Experiencing Culture Shock

January 24, 2017

Also known as the time I barely spoke for three days…


Culture Shock: noun The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.


Five years ago I went to Cuba. It was my first time in the Caribbean and first time at an all-inclusive resort. It was also my first time experiencing culture shock!


My mom and I were excited to go to Cuba, especially once winter arrived in Canada with the snow and cold temperatures. That first wave of tropical air after we got out of the airplane was wonderful. The warmth and the moisture were a lovely relief from the dry, cold air we left earlier that day. We found our way to the exchange counter and the bus that would take us to the resort. It was fun navigating this different environment with a foreign language.


On approach into Cuba. Look at that green!


We reached our resort at Playa Del Este which was a half hour drive East of Havana. It looked a little worn down compared to the pictures online, but we didn’t really notice as we were too excited to be there. We only noticed when we got to our room. The walls had marks on them and the bedspread was quite threadbare. Then we looked into the bathroom. The side of the tub was peeling, the showers and taps were old, and everything looked like it was put in before I was born. My mom and I exchanged looks. What on earth had we gotten ourselves into?


The bathtub at the resort. So why did we come here?


After the initial shock, we examined the room a second time and realized something. Although everything was worn and old, it was clean. The marks on the walls had been scrubbed as best they could, the sheets were fresh and clean and you could not find a spec of dirt or dust in the bathroom or anywhere for that matter.  It was just old and used. Cuba is a country that has to deal with limited resources and trade embargos, it does not have the luxury to replace everything every few years just to make it look nice. As long as it is functional, it is used and kept clean. We could deal with that, no problem.


We looked around our resort and noticed the same things. A bit worn but clean and functional. The resort was right at the beach so after we settled in, we went for a walk that afternoon. Warm wind, palm trees, ocean, these were the real reasons why we were here.


Walking along the beach that first day in Cuba


The plan for our visit was to spend the morning in Havana and relax at the resort in the afternoon.  After breakfast, we boarded the bus and bounced our way into the city. Havana was a strange mix of old and new. It felt like we had stepped back in time with the cobble stone streets and 1950’s cars and the old architecture. But it wasn’t quite right because there were also newly paved roads and cell phones and new cars. My brain struggled to reconcile the old and the new.


That sentence might seem strange, because no matter where you are there would be old and new buildings. But between the old and the new, there is always a blending, a transition. Here, the new was in such sharp contrast with the old that the new did not seem to fit. There was a 50-year gap between the two. There were several old beautiful buildings that were being restored, but most of the buildings were either run down or being renovated.


Residential street in downtown Havana
Slightly restored buildings
Fully restored Plaza Vieja


It took a few days for our brains to process a life that is so different from anything we had seen before. It was only on the fourth day that we realized we had experienced culture shock! And shock is a very appropriate word for this! It was half way into our trip that my mom and I realized we had barely spoken to each other up till then. Maybe a half hour in total over 3 days!


After the shock wore off, we adjusted and adapted and were able to start looking past the superficial side of old and new, and notice what life in Cuba is like. People are not rich, but they seem happy and they were kind to us. No matter where we went in the city even down the abandoned side streets, we felt safe.  Even if a house was crumbling, there was still life in it. We were able to appreciate Cuba.


I knew that visiting Cuba was going to be a different experience, but I did not realize to what extent and was certainly not expecting to experience culture shock! I will be going back there shortly for another visit and look forward to seeing more of Havana and every day life in Cuba.


Have you ever experienced culture shock? What was it like for you?



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