Volunteering: dealing with culture shock

You want to volunteer – but are you prepared for the reality of living and working in a different culture?

7 mins

We called it foot cheese,” recalls Anna Scott. The 35-year-old spent three months working with deprived children in Honduras and Costa Rica – a life-changing experience, but not without its challenges. Like learning to live on a developing world diet.

“Our host family in Honduras had very little money, so we ate refried beans, tortillas and this awful cheese. I’m quite an avid traveller, but this was the longest I’d been away, and it was quite a shock. I was living in very basic accommodation in a complete dustbowl of a town, and the water supply went off every Tuesday and Thursday. I lost a lot of weight.”

Culture shock takes many forms, but volunteering can deliver a bumper crop. As a volunteer, you’re likely to be overseas for several weeks or months – plenty of time for the novelty to wear off. You’ll also be more thoroughly immersed in the local lifestyle than a blow-through traveller, meaning you’ll need to adapt to different customs. What’s more, rather than just ‘going with the flow’, you have to get a job done, bending to schedules that may be different from those in the West.

In Anna’s case – on a project arranged through volunteer travel agency i-to-i – that meant helping out in a day-care centre packed with children from zero to 14, being an entertainer, teacher and playmate, while trying to master Spanish. “It was wonderful to shrug off the responsibilities of normal work, but I did miss friends and family. I’d drop into the internet café almost every day, which really helped me feel less distanced from home.”

Dream vs reality

Culture shock may not be a ‘proper’ medical syndrome, but it can have very real effects – ones that all travellers will experience from time to time: disorientation, lethargy, homesickness, a loss of confidence and self-belief.

Culture shock involves a five-stage process: initial elation at your new surroundings, through increased frustration and negativity, a hankering for home, and finally a more measured acceptance of the new culture and an ability to operate within it.

So what can you do to prepare? Initially, the biggest shocks are likely to be more environmental than cultural – heat, big bugs, basic or shared accommodation, limited resources. Short volunteer trips may seem like adventurous holidays, but don’t expect the same facilities or flexibility as you might from a standard tour operator.

Most wildlife conservation projects, in particular, are based far from urban amenities, and volunteers typically sleep in bunkhouses, huts, tents – or under the stars. It may sound romantic, but will you still feel that way after spending a sleepless night on a millimetre-thick mattress next to a snorer? Know your own limits.

Different strokes

Longer term, there are cultural issues to grapple with. On the Muslim island of Wasini, Kenya, for example, volunteers with Global Vision International must dress carefully. “In town, female volunteers wear headscarves and everyone wears long trousers,” says GVI’s Andy Woods Ballard. “But those doing marine conservation work need to wear beach clothes on the coast – the locals have come to understand that.”

Cultural differences – often exacerbated by a language barrier – can be a real source of anxiety, especially if you are on your own. Those on Voluntary Service Overseas placements are told about the ‘iceberg model’. “As a volunteer you just see the tip of a foreign culture,” says VSO’s training advisor, Piers Cardiff. “We tell people they need to find their ‘penguin’ – a local who can show them what’s happening beneath the surface, someone who speaks good English, who can help them understand what they’re seeing.”

Self-awareness is also important. VSO advises prospective volunteers to make a ‘me map’, identifying their emotional, social, professional and material needs – and then think about how they’re going to meet those needs abroad. Put simply, if you’re naturally sociable, don’t sign up for months of isolation; if you’re terrified of spiders, don’t head for the jungle. Yes, volunteering can be a chance to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but be realistic about what you need to cope. Talking to returned volunteers (most organisations will happily put you in touch) is the best way of gauging the particular stresses and strains you’re likely to experience.

One of the most profound forms of culture shock derives from different working cultures abroad. The most bullish entrepreneur can struggle against the bureaucracy of the developing world. Even if you’re going on a short trip with a group of Westerners, you’ll need to accept different ways of working. Not everyone can be a project leader – be ready to bite your lip.

Bringing it all back home

Finally – once you’ve overcome the initial shocks, adjusted and got the job done – you’ll come home, and go through it all again. Reverse culture shock can be tricky, too – one reason many volunteers can’t wait to get back in the field.

After months of refried beans, for example, Anna Scott was appalled by the groaning shelves of British supermarkets: “I just thought, whoa, there’s too much choice.”

That instinctive recoil may not last forever, but the effects of embracing another culture are generally lingering and positive – you reassess your own culture, and often retain some of the values and tastes of the other one. Even if that doesn’t extend to ‘foot cheese’.

5 ways to ease culture shock

1. Research your destination Learn as much as you can about the culture you’re entering before you go: read guidebooks and any briefing notes, surf the web, watch films. If you don’t speak the language, learn at least some basics.

2. Talk to other volunteers Most placement agencies will happily put you in touch with returned volunteers. Before you go, ask how they coped, what they missed and what they’d do differently next time. Use web forums (such as myWanderlust) to quiz people who know the area.

3. Go with an open mind Easier said than done, but try to manage your own expectations. Give yourself time to understand what makes a place and its people tick. Reserve judgement.

4. Befriend locals, but keep in touch with home Other volunteers can be a lifeline, but locals will orientate you much better. Find your ‘penguin’. And don’t forget to communicate with home – it helps keep things in perspective.

5 Give yourself some treats Teabags, peanut butter, Marmite – if you really can’t live without it, take it with you. And if you’re on a long placement, give yourself a holiday – a trip to the beach, a safari or a luxury hotel – halfway through.

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