I recently “met” Samantha and Yeison online, and was stuck by the sheer level of different cultures going on in their relationship. I’ve written about culture shock a few times, so figured they would be the idea couple to shed some light on the challenges and struggles of it.
Samantha is American, of Taiwanese descent. Yeison is Korean and Costa Rican. They live in Costa Rica for now, and are determined to experience the country to the fullest. They have started a blog at My Tan Feet to document their journey.
You two are facing a pretty unique situation as pertains to culture shock. No matter where you go, at least one of you will be out of your element. Please introduce yourselves.
Our story is kind of interesting. We met in 2010 during a volunteer medical trip that Samantha joined in starting in Managua, Nicaragua. (So right off, travel was embedded in our relationship). Yeison was working as a team leader for the organization and Samantha was a volunteer.
Let’s just say that we believe some things are out of our control and things happen for a reason. After the trip, Samantha visited Costa Rica with Yeison and from there, our unconventional relationship began (we broke every rule to be together! Literally). Two years of long distance later, Samantha moved to Costa Rica and since then we have been inseparable.
Samantha: I’m a huge animal lover and I studied pre-veterinarian in college. Traveling was something I had always dreamed about but I was wrapped up in the lifestyle of a typical college student. I love the ocean, my dog, and I’m a huge foodie. I’m Taiwanese and grew up the in the States.
Yeison: I’m a mutt essentially, but I was born andraised in Costa Rica. I have a Business Administration degree and as soon as I had my first professional experience in an office, I thought to myself that I needed to get out of these four walls.
I love food, I hate to argue (I have a very pura vida Costa Rican lifestyle). I’m passionate about learning new cultures and new people. I think life is too short and we need to make the best out of the time we have.
It seems like we talk about culture shock a lot, but many people don’t actually know what it is. In your words, what is it? What should someone look for in terms of culture shock?
Samantha: For me, I would sum up cultural shock as being taken completely out of your comfort zone and into a strange new world. It’s being in a completely new environment but besides the “shock” factor, it’s also a cultural opportunity, a chance to explore and experience something completely foreign. It’s exciting and scary at the same time but that’s part of going on an adventure.
Yeison: Culture shock to me is when you are in a new country or society and you think, “Wow.” That could be anything cultural, food, behaviors that seem out of norm to you. Personally, I love having cultural shocks because it means I’m learning something new.
Samantha – What was the culture shock like as you delved deeper into the foreign culture of Costa Rica? Any unexpected surprises or challenges? What was the hardest part? What part of the process surprised you?
The hardest part for me was the language – I knew no Spanish and I was essentially like a blind and deaf person. I couldn’t understand anything, I couldn’t talk to anyone and I couldn’t read anything.
Even though many people speak English in Costa Rica, I didn’t want to be one of those people who just set themselves within that boundary; I wanted to be able to communicate with the locals and fully adapt to this new society and culture.
I love a challenge and to learn but I am shy so it took another level of strength to push myself to get out there and talk to people. I really had to learn how to do things myself because here is different than in the states and I was on my own (no family no friends).
My Spanish isn’t perfect (I’m still learning everyday) but I feel confident enough to talk to people and I’m not as shy anymore. Once I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I let my insecurities go by just being less uptight, plus a smile and a good attitude goes a long way!
It seems obvious but when you move to a new country, you have to change your mindset and I think many people struggle with this. I wasn’t living in the States anymore so I couldn’t keep thinking that everything was supposed to be the same.
The longer you live in a new country, the more you learn about yourself. You learn what kind of person you are when it comes to changes, meeting different kinds of people and trying new things.
One of the unexpected surprises, a good one, was how incredibly nice the Costa Ricans are. They are so welcoming and that gave me more confidence in myself.
As you adjust, the culture shock wears off as time goes on – things aren’t quite as surprising and you become accustomed to the new culture. That feeling of being lost disappears and instead you start realizing that it’s just part of the normal daily life.
Yeison – You watched your girlfriend struggle with trying to find her balance. What stands out for you? What kinds of things were you surprised about?
Leaving her home and friends and moving to Costa Rica is something that I really admire about Samantha.
She knew that it is very difficult for a Costa Rican to get a visa to go to the States (even just to visit). I have tried applying for a tourist visa a few times but each time I was rejected. We finally decided not to deal with all the complications of going to the States and Samantha moved down to Costa Rica instead, where it is incredibly easy for anyone to come.
When she came, she found a completely different system where sometimes you had to go beyond the basics, a little more than the States. You have to work harder to get things fixed and get things done in Costa Rica.
It’s been an interesting process and I can tell all the changes, even when she says hi to someone she kisses them on the cheek (she was never used to that before).
What stands out more for me is the fact that she’s adapting to the system and she stopped complaining (like many of the U.S. expats here do). I was surprised the first day when she said she got a job (though not legal) and I jokingly said to her, “See, all the Americans complain about the illegal immigrants and now technically you’re one of them!”
Now she cooks Costa Rican food, watches Costa Rican TV, and the biggest change I’ve seen is that she doesn’t stress as much. She’s learning how to live a pura vida, Costa Rican lifestyle.
She’s used to a very stressful environment and mindset, growing up in the States where everything is so competitive and now she’s learned how to take things slower and worry less. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and she’s learned to be more flexible.
Do you both feel like you’ve established an equilibrium now? How long would you say it took until you reached that point?
We are not perfect (but which couple is?) but for our circumstances, we do feel like we managed to maintain a balance in our relationship. We both have our days but we found that the key is communication, trusting each other and giving personal time to the other person.
It wasn’t an easy process and it is a daily process. We discover new things about each other every day.
There were personality traits about each person that we realized were cultural differences. To deal with these differences, we both had to learn how to adjust our behavior to deal with these differences.
For example, Samantha grew up in an Asian household where they yell and talk very loud but that is normal for them. Ticos are very sweet and always use sweet loving words when they talk. Samantha learned to adjust her tone and volume and I realized that she’s not always mad when she sounds like it.
We had to adapt to each other and make an effort to make the other person feel comfortable but about 6 months after Samantha moved, we were really at a point where we felt in sync with each other.
Did you see distinct stages of culture shock as you adapted to your new surroundings?
Samantha: Yes. It definitely came in stages. I think when you are first exposed to something new, you just have feelings of excitement and it’s almost like puppy love.
You have expectations and don’t exactly see the whole picture.
From the first moment I stepped foot in Costa Rica, I fell in love with the country but vacationing there and living there are two completely different things. The longer you live there, the more you realize and see what real life is like, not just the exciting and “cool” part of living in a new country.
Things don’t come easily when you’re in a new country. You have to work to make friends, meet people, get a job, and establish a life for yourself.
There were times when I felt sad or frustrated that I couldn’t just call up my friends and see them and I was still trying to meet people in Costa Rica.
But on the other hand, I had this amazing opportunity right in front of me and I started seeing it in a positive light. I remember distinctly the day that I accepted and understood the reality of my new life but took it with excitement and enthusiasm.
I was also very lucky because I had Yeison who supported me all the way.
Eventually, you start losing expectations and learn to properly problem solve to survive in the new culture. After I established a routine and made some friends, the culture shock wore off and my daily life really started to feel like my daily life.
How do you see this process applies to traveling? Would a short- or long-term traveler experience it?
Yeison: Even when you travel within Central America, you can still see huge differences between culture, customer service, the way they talk, the food.
For me as a Costa Rican, even traveling to Panama requires me to adapt even though we speak the same language and the countries are neighbors.
Cultural shocks will always occur, to a short and a long term traveler and every traveler will experience it, whether it is a small shock or big. But I think that this is the main reason why people travel; they want to experience and learn about new cultures.
For example, when I met Samantha’s grandmother who comes from a very different culture, I acted like the typical Costa Rican and I think she got a culture shock when I gave her a hug and kissed her on the cheek. Even that simple act which is so normal in Costa Rica was a completely foreign behavior to her and she was exposed to a new aspect of Costa Rican culture.
Any tips for people? What kinds of words of wisdom can you share?
In regards to culture shock, come prepared to come with an open mind and open heart. Know that you might feel uncomfortable sometimes but having a positive attitude makes a huge difference.
Being open to new things is the best advice we have for travelers. It’s a big world out there and you want to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about it.
Many thanks to you both, Samantha and Yeison! I wish you nothing but the best as you move forward with your dreams! Follow their adventures at My Tan Feet.