Culture Shock 101

Today’s guest blogger is Jaclyn Nelson.

As we entered a little hipster restaurant in Colorado Springs, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Something was wrong. Heather was not her usual self.

“I’m so excited about this trip!” I word-vomited as soon as we sat down. Her eyes darted past mine. She made a passing comment, one that was clearly avoiding my comment. We made small talk for a bit before she finally got down to business.

“What if I told you we might not be going to Seattle?” she asked. My heart sank. I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true. Friends traveling together rarely works out.

“I have another idea. Would you…”

The suspense was building. My head was flooded, still adjusting, preparing for disappointment. Her voice was serious. In the dimly lit café, it felt like a proposal of sorts.

“…Go to Vietnam with me?”

“Vietnam? Like…Viet-freaking-nam?” My heart was racing. I had so many questions.

“Why Vietnam?’
“Is it safe?”
“Is it expensive?”
“How long will we be there for?”
“Do people go to Vietnam?”

Before I said any of those things, I immediately said, “Of course I will. Yes. Yes!

It was that easy. Heather and I had begun to save for traveling endeavors. We had talked about perhaps going to Seattle over the summer, when it had dawned on her that she liked to travel. And I liked to travel. She wanted to go out of the country and so did I. Why not go together?

How do you begin traveling with someone? You must ask someone. Make it happen. People always say they want to travel, but rarely do they make it a priority. You have to start somewhere.

She had done her research. Southeast Asia is one of the least expensive places to travel in and she stumbled upon it when she had Googled “Safest places for women to travel.”  Vietnam was safe, inexpensive, and beautiful. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the next few months, Heather and I would meet up to solidify our travels plans and it didn’t feel like it was actually happening. We’d research hostels and try to decide which ones were safe and how far in advance we should plan on reserving nights. Most websites recommended to just “go with the flow” and figure it out when you get there. That idea terrified me. What if we couldn’t find a place? We booked the first few nights just in case.

The day we bought the plane ticket, my heart was explosive. Still, somehow, I felt doubtful that this was actually going to happen. Something must go wrong. People do not just up and go to Vietnam without consequences—that’s absurd.

The week before the trip, we got an email from the airlines informing us that our two-hour layover in China suddenly turned into a two-day layover in China.

I knew this would happen. All of our plans moving from city to city would now be delayed. The hostel we had booked would no longer work. I knew this was a bad idea.

I said none of this. I went with the flow.

The flight was when it got really real. We were one of possibly four white people on the plane, and Air China was not kind to ignorant Americans who did not speak a lick of Chinese. I suppose it was our fault, but we hadn’t intended on leaving the airport in China until the week prior.

Side note: Air China was cheaper than most flights by a couple hundred dollars, but 100% not worth the hassle. They changed our flights last minute. The flight attendants were extremely rude. It was not worth it. It’s tolerable, but not worth the couple hundred dollars it saved us, even if that money could buy you weeks of travel in Vietnam.

We arrived in China very, very late. We were told the airline should cover our costs for the layover, considering they changed the flights last minute, but despite our pleading, they sent us out with nothing. Heather had booked a hostel in Beijing, just in case, but now the tricky part was trying to figure out how to get there.

We started asking questions about the cab fare. We quickly realized the expensive cabs were lined up first, and as you moved down the row of cabs, they got cheaper and cheaper. We had a round-about idea as to how much the cab should cost to our hostel and kept repeating it to the drivers. Eventually one of the drivers signaled over another driver and we got into the cab.

We showed the driver where we were heading. We had written the name of the place in English. That was our first mistake. The driver is Chinese—he doesn’t read English—he reads Mandarin.

Heather and I just looked at each other, trying to hide our panic. After spending a few minutes fretting, trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do, she remembered she had written down the telephone number of the hostel. She gave it to the driver. Looking back, it was very kind of him to call that hostel. That’s not in his job description—we didn’t know what else to do.

We began the drive in absolute silence. The nerves were settling in. We had researched areas in Vietnam, but we hadn’t China. Heather had booked a place that had high reviews on Lonely Planet, and we had just went with it.

Looking around us, I began to feel sicker and sicker. Graffiti everywhere. People walking in the streets late at night. The closer we got to the hostel, the more unsafe I felt. It didn’t help that the driver was going in circles around this square. Was he trying to rake up the miles and charge us or was he really that lost? I was unsure. All I knew is I could barely breathe and Heather wasn’t mumbling a word.

Finally, the driver motioned us to get out. He pointed down a dark alley. “Go,” he said, using whatever English he could muster. We refused. He drove around the block again, then motioned us down the same alley.  He pointed down the alley and to the left.

I don’t know how or when we mustered up the courage to trust him, against all instinct, but we began making our way down the alley. There were lots of people (what we would later find out to be primarily tourists) walking down this street. For now, we were just jet lagged, hungry, and desperate to find the hostel.

“There it is! There it is!” Heather exclaimed. I would never have seen it, cleverly hidden between other businesses.

We made our way inside, still barely speaking. We were starving, so we walked back outside to find food. Still uncomfortable, we decided to go back in almost immediately and travel by daylight. We ate granola and listened to the noises of our anxious stomachs.

I knew this would happen. I knew it.

The next day, we were still riddled with culture shock. The hostel was beautiful, covered with plants and flowers and connected to an adorable little restaurant. It was pricier than Vietnam would be, but at least there was food.

We spent the morning taking in deep breaths of relief—finally revealing how scared we both were the night before. We were not in a bad part of town at all; the “graffiti-covered walls” were the doors to stores, opening as a garage door would.  We were in a nice district, close to many tourist attractions, such as Tiananmen Square, a large city square in the center of Beijing. The people were incredibly kind.

The first night Heather and I were at the hostel, I sat at a community table and wrote in my journal. One girl from the hostel, Miko, asked if she could join me. I immediately confessed that I knew little to no Chinese and told her a little about the culture shock Heather and I experienced. She taught me a couple key Chinese phrases such as “Wo Chi Su” or “I eat vegetables,” the closest phrase to saying “I am a vegetarian” (this was of course after I accidently ordered an omelet with ham in it and had no way to explain that I didn’t want it).  

Miko was staying in the hostel in Beijing with her family as she waited to go to school to play the harp. Her mother showed me pictures of her playing a harp that was bigger than she! Though her mother spoke no English, we spent an evening connecting through smiles and hand gestures.

Soon others joined us. A traveler from Amsterdam saw us laughing and enjoying ourselves. He, too, began opening up and telling his stories of how far he’d traveled and how long he’d been away from home. At the time, I was amazed. Now, after meeting so many travelers, I cannot recall where he had been, only that he had dedicated years to self-discovery, something I desperately wanted to do.

And this is how I started. No, it wasn’t for months or years at a time, but everyone’s journey is different—and mine, for now, would take me to Vietnam.

Culture shock wouldn’t get me twice.

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