If you’re considering volunteering overseas but hesitating to commit, the chances are that one of the things bothering you is how you will adjust to a new job, new people, a new country and a new way of doing things on an everyday level. Of course, there’s a possibility that this humanitarian work overseas gig might just not be the thing for you; but even if you do have the necessary skills and temperament, culture shock can still play havoc when you’re out there volunteering.
Well, don’t worry, because all of us who’ve volunteered abroad have been there. Whilst my overriding memories of volunteering overseas are happy ones, I do distinctly remember there being some difficult times too. Because, ultimately, you have to get used to a new way of life for weeks, months or even years…and that’s never easy.
So how do you cope with ‘volunteer culture shock’? I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but the following might help.
- Feeling homesick? The key here is to introduce an element of the familiar comforts of home in to your life, at least for the initial settling in phase. This can be through connecting with volunteers from your own country (online expat groups are another possibility) and carrying over the sort of regular hobbies and activities you do at home overseas (e.g. going to the gym). If you’re in for the long haul, a visit from a friend/relative – or a short trip back home – might also help.
- Feel like you can’t fully articulate what’s eating you to someone else, be that via a Skype call home, a chat with a fellow volunteer or an e-mail to the volunteer organisation? Writing it down can help. I know that sounds like it’s From the Psychiatrist Chair 101, but you know how they say there’s a unique dialogue between the author of a book and her/his reader? Same with your own unique line of communication between your head and your writing hand…and writing it down makes it easier for you to reflect upon it and react accordingly.
- Local culture and customs can be baffling, upsetting or even downright offensive. It’s worth remembering, though, that the locals see you through a similar sort of lens. Keeping a low profile in public places is a good idea; better still, learning a few words of the local lingo is a sure-fire way to endear yourself to the locals. You are a guest in their country after all!
- Of course, the language barrier can be a significant deal. It can be all too easy to clam up and isolate yourself in a protective bubble from your surroundings. Do this and you’re kind of missing the point of the experience. Be patient, allow time for you to adjust to your surroundings (and for them to adjust to you!) and you’ll soon start to find common ground.
- As I’ve covered before, when it comes to being frustrated with how the organisation you’re volunteering with does things, be sure to not go all guns blazing. Observe, take notes, bide your time, establish yourself…and then slowly introduce change from the bottom up, not impose it from the top down.
Ultimately, forewarned is forearmed, and if you’re proactive in communicating with the placement before you go out there – and, it should be said, make a point of reading up on the country as a whole beforehand too – then it’ll go a long way toward smoothing the transition.
Of course, you can never totally prepare yourself ahead of time and you only learn to properly adapt when on the ground. But if you’re patient with yourself and all around you – you are getting accustomed to so many new things simultaneously after all – and accept that the mental image you had in your mind of what the experience would be is tempered by the realities of the culture you’re in, then you’ll most likely be fine.