Why it’s OK to feel culture shock.

I haven’t felt compelled to write lately. It’s not for lack of content, I have about 5-10 blog posts in the “brainstorm” queue, I just haven’t been able to muster the creativity to piece them together. Instead of forcing it, I wanted to give myself a break and wait until I felt some inspiration to actually write something out.

Today, I got some inspiration.

One travel influencer I really love to follow on Instagram is Susi Cruz – she’s a beautiful Asian-German girl who is traveling around Europe living the #vanlife and making cool YouTube videos. She always has interesting Instagram stories, and I love seeing her visit places I’ve been to.

These past few days, she took her van across the strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, where she visited Chefchaouen, the stunning blue city that I’ve had the luck of visiting twice. Unfortunately, her experiences were not as pleasant as mine were, and the culture shock of being in Morocco, being cat-called, misled, stared at, and spoken to in a racist manner, was too much. Despite her best efforts of dressing and behaving respectfully, and just wanting to enjoy the country like every other tourist, local men still did their best to intimidate and try to get her attention. The stress of traveling alone in a place with different customs and a scary situation with a stranger pretending to be helpful led her to abandon her Morocco travel plans, and she returned to Spain.

Once she made it back to a place she felt safe, she explained the whole situation in a video on her YouTube channel in a raw and visceral explanation of emotions. Normally, I roll my eyes at YouTubers crying on video, assuming it’s for attention and views, but I didn’t feel that at all with this. I felt deep sympathy and compassion for her, and I wish I could give her a hug. I also wanted to thank her for creating this video, because it reflects a lot of feelings I’ve had (and I’m sure many women have had) while traveling and being exposed to different cultures. I’m glad to see someone put out content that was a real, HONEST explanation of an experience that was less than picture-perfect and Instagram-worthy.

Culture shock is a thing. Different cultures are different. Gender dynamics, views towards people of different races, and other cultural variances are undeniable, and no amount of hashtags is going to change that. It’s almost like in an attempt to push back on the scare tactics of the media, we’ve gone too far in promoting this idea that differences don’t exist. We need to stop pretending that everything is the same and beautiful and that you can be a strong #solofemaletraveler without any complications. The world, despite being more and more globalized every day, is not a melting pot. At best, it’s a tossed salad, where we are mixed in and mostly agreeable, but different elements can still be separated out and might not fit for everyone. There are some countries where men and women are not equal under the law. That is a fact, and it shapes those country’s cultures and how travelers are treated. Some places that are beautiful in the Instagram posts you see also suffer from extreme poverty and problems beyond our Western imaginations.

As a traveler, especially from a powerful country, you typically get to enjoy a lot of privilege when you travel, but that doesn’t make you immune to feeling the effects of culture shock when in a foreign place. The current political climate that we live in has led many people to incorrectly associate being different with being “unequal” and therefore “wrong.” Thus, a feeling of “shock” when you go somewhere completely foreign and are put in an uncomfortable situation makes you naive or intolerant, right?


People, including many travel influencers, are afraid to talk about negative experiences they have in some places for fear of being labeled “closed-minded.” Instead, they filter what they post and make it seem like it was all rainbows and sunshine, with no cultural struggles along the way. It’s dishonest, and this deception could mislead travelers who aren’t able to handle the shock. I remember once when someone asked me about my travels in Turkey.  I answered honestly and said that while I thought Istanbul was a beautiful city, the amount of discomfort I felt from being cat-called and even grabbed at one point soured the experience. I was surprised that I had felt more uncomfortable from the men in Turkey, a supposedly “European” place, than I had in Morocco.

Sharing that story earned me the response of

“Wow, I didn’t know you were such a bigot.”

Not everyone is adaptable to every situation, and that is OK. Even for incredibly adaptable people, like Susi, a girl who travels alone and LIVES IN A VAN, things can get to be too much. It doesn’t make you stupid or naive. You should not feel guilty for feeling overwhelmed or anxious in a new place. It doesn’t make you weak, naive, or “closed-minded.” Your experiences are your own, and they will be vastly different for everyone else. Shaming someone because you think their feelings or reactions are coming from a bad or naive place is not progressive, and it doesn’t make you “more cultured.”

This post is not a rant against Morocco or any nation that has a lot of disparities between the status of men and women, (ahem…). Morocco is a beautiful country that I’ve visited 3 times (and been harassed all 3 of the times) but still loved my experiences and memories I’ve made there. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, and it’s definitely not for every solo female traveler. Susi explains in her video too that she doesn’t want people to be deterred from visiting based on her negative experience. The point isn’t that you “shouldn’t go” or that you should be afraid. But being aware of the reality of what happens when you enter a new culture is crucial. It’s going to be different for everyone. Men and women, black and white, gay and straight, no matter what, everyone is going to have their own unique set of reactions after visiting a new place.

My point is that it’s OKAY to have the reactions and feelings that wash over you in response to what you’re exposed to. You shouldn’t attempt to silence your emotions to fit some politically-correct ideology. Be honest. We can respect differences worldwide while still recognizing that we might prefer the customs of our own cultures more. That doesn’t make you an ignorant or intolerant person. You don’t have to like every aspect of another culture that you’re exposed to when traveling.

We need to find a balance between rejecting the negativity and fear-mongering that our media perpetuates, maintaining open minds and tolerant hearts, while also not lying to ourselves about how we feel. 

You traveled. You tried. You exposed yourself to a different world and got a glimpse of what reality is like for others, especially women in these cultures. Acknowledging that there are serious differences and disparities in foreign places, instead of trying to rationalize or normalize them, is the best way that we can seek to understand the world that we live in, and figure out how to experience it.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Talk to other travelers before venturing into a challenging place. Read lots of different resources. When you can, find a local to get their opinion and advice. This can be the most valuable resource when planning and preparing for a trip. And when the worst happens and you can’t handle it – don’t let it make you feel like a weak person or have it destroy your desire for travel.

The ugliness we are sometimes exposed to is the price we pay for all the beauty we get to see.

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