14 April 2014

five tips for adjusting to a new culture.

Have you ever had to adjust to a new culture? What was that like? Remember, you don't have to travel halfway around the world to encounter a culture different from your own. The earliest cross-cultural memory I have is listening to "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix-a-Lot...moving on.

Ashley and I have been living in Tanzania in East Africa for 14 weeks. We completed 12 weeks of Kiswahili language school in the town of Musoma. And now we are living in the much bigger city of Mwanza for at least the next three years and two months.

So what have we learned after 3+ months in a new culture?

Adjusting to a new culture is not easy, but if approached well, it can be completely awesome and even life-changing. Looking back over our first 14 weeks in Tanzania, I will offer up five tips for adjusting to a new culture.

1. Recognize that who you are is cultural.
Your worldview is entirely rooted in your culture. The way you live your life, behaviors you practice, ideologies you believe - make no mistake about it: each of these is intrinsically tied to the culture in which you were raised.

What culture am I talking about? Well, there are many. The country you lived in undoubtedly has a unique culture of its own, and even within a country there are regional cultural differences. Family and faith will further shape your culture. And much more. But my aim is not to define culture or how you got it.

My aim is to remind - maybe even teach you - that your life perspective is derived from your culture. It is not about a right and a wrong way to view and construct the systems of life that guide us. It is about the pure and simple fact that your culture set up those structures around you.

Personal Example
If you are a guest in my home, I will offer you something to drink and verbally communicate all of the beverage options available to you. As a guest in my home, a Tanzanian would hate this. Why? Because Tanzanians prefer to offer their guests as few options and little information as possible so as to make life simpler for their guest. This makes no sense to my brain. In both cultures, the goal is the same: make the visit enjoyable for the guest. Yet, it is approached from entirely different perspectives. Read here to learn more about the culture of hosting a guest in Tanzania.

2. Clothe yourself in patience and flexibility. 

Does that heading sound too biblical? Yeah, sorry about that, but the imagery is what I am going for because I want to impress upon the importance of patience and flexibility in a cross-cultural setting.

One of the biggest cultural differences between Tanzania and the United States is pace of life. Tanzanians have a saying: "Polepole ndiyo mwendo. Haraka haraka haina baraka." (Translation: live life slowly - moving quickly has no blessing.) Well let me tell you something - this is the kind of stuff that will break you and drive you mad in a foreign culture.

Getting acclimated to a new culture requires that you act with patience and remain flexible. Invariably, you will frequently find yourself in situations in which you have absolutely no clue as to what is going on. Embrace that uncertainty. This is a chance to practice patience and flexibility, and an opportunity to experience a new and crazy adventure. Don't miss it.

Personal Example
The daladala is the main source of public transportation in Tanzania, and it is bonkers. (I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to accurately communicate this experience to those unaccustomed to its craziness.) However, a typical daladala ride goes like this: (1) Show up to random patch of dirt road and wait 5-20 minutes for a broken-unfit-for-human-transit-piece-of-machinery to arrive. (2) Crawl aboard this diesel-powered coffin with seating for 12 but packing 20-30 sardine-like humans. (3) Ride along with a total stranger in your lap, you sitting in the lap of a stranger, or standing with your back bent 90 degrees at the waist and your nose eskimo-kissing the sweaty dude across from you or your face plunged into a bucket of wet dagaa fish - for realz. (4) Throughout this 6 MPH ride, the driver is constantly yanking the windshield wiper stalk to trigger the horn (because that makes sense) to alert everyone along the road that another crappy daladala is passing by so climb aboard.

It would be easy to let a ride on the daladala get the best of your patience and flexibility, but if you accept that things will be crazy and unpredictable ahead of time, an otherwise frustrating situation turns into a comedic adventure.

3. Find a local cultural guide.

You are a baby - utterly helpless. You don't know how to talk, walk, eat or even go to the bathroom. Why? Because you are living in a new culture and everything is different. Well, at least lots of stuff is different. So you need help if you want to survive.

A trustworthy local cultural guide is priceless. They can give you the honest and current assessment of what to do when, where and how. Books and online research are great (Am I about to discount the very post I am writing?), but there is no substitute for a local to explain the actual reality of life.

Do this. Don't do that. Go here. Don't go there. Say this. Dear God, do not say that. Eat this. Spare your intestines and don't eat that. You want to know this stuff.

Personal Example
It is almost impossible to walk through the city center of Mwanza without being hit up for money by beggars and street children. Most of them are living in very difficult conditions and need help. So what do you do? On one particular stroll through the city, a man approached me with an elaborate story about his plight and asked for money. Thankfully, a cultural guide was able to inform me that this man is widely known by locals as one who peddles fictitious stories in order to take advantage of foreigners. Thanks to my cultural guide, I was not taken advantage of by this con-artist.

Separately, a woman I know was asked by neighborhood kids to pay for their school fees, to which she complied. However, it was a time of year when school fees are never paid. This woman had no idea. She was taken advantage of and the money was spent on other things. She approached a local cultural guide after the fact and learned the truth. Don't wait.

4. Language is the gateway to the soul.

I cannot emphasize this enough. To live in another culture is to experience all that it has to offer, and you simply cannot do that if you are unable to communicate effectively with locals. Of course, it is entirely unrealistic to attain fluency in every language, especially if you are visiting a new culture only briefly.

But please. Please, please, please. Make an effort to learn a few phrases and then actually use them. One thing that is nearly universally shared across cultures is an extreme dislike for visitors making no effort to speak in the local language and expecting that locals will just know their language. (I am talking to you Americans!)

Personal Example
Every time Ashley and I go outside we encounter Tanzanians. Shocking, I know. These Tanzanians all speak Kiswahili. That makes sense since it is their national language and we are in their country. Most of the time, when Tanzanians see us (we look quite different from them so we really stand out) they assume we cannot speak Kiswahili. I cannot tell you how many times we approach a Tanzanian who looks at us questionably, and then upon hearing us greet them in Kiswahili, they stop, smile as wide as the human mouth can, and begin a joyful conversation with us in Kiswahili. Why? Because they are pleasantly astonished that we - clearly foreigners - are making the effort to speak in their native tongue. It makes them proud of their language when they hear foreigners using it, and in turn, they become immensely more receptive to our presence and warmly welcome us to their country.

5. Figure out what keeps you balanced and do that.

Living in a new culture means that your entire world is turned upside down. Everything is different. This, this and this. Everything. You can easily lose your mind. Don't let that happen.

So as you enter this new culture, it may be important and necessary to bring a few things from your culture of origin with you: a certain cookie, particular shampoo, ridiculously old stuffed animal, specific workout routine, form of prayer or meditation, etc. Figure out what those things are that will keep you balanced and bring/do them.

Personal Example
I love straight razor shaving. Ever heard someone say that before? I know. I am weird. I acknowledge that so let's move on. But shaving with my straight razor gear makes me happy. It's an experience. I love the motion of the blade and aroma of my shaving cream. It feels and smells great. Now I cannot find these supplies in Tanzania. So when I run out, I need to have them brought in from the outside. And these supplies are not exactly cheap. But you know what? It keeps me balanced. The comforting smell of my straight razor potions is a comfort from back home that I didn't want to give up, and that's okay, because it allows me to stay focused and present in a culture where nothing is familiar or comfortable.

So there you have it. Five tips for how to effectively adjust to a new culture. Got more to add? Great! Share them in the comments below, and thanks for reading!


  1. Thanks for another great blog with some pretty cool tips for acclammating to another culture. Hugs from Bolivia!

    1. Sure thing Hady! Glad you enjoyed the post. Moving to a new culture has definitely given us a lot to think about and has stretched us in many ways. Hope you are adjusting well to life in Bolivia!

  2. I did not know that Ashley and you have become cultural experts! Just kidding!
    What you have described and suggested here sounds familiar to me as a Vietnamese guy living in the U.S.
    If you guys had gone to Vietnam, you might have experienced the same things you had in Tanzania.
    Thank you for going there and thank you for opening yourselves to a new culture; a new way of life.
    May God bless both of you!
    Tino Nhan-Tran

    1. Great to hear from you Fr. Tino! It has definitely been a big cultural adjustment transitioning to life in Tanzania. Hope life in St. Louis is well.


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