Going to a different country can be a fantastic experience. Getting out and seeing the world can help broaden people's horizons and help make them a more well-rounded individual. Although, when doing so, sometimes the traveler sees things they're not used to seeing in their home country. When this happens, it can be jarring.
People on Quora share the worst culture shock they've experienced. Content has been edited for clarity.
“I Knew I Messed Up”
“About a decade ago, I visited Florida with both my mother and brother. After a 23-hour flight, all of us were starving. So naturally, we headed out for food. We came across a rustic old diner that had a fair amount of people inside. We didn’t hesitate to get seated, because we didn’t want to wait long.
Before the waitress could hand us the menu, I immediately shouted out ‘The American Breakfast! I want the American Breakfast!’
My mum quickly followed up with a shush and a stare, before ordering what I wanted.
‘Can we get the American Breakfast?’ she asked.
‘One American Breakfast. Is there anything else?’ the waitress asked.
‘And some water, thanks!’ my mom replied.
When the waitress left the table, I shot at her, ‘Why did we only order one?’
She returned her fire, saying ‘Because we’re going to share.’
At this point I was fuming. Why do we have to share? We’re all starving! If we did then, there would be nothing left for me to enjoy.
So I cried out to my mum, ‘I want a plate of my own. I don’t want to share.’
She didn’t want to make a scene, she stared at me with her gigantic eyes peeled wide open. Her ultimate move to keep me from making a scene. But I knew I had the upper hand. Knowing full well I was going to regret it later, I started to make a fuss. Keep it mind, this is The American Breakfast we’re talking about and from the land itself! I have only dreamt of this very moment and I am not about to let my mother get in my way! So I did what any eight year old would do, I sulked and pouted. Sensing that wasn’t enough, I started to draw attention. I rocked my feet until I unintentionally bumped into the table legs, a couple of times.
Finally, my mother had enough. She calmly tilted her head and cracked open a smile and patiently said, ‘Fine.’
Oh boy was I in big trouble! But hey, live in the moment right? She signaled the waitress for another round of order, and before the waitress arrived, she gave me a second chance, asking, ‘Are you sure you can finish it all by yourself? Because if you don’t, I’m going to make you finish it.’
What a ridiculous question! I beat my chest proudly, before proclaiming, ‘Of course I can finish it!.’
Feeling proud about myself, I pondered if this is how being a big boy feels. Twenty minutes later, the food arrived. I gasped in horror! My heart started beating faster than I could remember. Sweat started running down my back. I gulped down what I felt was going to be my last breath, before staring back again at this Godzilla-looking ginormous platter of food. Holy cow! Even my arms weren’t long enough to hug the entire plate.
I held my breath in doubt, and kindly asked the waitress, ‘What is this?’
All the while wishing ‘Not the American Breakfast… not the American Breakfast… not the American Breakfast.’
Clueless to the situation, she cheerfully responded with, ‘It’s the American Breakfast! Enjoy!’
Worried, I slowly turned my head back to my mother, before she gave me the loudest chuckle I have ever heard in my life. It was at that moment, I knew I messed up.”
“That Was Completely Unexpected”
“I moved to London recently. I had prepared myself mentally regarding the difference in culture I might have to experience. Some things I prepared myself for were the lack of Indian food, as well as forgetting the comfort of having a place you could call home.
Almost two weeks in, things were going fine, no major shocks. Then, I went to play football one afternoon with friends and colleagues. Some were native to UK, and others from France, Greece, Poland etc.
The game was electric, I mean you should see the level of fitness of these guys. They ran fast, they ran tirelessly and they kick the ball bloody hard. Let’s not even get me started about the dribbling skills. When I used to play in India with my colleagues, I was one of the fastest one as well as the last one standing. But here, I was on the verge of puking my guts out just after 40 minutes and that too when I stood as a goalie for sometime. Not to forget mentioning, it was 5-5 game on a small turf.
Now after a tough game, everyone likes to take a shower, and nothing better than a hot one. Being from India, I wasn’t sure whether I should change my clothes in the changing rooms or getting down to the boxers in front of everyone would be fine. I just waited to see what others would do.
And then came the shock.
People started stripping. First their t-shirts, then their shorts, and then… the last remaining cloth on their body. Everything was gone. And my eyes popped out due to the shock of it. Yep, that was completely unexpected and something I hadn’t anticipated. I moved my eyes away facing a wall, facing down, facing anywhere except at them. It was.. er… not normal to me, yet.
What about me? I did not even ponder doing the same. I used our India style of using a towel and getting clothes in and out. Works like a charm.
Not going to play football anytime soon.”
“Something We Need To Learn”
“My biggest cultural shock would be from the time when I lived in the state of Mizoram, India. I live in the nearby state of Assam, but the cultural differences are way too different. My father was transferred to Mizoram and so, we had to live there for three years.
My first shock was when I saw that all the shops and the entire town closed down by 6pm. The next day, I woke up in the morning to jog around the town and saw the town was alive by 6am again.
After a few days, I got to meet the local people. I found out that everybody there had their dinner by 7:00 pm. This was another cultural shock, as I was accustomed to having dinner after 10pm.
They strictly believe in early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
The biggest shock which I witnessed would be how westernised their society was. Most boys and girls in our class sat together, which was no way happening in my state or the mainland. Definitely not.
Nobody will be judging you if you walk hand in hand with your boyfriend. Hugging and other romantic gestures were quite normal there. Try doing the same in the mainland or even in Assam and the police will be on you.
Oh hey, and lastly, the towns were clean and nobody threw garbage on the road. Something we need to learn from them.”
“I Noticed Something Was Wrong”
“I was in Seoul on a hiking trip back in 2013, and to get to my hiking destinations, I had to travel for about one hour on the subway.
Korean subways only have seats along the side, so if you are a male like me, it’s very hard to get a seat. Even if you do, you will always have to give it up for a Halmoni (Korean granny) because there are grannies everywhere. Anyways one day, I decided that I would be polite and instead of taking up a seat on the subway I bought myself a small folding stool so I could sit down on the train without taking up a seat whenever the trains aren’t crowded. Makes sense doesn’t it?
So one day I was coming home after just finishing a hike through the mountains and I decided, ‘Forget it, I’ll just whip out my seat and sit on the train not bothering anyone.’
So there I was sitting in the middle of the train just minding my own business and soon after, I noticed something was wrong. Nobody said anything but I could feel I had broken some kind of taboo. In South Korea, you can feel the social pressure even if nobody says anything too you. It’s a very strange feeling.
After a few minutes, a guy got on the train and started speaking to me. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, because my Korean was not very good. He then offered me the groceries he was carrying. I politely refused, but he insisted I take his groceries. I refused again, and then the entire train carriage started clapping.
I thought this was the strangest thing I had ever seen, but then it suddenly dawned on me. In Korean Culture, it is extremely impolite to ask people for money so the beggar’s don’t ask for donations. Instead, what beggars do is they sit down in front of people and look poor and ragged, hoping the people will give them some money.
Since I had been hiking all day I looked dirty and worn out. Since I had sat down in the middle of the carriage, people thought I was drawing attention to myself and begging for donations.
When they saw the guy offering me his food, they thought he was being kind but also telling me off for begging on the train.
It was certainly one of the most memorable culture shocks I have ever had. I will certainly never ever bring my stool onto the trains in South Korea again even if my legs are about to fall off from hiking for nine hours.
Incidentally, this is how some people beg in Korea, so you can see how they would have mistaken a hiker sitting on his stool in the middle of a train for a beggar.
Ah, South Korea. Fun times, fun times indeed.”
“What Just Happened?”
“When I first came to America from China at the age of six, I entered first grade. I didn’t understand why kids were getting their lunch food and not finishing it. I saw children bring their leftover food to the large trash cans and scraping it off their trays––from half-eaten pizzas to untouched burgers. I watched them pour their milk into a white bucket. In China, this was a huge no-no in school. We had to finish everything. The first kid who finished his lunch got the privilege of helping the teacher clean up the classroom, and set up the nap time area.
One day, my first grade American teacher announced we would be having a potluck and everyone was encouraged to bring something from their country. I got super excited and told my parents. They were debating whether to make pot stickers or lo mein noodles. I loved dumplings! My mom stayed up after her long day of work and kneaded the dough, chopped up the bok choy and minced ginger and pork and folded them into dumplings. She put them in the fridge and woke up early in the morning to steam them and fry them so they would taste extra fresh when I brought them to school. They smelled great, and looked golden brown after they were cooked.
I was so excited to share these with my class and teachers. It was placed in the corner of the table next to all the other delicious food. Many kids grabbed the cookies and juices and were hesitant to try the dumplings. One or two kids bravely took a piece and knew what they were because they had it with their parents at a Chinese restaurant. At the end of the party, it was cleanup. My teacher walked up to me and asked and pointed to the tray of dumplings.
‘Would you like to take these home?’ she asked.
I meekly replied, ‘No…’
It was very impolite to take your gift home. I thought she was going to share it with other teachers, but immediately after I said that, she poured the whole tray of dumplings into the trash and continued cleaning. I was baffled. What just happened?
This was the biggest culture shock I have experienced and still continue to see frequently in my American friends. Please eat all your food or take it to go or share it or just get enough so you don’t have to throw it away. Thank you.”
“I Burst Out Laughing”
“Although I have traveled to some rather remote places, a big culture shock came when I moved to England. Having grown up in America I thought I spoke English, but apparently not. Not only was I unable to understand many of the local accents and dialects, but the difference in vocabulary made for endless confusion. I soon discovered I could point to nearly any object, and the British word for it would be an entirely different word that I never could have guessed.
Even more surprising was the English response to some of my common American vocabulary.
They would often say, ‘Well, I knew what you meant, but it’s such an old-fashioned word that we haven’t used for hundreds of years!’
I was amazed to discover we Americans apparently speak some sort of Shakespearean English, albeit with an American accent.
One day I went to the meat counter in a grocery store where I asked the butcher for a pound of ground beef. His face scrunched up quizzically as he encouraged me to explain further. My first try was ‘beef that is ground up,’ but that did not clarify anything. After several further botched attempts to explain what I meant by ‘ground beef,’ he held up his finger and asked me to wait. I saw him head to the back where he huddled with several other butchers in animated discussion that went on at length.
Finally, he returned with a triumphant smile and asked, ‘Miss, would you be meaning a small animal that runs around on the ground?’ while making running motions with his index and middle fingers.
I’m afraid I burst out laughing! We weren’t able to resolve our language differences on that occasion and we had chicken for dinner.
This was typical of nearly every conversation for quite a while. Eventually I became more adept at replacing my quaint, antique American words with updated modern English ones. One day, after about a year, I was leaving a car park (parking lot in American) and asked the gentleman at the exit booth for directions back to the motorway (highway). This caused a blizzard of instructions accompanied by vigorous circling of the arms, first in one direction and then the other, punctuated with swift jabs to the left and right, all delivered at lightning speed in an incomprehensible accent. I listened with extreme concentration as the blizzard intensified. Finally, I thanked him and realized that I had actually understood about half of it. This was a moment of quiet satisfaction with my progress in the English language!
Here’s one more little story of English culture shock. This took place not long after we arrived in England (about 25 years ago) and had moved into a house in a rural part of West Sussex. One morning, a few days after moving in, I woke up, came downstairs and rounded the corner into the kitchen. To my shock, there was a man in the refrigerator! Were we being robbed??
‘Hello!’ I said loudly and he backed out of the fridge.
‘Oh, hello,’ he said, ‘I’m just leaving your cream.’
With that he plopped an old-fashioned wooden milk crate on the counter and a ‘Cheerio!’, he disappeared out the kitchen door. I peered out the window and saw him get into a horse drawn cart, and off they went, clip-clopping down the lane. I looked in the fridge and saw that he had left bottles of milk, cream, orange juice, and some butter! He came once a week or so, let himself in the kitchen door and put these things in the fridge. I learned to leave the empty bottles in the milk crate along with some money. This was such a charming custom!”
“We Don’t Insult We Just Discuss”
“I’ve never been a super skinny person. People in America referred to me as ‘thick.’ Nobody has ever accused me of being overweight. I actually liked being ‘thick.’ I had done squats and deadlifts in the gym trying to get even thicker for five years. Even if Americans did think I was fat, no one ever said it. America is very politically correct. The attitude is that if something doesn’t hurt someone else, it’s none of your business. I haven’t heard anyone call another person fat since I was 11, no matter how overweight someone is.
However, once I moved to Thailand, people were not afraid to let me know what they thought of my body.
I ran a five-mile race in Bangkok, and an old woman started gesturing toward me and laughing and speaking to my Thai friends. They looked uncomfortable. After she left, my friends told me the old woman said I had a ‘big body’ and it was ‘not beautiful.’
When I went to get a massage, the masseuses would ask me ‘Is everyone in America fat? Do they all look like you?’
Once, when I got lunch with one of my professors, I guess my stomach looked unappealing. My professor reached over and took the shawl I was wearing, covered me with it, and said, ‘Big belly!’
I walked in the lab another day wearing a blue blouse. My professor told me how beautiful I looked. He told everyone in the lab to tell me I looked beautiful too. They all agreed, I looked very beautiful that day. Later that day, my professor told me ‘You look more beautiful today because you wore long sleeves. Your arms are very fat, so when you cover them you look more beautiful and skinnier.’
From that day on, my professor would tell me I looked less beautiful if I wore short sleeves to school. I once got lunch with a faculty member who told me, ‘You look very young. Your body looks old, but your face looks very young.’
That comment was the last straw. I blew up on every faculty member of the school. I told them they better never comment on my body again. I told them how sick of the insults I was. When I said the word ‘insult,’ they were all visibly shocked.
They said, ‘We don’t insult. We just discuss.’
I was livid. They backed down. Eventually they agreed to stop saying anything about my body. They told me, ‘From now on we will not discuss your body. We will just discuss your face, because your face is beautiful.’
I was trying to get the point across that professionally, looks don’t matter and shouldn’t be commented on. This wasn’t the result I wanted. But since they agreed to stop commenting on my body, I took it as a small victory. Five months after I’d moved to Thailand, I’d lost a lot of weight. I’d had a lot of food poisoning, lack of access to cheese and chocolate, and digestive problems that lead to me losing weight quickly.
Random ladies on the street I’d never met before often told me how much more beautiful I was. People I’d never talked to before in my life commented on how I’d lost weight. If I gained two pounds a certain week, people would notice and they’d tell me that they noticed. If you move to Thailand, you’ll realize everyone judges your body as soon as they look at you. It was strange. People I didn’t even know cared how skinny I was.
It was a big change from the U.S. where nobody ever makes negative comments about another’s appearance (to their face at least).”
“It Was A Cultural Eye-Opener”
“In the year 2006, I moved to Singapore on a scholarship. I was in 11th standard and I was one among the thirty-five students selected from all over India. I also had NTSE scholarship and several olympiads under my belt. Overall, I was decent enough in academics.
Here I was writing my first exam in Singapore. I was in JC1 (Junior College), where it was compulsory to take one subject from a different stream of education. So I had chosen Economics along with Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.
The Economics paper asked a simple question, something along the lines of ‘Impact of growing inflation in the Middle East.’ Quite easy. I had studied the chapter on inflation thoroughly and I was well familiar with the possible implications of inflation. As the question was worth 25 marks, I did some quick calculation and concluded that a five-page answer with approximately five possible effects of inflation should be enough. And that’s how I approached the question. I detailed out every possible effect of growing inflation, and explained the reasoning behind it, similar to how it was done in the notes.
A few days later, results were announced. Out of 950+ students in the batch, I scored the lowest: 2/25. My classmate (another Indian scholar) scored 3/25. Shocking! I approached my Economics teacher and asked for an explanation. She showed me my answer sheet, which was almost entirely crossed-out in red. There was a remark saying, NAQ, which meant ‘not answering the question.’
She told me that I had regurgitated the theory perfectly, but there was no critical analysis. I had given no context about the Middle East and I had not taken political, social and environmental factors into account. In summary, my answer lacked the application of the concepts which I had studied. She showed me the answer sheet of my classmate who scored 24/25 for a 2-page answer.
This exam was a cultural eye-opener for me. I immediately realized how incomplete my academic development had been in India and that’s because our school curriculum never encouraged critical thinking and analysis. I was brought up in an environment where learning math/science meant getting the answers right and learning history/geography/literature meant getting the facts right. There was no scope of application and subjectivity.”
“Seems Terrible Unhygienic”
“I am an Airbnb host and taking the shoes off indoors is so natural in my culture, that it did not even occur to me that I should remind people to do so. I found out the hard way after my first batch of American tourists, who left muddy boot prints all over the 100-year-old wooden flooring of my apartment.
To me, it seems almost a sacrilege to step inside without taking my shoes off. I only do it when I am heading out in a rush and remember that I forgot my keys/phone/whatever, so I run back from the door to get the thing I forgot. Even then, I try to tiptoe and step as lightly as possible.
I don’t know if it’s just a phobia, but I think that walking around on the streets all day, even if there is no visible mud on your sole, you are bound to pick up some amount of dirt on it. To then smear it all over your house, sometimes even in your bed, that just seems terribly unhygienic to me.”
“Refused To Sit There For Weeks”
“Decades ago, I lived in Australia (Straya) for a year. I moved to North Queensland to an area called Currimundi. The mental shift that I needed to make between countries was pretty big. At the time, the only bite-y, poisonous creature we had in New Zealand was the katipo spider. It’s pathetic. Then, I shifted to Australia. Suddenly, I was afraid of everything. Stuff I’d never thought twice about in New Zealand was deadly in Australia. Or possibly deadly.
I could die, just leaving the house. I wouldn’t sit down on an outside chair until I’d inspected it from top to bottom. I was always coated in bug spray or wearing a hat outside. Barefoot? Forget it.
We had the house sprayed for pests every three months without fail and had amazing screening on every window and door.
A couple of weeks into the shift, I went outside for a smoke in the evening. I inspected the chair and the table before sitting down. I’d lit up when I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye on the wall about two feet from my face. I assumed it was one of the little black lizards. It wasn’t. It was a giant huntsman spider.
I didn’t touch the ground for about five meters. In Wile. E Coyote fashion, I levitated straight up, hit the ground running, and fled inside. I slammed the insect door behind me…and then I locked it. I locked the door against a spider. I’m pleased to say that it didn’t try to pick the lock. Do you know what’s worse than a spider that you can see? One you can’t see. It vanished so I refused to sit out there for weeks.
One morning when I was leaving the house, I wasn’t looking up and walked face-first into a spiders web that stretched from one side of the wide entry to the other. That stuff was like fishing line. I assume that my wild flailing afforded some amusement to the neighbors.
One other time, I put my hand into the mailbox without checking. Yeah. There was a Huntsman in there that ran up my arm. That reached a ‘screaming, flailing and frantic tearing off then hurling of my jacket onto the lawn’ level of panic.
After all my stressing about spiders, it was actually an ant that got me. I sat down on a carefully inspected seat. About five minutes later, I thought someone had shot the back of my thigh. It was like being stabbed.
It was one tiny ant. A vicious bruise the size of my fist showed up at the site of the bite. Uncool. You can’t even brag about surviving a fight with an ant.
So the biggest culture shock for me was having to actually be aware of dangerous creatures.
I did settle down after a year. One year later, I was throwing stuff at the huntsmen and deliberately running over cane toads like the locals.”