Culture Shock

Adapted Repost from “Seville & More” | Alyssa Ward | ISA Veritas Spain Fall 2019

Imagine this:

Overnight flight to Spain. Majorly jet-lagged. Haven’t eaten for over 12 hours. 

After touring Madrid all day, I finally sit down to eat dinner at a restaurant in the center of the city at 9pm with a group of Americans. After waiting an hour and a half, this is what the waiter puts in front of me:

Spanish Paella

For those of you who don’t know, I pretty much love any kind of food except seafood. Paella is one of the most common dishes in Spain. Maybe it was the fact that the entire menu was in Spanish, or maybe it was because I had no idea that most “Paella” dishes are made with seafood. Whatever the reason was, I could not change the fact that I had a plate of fishy rice and octopus tentacles in front of me that cost 17 euros. I thought to myself, this must be what culture shock feels like.

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is defined as the feeling of disorientation by someone who experiences an unfamiliar culture. Though I was familiar with this concept before I left, I had never experienced it firsthand. As I was sitting in the restaurant staring at my paella, I realized how accustomed I was to the American culture. Before going to Spain, I did not think too much about other cultures outside of my own. But there I was, about to live in this country for 3 months. I was about to move in with a stranger and experience a completely different way of life. So, how does one overcome the challenges of culture shock? I am going to share with you how I personally got through it and how I developed such an appreciation for the Spanish culture.

Speak the Language

I remember being really overwhelmed this first day, especially because I was adjusting to the time zone and was extremely sleep-deprived. For context, we were visiting Madrid and Toledo with our study abroad program before going down to Seville. As I walked through the streets of Madrid and heard conversations, I couldn’t even make out what anyone was saying because of their accents and how fast they were speaking. I thought to myself, all these years of studying Spanish and I can’t even understand it? This terrified me, especially because I am a Spanish major. However, in that moment I realized that the only way to improve my knowledge of the language was to be challenged. Though it would be difficult, I knew that eventually I would be able to understand and communicate the more I was immersed in Spain. Most things in life do not come easy, so I needed to learn to appreciate that these challenges would reward me in the long run. 

This mindset gave me the motivation to speak Spanish as much as I could. As the months progressed, the Spanish accent became easier for me to understand. I was speaking Spanish everyday with my host-mom for lunch and dinner. I spoke Spanish anytime I went to a grocery store, coffee shop, or clothing store. 

Though it may feel uncomfortable at times, the only way to improve at a language is to speak it and make mistakes. My advice for you is to get out of your comfort zone and make an effort to use the language. The more you practice, the more you will feel comfortable in your host country. Getting past the fear of a language barrier I felt during that first day allowed me to assimilate quickly and feel more confident in my daily life there. It also helped me develop a close relationship with my host-mom, giving me a positive living experience. 

Get out of the American Bubble

While studying abroad, you will most likely be part of a program with other American students. All of the excursions I went on were with other Americans. Although it was great to go through this experience with people who related to me, I definitely wanted to meet locals and connect with the community. 

ISA Veritas gave students the opportunity to volunteer at an ESL outreach event at a local school. At this event I was able to spend time with local kids and coordinate activities that helped them with English. My advice would be to take advantage of these opportunities so you can immerse yourself in the culture more.

Instead of staying only within my circle of American friends, I tried to put myself out there by attending intercambio events and talking to people in coffee shops. I also got connected with a language exchange program at Universidad de Sevilla, where I met two Spanish students who I could practice Spanish with. While walking to my house, I ran into a local woman, Macarena, who heard me speaking English. We scheduled a time to get coffee, which then turned into an invitation to eat lunch at her house, which then allowed me to connect with her daughters and spend time with them once a week. Though I had to make an effort to get out of the American bubble, it was well worth it.

Macarena & her daughters Paula and Macarena
Be Willing to Adapt

It is truly amazing how we can adapt to the world around us. Speaking Spanish and meeting local people really allowed me to thrive in this new culture. Just because a culture is different from yours, does not mean it is inferior in any way. For example, in Spain they do a “dos besos” (two kisses) greeting rather than shaking hands. Although at first I felt uncomfortable doing it, it became so normal to me.

Chicken with twice baked potatoes

Their day to day life and eating schedule is also something I had to adapt to. They eat a large meal around 2pm for lunch, and a smaller dinner around 9 or 10pm. I actually really liked this because I was always full before going to bed. Not to mention the food my host-mom made us was incredible (see photo). During our meals, we would talk for hours. They see meals as a time to socialize with others and relax. 

Speaking of relaxing, the Spanish have a “siesta” (nap/rest time) where businesses close during 2-5pm. During this time, people go home and eat lunch, spend time with their families, or take a nap. I definitely took advantage of this.

A few minutes late for a meeting or coffee date? Not to worry. Being late is part of the culture in Spain, and goes with their laid-back mentality. While in America we always have to be on a schedule, in Spain they take things slow and value their leisure time. These are just a few of the many aspects of the culture that I adapted to.

Change Your Perspective

Though it was a shock at first, changing my perspective allowed me to be flexible and willing to adapt without complaining.  Rather than fixating on the challenges I faced during those first few days, I decided to be positive and live in the moment. No good would come from worrying about the future. I simply forgot about the “what if” and “what could go wrong” questions that had popped into my head. I prayed so much about this experience, so I knew that God would bless it and use me in incredible ways. I adjusted so well to their way of life that by the end I didn’t want to leave. 

At the end of my semester, this quote came to mind.

“How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”


That “something” was Seville, the relationships I made there, and the culture I grew to love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s