Culture Shock: How You Can Prepare!

While preparing for an international volunteer placement tends to include an extensive packing list, visa applications and the purchase of gum for the long plane ride, it can be easy to forget to prepare for one of the most challenging elements of travel: culture shock.

Preparing yourself before you arrive at your placement will help in the process of learning and adapting to a new and different environment. It can also help with coping when elements of culture shock and homesickness do inevitably arise.

So here are a few pre-departure tips:

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Do your research

Spend time learning about your placement country, its culture and customs. In doing so, less will come as a surprise once you are there, and it can be fun to have interesting facts to reflect on and share when things you previously learned about arise.

Expand your network

Whether it is a returned volunteer or someone born in your placement country, find someone to speak with about what to expect, about exciting things to see and do, and about what makes the country unique and a great place to be.


Start making friends early

Connect with fellow volunteers! Whether it is online or in person, speaking with others in a similar position is a great way to remember that you are not alone in how you are feeling about volunteering in a new country. As well, you will already have a familiar support network once you arrive.

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Why not find a restaurant that serves the types of food you will be eating as a volunteer? What a fun way to become familiar with some dishes and flavours while at the same time spending quality time with your family and friends.

Pack some bits of comfort

Feeling homesick is an extremely common experience when adjusting to living in a new country. While it is best to not dwell on feelings of how everything is different and new, it can be helpful to bring along a few little things from home that make you happy. Consider packing a special treat, photos of your family and friends to remind yourself that they will be there when you return, a favourite book or even craft supplies to let your mind wonder. (As an alumni myself, one of my favourite little treats I brought to Ghana was cinnamon flavoured toothpaste! It brought an extra smile to my face each time I used it.)

Furthermore, pack a journal and calendar. Writing is a great way to process your thoughts and feelings while taking some quiet time to yourself, and maintaining a regular schedule (which includes exercise!) helps you to feel productive and plans things to look forward to.

Most importantly - Remember that you aren’t alone in how you feel!

Experiencing culture shock is normal and part of the process of traveling to somewhere new. So take comfort in the discomfort – it’s part of learning. Traveling somewhere new challenges what you know and, as a result, expands your perspective. Even the most seasoned travelers experience culture shock; it’s not a bad thing at all!


Happy packing!

"Playing Violin in the Hospital Band"

A volunteer interview with Charlene Lee on her placement in Aso Iizuka Hospital in Iizuka City


On arrival at your placement, did your host/mentor give you an introduction or training?

The first month was full of language lessons and tours around the hospital and the city. We did activities to help us learn as well as lessons. The people training us could speak some English and were very organized in terms of scheduling and being paired with employees.   

How many hours per week did you work at your placement?

I typically worked 4 days a week, 8 hours a day, with one day of daycare. I worked in different departments during the placement, and once I knew the routine in each department it was fairly straightforward. I did some bed changing and patient transfers and got to observe what nurses do on a daily basis. Every Wednesday I would first help at the morning daycare, doing things like physical exercise and games, and later in the afternoon I had the opportunity to observe an operation (from the list available).

What was the accommodation like at your placement?

I was given an apartment, my room was next to my partner volunteer’s. It was a more rural place than Tokyo so there was more space in the apartment, than I had expected.

What was the high point of your placement?

The nurses would ask the patients and doctors if I could watch minor procedures. There was one misunderstanding with a doctor where he thought I was in medical school. He tried to explain to me how to do the procedure. Once the misunderstanding cleared up, I became closer to some of the doctor. Which lead to me being invited to join a forum the hospital set up for the doctors, residents, and nurses.


One special experience was playing music. I brought my violin with me, and coincidentally my partner had brought her ukulele, which we were quite happy to discover. During our introduction the staff saw that we had instruments. One of the doctors heard that we played music, and asked us to play in his band. We rehearsed every week on the weekend in one of the hospital conference rooms and did two performances. We played in the hospital because all the other band members were also staff. The head doctor played the piano and he even requested a baby grand piano to be put in the new wing of the hospital that was built, so the hospital surprisingly owned a super nice piano. There were also tenor and alto saxophones, two violins (I was the third), guitar, a singer, percussion and double bass. The head doctor arranged all the music.


What was the toughest part of your placement?

The language barrier was definitely the toughest overall, I didn’t study as much as I should have before I went. I would recommend working on the language before going to Japan.

How did you raise the money for your placement?

I saved for a while and worked part time, although I was studying. I pieced together the rest through family. My volunteer partner and I were pretty frugal, we made our own food rather than going out. We were provided with bikes, so we rode those everywhere. We did go to some tourist sites, but often just rode our bikes around town. If we didn’t spend any money on tourist sites and were extremely frugal we could have lived off the stipend, but I would recommend bringing some extra money.

Did you get homesick?

I didn’t usually feel homesick, although I would miss the food from home, like beef stew and certain types of curry. I could imitate the dishes but it was difficult with limited herbs and spices.

How do you feel now that you’re home?

I definitely still want to go into Medicine. Seeing the head doctor in the hospital was very inspiring and after working there I am even more focused on my career. Now it depends on admissions and if I get in!

Have you taken any steps to address the culture shock?

I do miss the Japanese cuisine, particularly the Japanese bread, it was amazing. I would go to the bread shop every day after work and get a $1 pastries and sandwiches. The work culture in Japan is very different. In Canada it is much more relaxed. It was also shocking to come back to the school system here. Nurse college in Japan is during their senior high school years, so they start working much earlier. Doctors enter their medical school as an undergraduate, so they enter as a resident much earlier as well. In addition, the Japanese seem to equate marriage as having children and seem to marry much earlier.


What are your future plans or next steps?

I have graduated from my undergrad program and have now applied to schools like UBC and McMaster. I’m thinking of going into Education, and I’ll also be getting a part time job, most likely teaching music.