1. Crossing with magic
Crossing the street in India. There are basically no crosswalks, and with over a billion people living there, an almost endless flow of traffic.
I would usually wait for a tiny opening and run across the street.
One day while waiting for such an opening in Chennai, a woman approached me and said, "Put your hand out."
With great confusion I didn’t understand.
"Just put your hand out and walk across slowly,” she clarified, and went on her way.
So I did as she said, and the traffic just flowed around me, as I walked steadily across the street.
It was an unbelievable and terrifying experience.
2. Photo opportunities
Mine was probably when I was in China, and people would either come up to me and ask to take a picture of me, or just straight up starting taking pictures of me.
I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall, and a woman. They thought I must be a model or a freak. I mean people think it’s odd where I live, but they don’t come up to me and go, “You’re tall! Picture?”
One guy stopped taking pictures of animals in the zoo to take pictures of me.
I must be on so many Chinese peoples' social media and family photos. People would come up with their kids and think it was great.
3. He was just happy to chat
I was lost in Oslo, looking for a certain address, and my phone wasn't working right.
I did what most Americans would do. I stopped the next person I saw and asked if they could point me in the right direction.
The first guy I asked was an Afghani refugee, who actually spoke okay amounts of English.
He was so excited that I wanted to talk to him, that he personally walked me to my destination.
He was going on and on about how no one wants to talk to him, because culturally you don't talk to strangers and because a lot of people don't like immigrants, like himself.
Coming from Los Angeles, where probably every other person you pass is an immigrant from somewhere, I found it totally puzzling.
4. The United States of Plenty
I was born and raised in Peru, but left for the U.S. in my early twenties.
Drivers would stop for me if I was coming close to a street corner, 18-year-old kids were getting their own places with a friend or girlfriend.
I could make the same amount of money in an hour of fast food work, for what I would in a day, back in Peru.
People were generally nice and polite, and they smile more often to strangers.
Also, 2-inch bulletproof glass at the counter at a KFC in Pennsylvania and they gave you your food via a revolving tray window.
Back at the beginning, I was just fascinated with Walmart.
Everything in the known universe is available, and often stuff and brands I considered rather in the luxury category, would be cheaper than they were in Lima.
5. Rock on, Japan
Rock concerts in Japan. You have a number on your ticket and everyone queues according to that number.
Yes, they manage to queue of hundreds of people in front of a venue according to the order in which they bought their ticket. It's fair, if you buy your ticket early, you can get the chance for a better spot.
You also have a chance to buy limited merch that is usually sold out after a few minutes.
When the venue opens, they call out every number. As soon as yours is called out you can go in. They do that every time. They do that at small venues with 20 people waiting and they do that at festivals.
Another thing, even after two days of festivities, venues are clean. Not one water bottle, not one wrapping paper or anything.
6. The price of travel
In India, we have a system of printing prices for each and everything on the box/packet of that item.
This includes everything from a tiny pack of gum to a giant refrigerator. Vendors can not charge more than the maximum retail price (MRP), but they can charge less.
Most of the big supermarkets and malls usually charge less than the MRP.
However, in Europe, I’ve never seen this. Anyone can charge any price for anything. I’ve seen a carton of milk be sold at four different prices in my nearby stores.
In India, if the owner charges more than the MRP, a consumer can lodge a complaint against them, and they can face serious consequences.
7. Where plastic is gold
Plastic water bottles in remote African villages.
You want to start a riot amongst some street kids? Toss a few empty water bottles and the kids go crazy for them. Watched a teenager toss her baby sister to the ground to dive after one.
Apparently the bottles are just so useful and relatively hard to get a hold of. From the obvious purpose of carrying liquids, to being melted as a plastic grip on tools, everyone wanted them.
We wound up separating our bottles from our camp's burn pit to give to the locals. After the first couple days, there were suddenly dozens of people lined up at our camp's entrance to get their hands on the empty water bottles.
We had to give the entire lot to our cultural advisor, who would do a weekly giveaway of bottles.
Craziest thing ever to see in person.
8. Definitely in a foreign land
I moved to Poland in 1989 (as communism was failing) for six months.
Coke was sold on one side of the city and Pepsi was sold on the other side.
Nearly all of the cars were two models, all painted in the exact same colors since 40 years ago.
None of the buildings were painted.
You could get anywhere on public transportation for almost free (bus ticket was $0.01 each).
Not one McDonald's or franchise store in the whole country.
Almost all basic commodities, like soap and cheese, had only one choice.
I literally felt like I had entered a different world. Best trip ever.
9. Vicious cycle
Went to Japan to meet my mother-in-law.
She invited me out with a group of her friends to a yakitori restaurant where a man, her friend, poured me a glass of sake.
I drank it. He refilled it. I drank it again. He refilled it. I drank more.
Repeat this a few more times and I turned to my wife and said, "I think this guy is trying to get me loaded."
To which she replied, "Stop drinking it all, you idiot, he's obliged to keep refilling it if you don't leave a little in the glass!"
I was drinking all of it to be polite. He was refilling it because I drank it all, indicating that I had not yet had enough.
10. Like sardines in a can
I was traveling with a small group in 1975.
We had just come across the border, from Pakistan into India, and made the mistake of taking a ‘rush’ seating train (meaning no reservations or limits on the number of people) to New Delhi.
Being from North America, we are used to a certain amount of personal (empty) space between us and the next person. We sat down on the plain wooden benches and the train proceeded to fill up.
And fill. And fill.
People on the overhead racks. People under the seats. People squashed and almost sitting on us.
It is an overnight trip, and even though we had been travelling in Asia for some time, our stomachs were still not working well on the local foods.
We were miserable, tired and being squashed does something else to the psyche.
11. Just being friendly
I'm an American, who's traveled quite a bit domestically.
A few years ago I went to Croatia for a vacation. I was kind of shocked by just how nice people were and was immediately suspicious of this.
I asked one guy for directions and he literally stopped digging a grave (at a graveyard) to take his car and lead me to my destination.
When we arrived, I tried to give the guy a few euros for his time and fuel. He wanted nothing more than a glass of wine from the innkeeper.
I realized the edge America has given me, and just how pleasant people in other parts of the world generally are.
12. Fast food tension
I was driving through Mississippi, about 10 years ago, as a British tourist enroute to Memphis.
Stopped at a roadside gas station/fast-food place. There was another fast-food place across the street, but we just stopped at the one on the side of the road we were travelling on.
Walked into the food place (can't remember which brand, maybe McDonald's) and the customers all immediately stopped talking and turned to look.
They were all African American, I'm white. I just assumed that they were surprised to see someone so white (Scottish, no tan!)
At the counter, the staff member said, “Are you sure you don't want to eat across the road?” She seemed nervous. I was totally clueless and just said, 'No, we're fine.”
As soon as she heard the accent, it was like she relaxed, just asked where we were from etc. She made a comment, something along the lines of the area not being the best, watch out where you go.
It was such a shock to realize that in some places, the first reaction to me walking into a place, could be fear or concern. I'd never experienced that before.
13. France seemed so strange
Honestly the amount of people under 18 years old who smoke in France shocked me.
I was on exchange in a French high school and anytime kids had free time, before school, recess, lunch, free periods, about a quarter of the entire school would go outside to the bus stop for a smoke.
Even the teachers. The sidewalk would be packed and there were cigarette butts everywhere.
A few other things that I found bizzare while living there:
- There were little to no teacher-student relationships, you go to school to learn and that's it.
- When toasting others with drinks, you must look the other person dead in the eyes while clinking glasses together.
- The fact that at certain times of the year you arrive at school before the sun comes up and you get dismissed after sunset.
- Pedestrian crossings don't mean anything, you have to wait for cars to stop for you, not the other way round.
14. War and peace
In Israel, I was shocked by how many armed young people I saw.
Literally everywhere you go, you see an armed Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldier. Or going to the beach and see a girl in a bikini with a weapon over her shoulder.
Also shocked at how, despite what you read and hear in the news, everyone seems to get along in everyday life.
You see Jewish and Christian people shopping at Arab Muslim stores and eating at Arab restaurants.
Arab Christians drinking and smoking with Jewish people in Tel Aviv.
In Jerusalem, I saw orthodox Jewish people drinking coffee with Muslims, and Arab and Druze security guards watching over synagogues.
Eye opening experience.
15. Where are all the donuts?
I’m American. I lived in London for a semester as a senior in college.
Everything was different. I’m from Boston and was used to having a drugstore, ATM and Dunkin‘ Donuts within a five minute walk from most places.
I lived in Kensington and the nearest ATM or drugstore were 15 minutes away by foot.
Never found donuts, except for Krispy Kreme donuts at Tesco.
London had better public transportation and would show when the next train was coming (Boston didn’t have that technology yet).
Coffee shops didn’t sell iced coffee.
I interned with Parliament and would get the actual Lord or Member of Parliament on the phone, whereas when I worked in political offices in Boston, I had to speak with an assitant to the congressperson.
I was walking down the street alone, at 2:00 a.m., in a small town in Tunisia.
I had been in the country less than 24 hours, it was my first time in the Arab world, shortly after the revolution.
I see a crowd of shady looking men at the corner ahead. I decide to keep walking towards them, rather than cross the street and look like I'm afraid of them.
I get about 20 feet away, and one of them points at me and starts shouting, "American! American!"
I'm Canadian, but there's no way for them to know that. Then another points at me and shouts, "American! American!".
More join in, now they're all pointing at me shouting, "American!"
I was just about to turn and run, when I realized they were taxi drivers fighting for the fare, and trying to tell me they would take American dollars.
17. Shock in Hong Kong
I have some Hong Kong highlights to share.
Splitting tables with strangers at restaurants/food courts, due to lack of space. This also happened when I ate at a dim sum restaurant that had a Michelin star.
Eating at a Cha Chaan Teng (think low frills diner where working-class locals eat) and when we went to pay, we were told that they do not accept coins. So we paid with bills and ironically received coins back in change.
Watching a seemingly homeless-looking woman walk up to a jewellery store and the doorman instantly welcomes her. He then proceeds to bend over backwards to provide service. She was probably a Chinese mainlander.
18. All the cars were overwhelming
Moving to Atlanta, Georgia from Botswana was a huge shock (back in 2004, but Botswana has become significantly more modernized since).
When I was young, we used to take seven-hour trips to neighboring countries to get groceries.
About 99% of the roads I grew up on, were dirt and donkey carts, and that was a practical way of getting around.
When I landed in the states for the first time, I had never been anywhere but Africa.
The car I was in got on the I-75 and it merges with the I-85 to a horrific 14-lane nightmare.
I remember laying down on the seat and covering my head, while crying, because I couldn't handle all the headlights and the cars and the sheer speed we were traveling at.
I was 12 years old at the time.
19. He caused a scene
I’m an American, who has been living in Nepal for some time now.
I work with a population of kids who work in the street, don’t go to school, live in a slum and generally do not have the easiest life.
On my first trip to Nepal, I was walking in the street with a group of these kids. A boy, about seven years old, was carrying his two-year-old brother around on the streets, begging tourists for money.
While walking back to their house, the baby started fussing and the boy dropped him.
At the same time, a motorbike was flying up the street and nearly ran him over, when I scooped him up in my arms.
What was completely shocking was the reaction from the crowd. People were absolutely stunned and almost fearful or offended, but not by the stupid driving, by me picking the lower caste child up in my arms.
This was the first time I really began to understand the class and caste disparity in Nepal.
20. Oh deer
I'm Swedish, and I went to California to visit a friend a few years back, while she was an au pair to a couple there.
One day, we were sitting and talking with the couple and we talked about food. The subject of meat came up and I said that we eat quite a lot of reindeer meat back home.
They looked absolutely horrified when I said this and started laughing awkwardly and said, "No, no, you don't eat Rudolph! You mean deer meat/venison.”
I just looked at them and said, "No...I mean reindeer. They're delicious.”
I've never seen two people so horrified by eating reindeer before. Back home no one even bats an eye to it.
21. Very humbling experience
Me and my friends stayed in a Villa in Bali.
The Villa had hard working maids, who would start work at 6:00 a.m., and stayed the whole day doing the gardening, cleaning rooms, sweeping/mopping, you name it.
One night, I sat down and chatted with one of the maids (only 18 years old), who explained to me that she would work from 6:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., then drive an hour to university to study accounting all night. She would finally get home at 2:00 a.m.
This was her daily life. And what's more, is that she was being paid the equivalent of $19 AUD a day, yet she was so gracious, content and happy with her work.
I told her that I would roughly receive $20 AUD an hour. This baffled her. She wished she could move to Australia, but earning only $19 AUD a day just wouldn't cut it.
Yet she was happy, a smile beaming across her face.
Now, whenever I feel like not studying, doing house work or just anything productive, I think of her and her smile.
22. This trip changed their perspective
Took a trip to northern Guatemala with my church towards the end of high school. I’m not sure if it was more shocking going to Guatemala or returning to my upper middle class lifestyle.
The jungle was so thick, and all of a sudden, people’s houses would pop up in a small clearing. Mostly tiny single room buildings of wood construction, with a wood-burning stove out front and the livestock roaming around the yard.
But these people were so happy and tightly bonded as a family, living together in the same room for their entire lives.
Coming home after seeing how desperately poor these people were, really drove the point home.
Those people demonstrated that you don’t necessarily need things to be happy. But the sheer inequality and contrast between my home and theirs, left me crying in the shower upon my return.
That trip made me really believe that we should continue to do something about the disparity in resources and wealth in our world.
23. Crying in Walmart
I'm American, but grew up in West Africa. We'd make trips every few years back to the U.S., so I was familiar enough with the culture that culture shock never really happened.
Until I came back for college. My mom and I were shopping at Walmart for stuff for my dorm room.
She hands me a few coupons and tells me to go pick some razors. So I go find the shaving equipment aisle and was just overwhelmed by the choices!
My coupons had percentages off or buy one get one half off or buy this shaving cream razor combo for this much off.
And it just overwhelmed me more than I could have imagined. All I could think was, "I just want to shave my legs!"
In Africa, we got a choice between two, maybe three items, and this incredible mass of options was more than my brain could handle. And I started to cry in the middle of Walmart.
24. Everything was new
My childhood move from Indonesia to winter in Pennsylvania, was a goldmine of culture shock moments.
"Dad! DAD! The house is on fire, but it's ok!" (first fireplace).
"Long shorts" (we didn't have a word for pants).
"Why did you put your dishes in the oven?" "You said put them in the dishwasher, but I couldn't figure out what that was."
There were shrieks of terror (heard a vacuum cleaner).
I apparently got so fed up with the amount of clothing that had to be worn, and the work it took to put them on, that I refused to wear any shoes with laces until junior high.
It also took a long time to remember how few foods here you were allowed to eat with your hands, and that you couldn't get rice at McDonald’s.
25. A little too persistent
Not sure if it counts as a shock, as much as a slow realization.
I've been going to Italy all my life, but once I turned 15 and visited, I started getting asked out by guys who just wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.
You reject a guy in the U.K. and they'll normally take it well (unless they're a bit unhinged), but in Italy I said no to strangers, friends I'd known for years, people I'd met that night, all people who were otherwise normal.
They would be so persistent, that I had to either leave, or use my cousin as a fake boyfriend.
26. Half surprised and half expected
When I visited South Africa, things were pretty split about what I expected.
It's got modern Internet, decent infrastructure, awesome food and markets etc., but also has the slums you expect, as well and people living without running water.
However, a few things surprised me.
Traffic lights are ‘robots.’
The writing on municipal electric grids is still mostly made of steel. One side effect of when it rains hard is that the electricity goes down.
Almost every middle-class person has a pool in their yard.
Some of the best vineyards in the world, but for some reason it's hard to get their wine out of the country (I rarely find it).
They have speed bumps on the highway.
27. Polite bar-goers
I was in Iceland, in a crowded bar, at an Icelandic Reggae show.
But that wasn't the culture shock.
At one point, a woman asked me a question in Icelandic. As soon as she realized I didn't know what she was saying, she switched to English.
She asked me to pass her glass to the bar.
Bewildered, I obliged. I took the glass and passed it left.
As if in unison, I watched eight people pass the glass to each other, all the way down to the bar, where it was left for the barkeep to pick up.
That would have never happened in Boston.
28. She was expecting cake
Not exactly a shock, so much as a surprise, but I helped out some neighbors awhile ago in Mailisita (Tanzania).
Nothing grand, but I suppose I was the only person they knew who spoke English (to resolve the situation), so they were more grateful than I'd expected.
They asked if I'd planned for dinner the next day, and told me they'd bring by a cake, as thanks.
Next day comes, their beaming nine-year-old daughter is standing at my door, holding a live turkey.
I'd assumed they'd said, ‘cake’ (I'm awful with accents), but turns out they had indeed said, ‘cock,’ as in male poultry.
So that was the day I learned how to butcher and prepare a turkey.
We had a good time.