leave behind some values that I had thought were set in stone.
Now, 8 years later, I look back with swelling pride for how I have exceeded my own expectations. I truly immersed myself in the culture, graduating top of my class while leading a charity-based organization, working several part-time jobs, becoming a student activist, and building a reliable network of friends and acquaintances along the way. I secured a full-time job, and then another one, and finally loving where I am now.
As someone who intimately knows the trials of adapting to a new environment, whether abroad or across the country, I have a few tips to share to ease your transition:
Be Genuinely Curious
Get a Routine Down
Find Your People
1. Accept Reality
Congratulations! You’ve packed your bags, bought your tickets, sold your car, and said goodbye to your family and friends. After hopping on the plane and arriving in your ultimate destination, you’ve promised to yourself that this will be the new beginning for a new you.
….. Only to realize that you’re not sure how to get on the bus, how much you should pay, or how to even exchange your money to the local currency.
After getting directions from multiple locals who all tell you differently, you finally manage to get yourself onto the bus packed with people in a 40 degree C weather (psst that’s 104 F). That’s okay though, right? Because you finally arrived in your new home!
…. only to find out that your place is far away on a dusty road and your room has no air conditioner. The owner is 3 hours late to let you in and there are bugs everywhere! Not to mention you’re jet lagged, sweaty, and hungry.
This isn’t what you thought moving away would be like!
Big changes require big mental preparation and the first step to mentally prepare yourself is through acceptance.
My advice? Accept that you’re foreign, that you’re far from home, that you are alone, that you don’t know anyone, or that you sound funny when trying to speak the local language. And yes, people are staring at you because you look different. Accept that the weather is sweltering hot, that there are lots of bugs, that the air conditioner is broken.
Accept that that’s where you are at the moment, that that’s how you begin.
The faster you accept your situation, the faster you will find a way to adapt and mold yourself to the everyday cadence of a new life.
2. Be Genuinely Curious
As you try to adapt, you’ll find yourself making mistakes over and over again – you might mispronounce words, you might purchase something impractical, or you might find yourself accidentally offending someone just because you’re not aware of the local customs. It is easy to feel discouraged during moments like these.
It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you fix it and don’t make the same mistake again.
Be open to learn new things and be curious about everything. If you accidentally offend someone, you might feel terrible, but the other person is probably truly hurt. What you can do in this situation is to apologize and say that you’re still learning. When the opportunity presents itself, be humble and be curious, ask a local to explain why your words might offend someone, why certain things are prohibited, or whether a certain tradition is practiced by everyone in the country or just the region.
The more you ask, the more you know and the more the locals think of you as a friend. You started off as a guest but you’re slowly shifting to be someone who’s willing to learn the locals’ way of life.
3. Get a Routine Down
When I’m traveling somewhere new, I usually waste no time. Once I’ve found my accommodations, I try to locate essential places around the area that I might visit in the next few days: a grocery or convenience store, a pharmacy, a bus stop or train station, and an affordable and good place to eat. Then I build a routine around it. I plan my day by visiting these places as if I’m already accustomed to the area (fake it til you make it!).
Once I feel comfortable visiting these places, know what to say, and take note of when they’re open and closed, I feel more comfortable knowing that those places will always be there after a long day or when I’m sick.
In hindsight, these routine ordinary places are the ones that I miss the most once I leave. These ordinary places are where I brought my struggles, sorrow, and difficulties of adapting to a new country.
4. Find Your People
This can mean anything and it’s totally up to you to define it for yourself. It could be people with the same background as you, people who speak the same language as you, or even people with the same interests as you. For example, I love dancing and performing but when I moved to Canada, this hobby became an afterthought. I was too busy “adapting” and trying to fit in and becoming someone new.
I realized later on that I was depriving myself of what I already knew I love to do. I began looking for dance-related organizations and ended up in this group that focuses on creating fashion and dance shows for charity. I signed up, auditioned, was assigned to 2-3 different dance routines and practiced every Sunday at my university which was an hour commute away. Anyone else might have given up and thought that the commute and effort wasn’t worth it.
For me, however, it was an opportunity to do what I love and meet new people which I was so grateful for!
5. Self Care
This is the last and the most important one. Running around trying to learn new things and fit in while not losing yourself can take a huge mental toll on you. You might feel confused and unsure about everything: yourself, your values, your perception of right and wrong. Make sure to take some time for yourself.
I usually do this by going to an Asian grocery store and get some things that familiar and comforting, like food that I’d have back home. I’d then open up my blog to journal my feelings, thoughts, experiences, all while munching on fried bananas with brown sugar sauce and sipping on ginger tea. The main thing is to do something that nurtures your soul.
Moving to a new country can be a daunting but fulfilling experience and often adapting to a new place becomes an afterthought in the midst of an exciting move. Through acceptance, genuine curiosity to learn, building a routine, finding like-minded people, and taking care of yourself, you can adapt to a new place without losing your sense of identity and what’s important to you and fully embrace the exciting changes!
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