Getting Zapped (Pt. 1): Culture Shock Abroad

One of our friends asked us the following question on Facebook: What was your biggest culture shock? What was something you were surprised to have in common with Mongolians?” As I began answering, I realized our answer was becoming way too long for a comment on Facebook and thought it would be better to answer in the form of a blog. Before we launch into our answers, let’s quickly go over a definition of culture shock as well as summarizing the stages of it so that we can be on the same page going forward.

In brief, culture shock is a feeling and/or reaction to being in an unfamiliar place or conditions. The stages of culture shock are as follows: the honeymoon stage, irritability and hostility, gradual adjustment, adaptation of biculturalism, and re-entry shock. (We’ll have a whole post on re-entry shock/reverse culture shock next week!) For both Eric and me, we didn’t have a general sense of culture shock, but rather we experienced moments or interactions that resulted in a smaller shock.

abstract art cooking cutlery
Photo by Pixabay on

For Eric, he would say that our first time eating out just the two of us was a culture shock. We were still new enough in Mongolia that we didn’t know what restaurant etiquette was. We waited to be seated (Mongolian restaurants are usually seat yourself), and we waited to order until the server came back to us. Not wanting to make a cultural faux pas, we waited about 45 minutes to finally wave the server over to order. We had our hearts set on phò  (it was a Korean and Vietnamese restaurant), and they didn’t have any phò. We tried ordering a couple of other dishes, and they didn’t offer those at the time either. We ended up getting gimbap because it was one of the few dishes we recognized and that they also had available. Fortunately, we met with our NPO’s country director later that week or the next week and were able to sort out our misunderstandings.

gray scale photo of a pregnant woman
Photo by Pixabay on

For me, I think I struggled with being so noticeable when we were out and about. Most of the time, it didn’t bother me because I was used to standing out–growing up as a white kid in Africa will do that. I always knew when I was feeling cumulative stress when the thought of running errands (like grocery shopping) made me anxious. (This feeling was the hardest after Zach was born, when I dealt with postpartum depression/anxiety.) Other times, I thought it was funny how much we stood out–especially Eric who refused to wear a coat until he absolutely couldn’t stand the cold (once the temperature was consistently 15F/-9C or colder). I stood out a lot when I was noticeably pregnant and then after our kids were born. A blessing from that was that people were very accommodating of me as a pregnant woman and as a mother with small children in tow, which is the cultural norm.

Cartoon from The Seattle Times’ article “Cracking the Myth of the Seattle Freeze” (

Something that we felt like we had in common with Mongolia, and with UB especially, is what we would call the “Seattle freeze” in the Pacific Northwest. The way we saw this general attitude or behavior play out in Mongolia was similar enough to feel normal for us. In public, most folks just go about their days and generally ignore strangers. On public buses, riders tend towards reserved stoicism. It’s not that Mongolians aren’t cheerful in public, but that kind of emotional engagement is reserved for friends and family or someone you would consider in your “inner circle” (colleagues, classmates, etc.). Since we lived in Seattle prior to moving to Asia, we felt right at home! Noteworthy: you can almost always tell when foreigners are on the bus because of the loud talking or laughing. 😉

When it comes to commonalities, there are many! There is always an overlap in values between cultures, but sometimes the way that those values is shown is what throws us off. I think the key is to look past the “how” to the “why” to understand what you have in common. That said, I will also add that the high school students we worked with were heavily influenced by global pop culture, so it was nice to be able to have some shared understanding of music, celebrities, TV shows, and internet memes–ha! A few American pop culture faves that caught me by surprise initially for their popularity in Mongolia: the Beatles, the TV show Friends, and knowledge of The Carpenters among teenagers.

What are some culture shock moments that you’ve experienced?

Beth sig


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