Culture Shock

A few weeks ago I was reading the blog of my friend Nicole, who lives on Isla Mujeres. She mentioned in several posts how frustrated she was with the culture and the island, and I realized she sounded exactly like me 5 years ago.

Most people have heard of culture shock, but not many people actually know what it is or how it looks. Surprisingly, many expats don’t know what it is either, even though they’ve probably suffered from it or are currently going through it.

I was lucky. The first time I came to Mexico I was a missionary intern for a summer in Acapulco, and we had to take a course before we came down. The class I remember the most was about culture shock, and I’m really glad they told us about it. That way, when I actually experienced it, I knew what was happening to me.


The first phase of culture shock is the “Everything is amazing” phase. When you arrive in the new culture, you love the scenery, the language sounds beautiful, the cultural differences are charming… you could live here forever, right? This phase can last a few days or a few months, depending on how long you plan to be in your new country. I remember my first night in Cancun, driving through the Hotel Zone with all the bright and glittery hotels. I was in love. Exploring the city was tons of fun. My apartment was perfect, school was amazing…everything was great for a few weeks.


Then comes the second phase… the “Everything sucks, get me out of here” phase. Like the first phase, this can last days or months (or years), depending on how long you plan to be here. Why can’t the Mexicans do things the way I do them… the RIGHT way? Why does nobody understand that my way is better? Why is it so hot ALL THE TIME? Why is everything so slow? Why does every small daily task take 3 times as long as in the US? Why can’t I throw toilet paper into the toilet? Why can’t people drive correctly? Why is nobody ever on time? What kind of idiot puts ketchup on their pizza? (Ok, the last one still frustrates me!) I was a real jerk during this phase.

From talking to other expats, it seems most long term expats start to go through this phase around month 3 or 4, with a strong, pissed off peak at the one-year mark. I remember when I reached my angry peak… I got into an argument with my roommates, which was the final straw. I called my friend Cesar and asked if I could go to his house. At his house, I pretty much bawled and complained for an hour, going through half a box of tissues. I was certain I wanted to leave NOW. Cesar was very patient with me, and told me to wait it out until the end of that semester, which I did. During those next few months, something just clicked. I finally realized that I wasn’t going to single-handedly change an entire culture. I was the one who had to change, Once I opened my mind, things became much better, and I moved on to phase 3…


Phase 3 is the “Hey, Maybe They Were Right All Along” phase. You’re able to immerse yourself more in the culture and learn from it. I learned Mexicans are always late because of their “time is fluid” concept, which is actually a pretty cool way to live once you get the hang of it. I learned people in Cancun have a different way of driving because there aren’t many signs or lane dividing lines, so the people here have kind of developed their own rules… it appears to be just as good as our system because there aren’t too many accidents here.

This final phase will last throughout the rest of your time in the country. You’ll get many “this place is amazing” moments and many “this place sucks” moments, but overall it will just feel like normal day-to-day life.