Overcoming Culture Shock - Insights on Living Happily and Healthily Between Two Worlds

Ever since I was little, I had the sense that my home was more expansive than society told me it was. I wondered if home was more than just a house on a street in a neighborhood in a country, and if maybe home meant connection and communion to myself and others that I had yet to learn. If you’ve ever had the urge to travel, live abroad, or just to know other people and their cultures, you know what I’m talking about. There is a certain pull, that sometimes can’t be explained logically or practically, that, if we are listening, tells us where we need to be. For me, this pull led me to Peru, where I ended up living for almost four years.

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I want to address something very important to me before telling my perspective and my experience of moving between countries. As you read this, remember that it is simply one story of one person. The fact that I grew up in the USA makes my story biased for many reasons. Remember that this story is written by someone who lived in a privileged country, grew up in a privileged family and neighborhood, and then moved to a less privileged country. I know that there are many other versions of this story that are quite different from mine, and I’m writing this to encourage you to be open to hearing those stories. I hope that this series interests you in the topic of living in a country that is not your “home,” adjusting to a culture and language that is unfamiliar to you, facing discrimination or unwanted attention for your skin color or anything else about your physical appearance, and all the other challenges that immigrants and marginalized people face in my home country and elsewhere. These people have wisdom that may enlighten you. Cherish them, respect them, and listen to their stories. We all have more in common than you think.

And one more thing – I am aware that the opportunity to move abroad is a privilege to begin with. There are certain choices and efforts that I made to make this opportunity more realistic for me, but it is still a privilege. Not everyone has this opportunity, for many different reasons that I’m not going to get into right now, and I recognize that the insights I gained from my experiences are just that – my insights and my experiences. I don’t doubt that there are many other ways to arrive at the same realizations and life lessons that I was shown from my experiences, and truly, I am just as interested in hearing your story as I am in telling mine. So, please reach out with feedback, criticism, or just to chat!

Okay, back to the topic of the blog!

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When you move to another country, you learn that you’ve been living in a bubble. It’s not bad, and it’s not your fault, but we’ve all grown up in some kind of bubble. Whether to each of us that has a positive or negative connotation, the bubble is still there. You can definitely be aware that the bubble exists without ever living abroad, but you can’t know it and feel it in the same way (at least I couldn’t). And when you experience another version of your reality, on a different continent, where the air feels different and the smells aren’t the same, where the language is not the one you grew up with, where the houses are built differently, where the food has ingredients you’ve never heard of, and where not one person that you knew for the first 25 (or however many!) years of your life is anywhere within 3,000 miles…things change! And the meaning of those things changes. So, all the decisions that you had made prior about how this is, how that is, what this means and who you are…basically just all blend into one gigantic question mark.  

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It’s a bit shocking when you first experience this, hence the name culture shock. For me, it hit me the hardest not when moving abroad to Peru, but actually when I first came back to the US in 2015, after a 9 month stay in Peru. I was trying to re-identify my idea of home, of safety and stability, and I felt pulled in two directions, neither of which I wanted to give up or leave behind. I was trapped in this reality where no matter where I was, I felt that the people who I was with didn’t know or understand the other very important half of my life. I felt like I had to decide which half was realer, more me, more important, which I know now is impossible and unnecessary. But since it was so hard to understand what would make me happy and what would make me sad, I ended up feeling detached and depressed. This isn’t something that went away overnight, but rather, I learned to accept what I was feeling, allow myself to have those experiences, and learn from them. All the good feelings and all the icky ones too. This was both one of the most challenging and most rewarding times of my life. I have to be honest with you, in the past several years living abroad, I have at times felt the most alone I have ever felt, and at other times felt a profound connection and unity to all other beings that I didn’t even know existed. We just can’t have one without the other.

This time around, after just having moved back to the US at the end of 2018, I don’t feel the heavy sadness, detachment and confusion that I did before. I’m not saying it’s ever easy to move back and forth between countries and lifestyles, it’s definitely not, but I’m able to surrender to the difficulties without trying to deny or fight them, and allow myself to be open and loving in the process. Thanks to many wonderful teachers and divine experiences that the universe has put in my path, I’ve learned many things that have helped me remain strong and centered, despite living a life between two countries:

  1. I’m allowed to love and loathe things in my country and other countries. It doesn’t have to be black or white, there is no person or system that has it all figured out, and nothing is permanent. There is no perfect place to live. You will always be compromising something, and trust me, the grass is always greener.

  2. I’ve learned about roots, and how to appreciate what it means to have your basic needs met. I find so much gratitude in having food, shelter, health, and enough money to not feel stressed out on the daily about paying bills and making ends meet.

  3. I’ve learned that a sense of groundedness comes partly from our environment, but also from within ourselves. In doing so, I’ve learned to listen to my body to tell me where and how it feels safest and healthiest, to know where I can grow and thrive.

  4. I’ve learned not to feel guilty about my privilege, not to sit around stating my fancy observations about societal issues (sorry millennials, but you know you’re guilty), but rather to focus on being a voice of positivity while actually putting in the work, every single day, to create the changes I’d like to see in the world.

  5. I have learned how important it is to have a relationship with my fear and shadow side. If we ignore the parts of us that make us feel scared, sad, angry, alone, etc., those feelings manifest in our bodies, have detrimental effects on our mental and emotional health, cause illness and disease, and hurt the people around us. If we chase the light with no concept of the dark, we will burn.

  6. And lastly, I’ve learned to focus more on our similarities than our differences. All human beings essentially want the same things. All moms want the best for their children, all children want to feel loved and protected, and all people benefit from authentic and intimate connections.

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With this understanding, I am able to experience different versions of reality, while knowing there is something bigger and stronger that ties it all together. It’s always a learning process, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn.

Thank you so much for reading. Please check back in soon for the second half of this blog, where I talk about newfound appreciations for American lifestyle and privilege that I used to take for granted. With our current political climate, I think we could all benefit by checking in with ourselves and finding a bit of positivity and gratitude for the standard of living that is offered in America.

Please reach out with your commentary or questions. I would love to connect.


Con mucho amor,



Shelby


Shelby O'Brien