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Culture Shock in Colombia, 2 years on

I first wrote about my experience of culture shock in Colombia a year ago, one year after my big move to Bogotá to be with my Colombian boyfriend Javi; re-reading it now, I was clearly feeling quite pessimistic at the time, so I thought that now would be a good time to write a follow-up post! In my first post, I referred to the model of culture shock presented by the UK Council for International Student Affairs, which divides the experience of culture shock into 5 stages, and I used these stages to reflect on how I was feeling living in Bogotá, and the experiences I had had:

1. The “honeymoon” stage

When you first arrive in a new culture, differences are intriguing and you may feel excited, stimulated and curious. At this stage you are still protected by the close memory of your home culture.

2. The “distress” stage

A little later, differences create an impact and you may feel confused, isolated or inadequate as cultural differences intrude and familiar supports (eg family or friends) are not immediately available.

3. “Re-integration” stage

Next you may reject the differences you encounter. You may feel angry or frustrated, or hostile to the new culture. At this stage you may be conscious mainly of how much you dislike it compared to home. Don’t worry, as this is quite a healthy reaction. You are reconnecting with what you value about yourself and your own culture.

4. “Autonomy” stage

Differences and similarities are accepted. You may feel relaxed, confident, more like an old hand as you become more familiar with situations and feel well able to cope with new situations based on your growing experience.

5. “Independence”/Acceptance stage

Differences and similarities are valued and important. You may feel full of potential and able to trust yourself in all kinds of situations. Most situations become enjoyable and you are able to make choices according to your preferences and values.

Where am I at, one year on?

I concluded a year ago that I was stuck somewhere between Stages 3 and 4. I was often feeling frustrated and angry towards Bogotá – why was bureaucracy so tedious? Why did people act like they were on some kind of gauntlet challenge when they were trying to board the TransMilenio? And WHY did I keep picking up stomach ‘parasites’??! But… I was gradually starting to feel familiar with the city; I knew my way around and was gaining confidence. I wondered at the time whether I would ever reach Stage 5, where ‘differences and similarities are valued and important’. And one year later, I think I can conclude that, yes, I have reached the final stage in my relationship with Bogotá.

I obviously still get pissed off about the pollution, traffic and frequent discourtesy/apathy from some of my fellow Bogotanos; but I’ve realised that the key part of the above definition of Stage 5 is that ‘you are able to make choices according to your preferences and values’. You are able to make choices. Many well-wishers were quick to point out to me, in their defence of Bogotá, that no-one had a gun to my head forcing me to stay. If I didn’t like it, why didn’t I leave? I find comments like this unhelpful, as I didn’t feel I had a choice about that; if I wanted to be with Javi, I had to stay. But what I did have a choice about was how to deal with this experience, and how to come through it (or not).

At the risk of getting all philosophical: when hard times are upon us – and they’ll hit us all at some point, to a greater or lesser extent – we can choose whether we let them cripple us, or whether we strive to move forward and make good choices according to our ‘preferences and values’. I could have kept wallowing in the distress and frustration that I often felt in this city, but that wasn’t going to do me or Javi any good. For all I knew, I would be in Bogotá for the long haul, and so I slowly came to the realisation that Bogotá wasn’t going to change for me, and why should it? The onus was on me to adapt; I had to bite my lip, take a deep breath and tolerate the things which irritated me, then make the effort to discover what I did like about the city, and fill my free time with those things (and record these experiences on my blog!). I loved the Botanical Garden in Salitre, so Javi and I would go there occasionally. Bogotá has great sushi restaurants, so we tried a number of them and ate there regularly. We looked forward to our late morning walks up the ciclovía on Sundays. We started going to the cinema more because we love watching films together. We explored the Candelaría a bit more and did the Bogotá Graffiti Tour, which we both really enjoyed, and which taught us so much about the street-art scene in Bogotá.

As we searched for the things we loved doing together in the city, and chose to focus on the positives, I think it was around Christmas time 2014 that I felt myself finally easing into life in Bogotá for the first time, and starting to feel comfortable…like a pair of shoes which used to give me blisters, but which I now never wanted to take off! I knew how to use the TransMilenio and take a taxi; I could speak the language; I had friends I drank coffee with; I knew in which aisle of Carulla supermarket I could find my Chocopics; we had our apartment, we had jobs, we had food on the table.. and we had each other. All in Bogotá. At last – Stage 5!

Packing up and heading back…

You may have noticed me using the past tense in the previous paragraphs when referring to my life in Bogotá… Seven months ago, my life was hit by the bombshell of my mum being diagnosed with cancer, and so I packed up my life, left my job, gave up our apartment, and said goodbye to Javi for a while as I returned to London to help take care of my mum. Not wishing to go into too much detail about the horrors that this year has inflicted on my family, suffice it to say that the difficulties I’d had the previous year in adapting to my new life in Bogotá were in no way comparable to this upheaval, and the distress of seeing my mum suffer. As they say… it’s all relative. Having now spent the most part of this year away from Bogotá, when I think about the city I find myself missing the things I liked about it; but above all I feel the sorrow of being apart from Javi, my entire reason for moving there in the first place.

And so I’ve arrived at the clichéd conclusion that it really doesn’t matter where I am; what matters to me are the people I’m with. And if you, good reader, have headed off to a new place on your ownsome (or even with a partner), what really matters is why you moved there in the first place, and whether that reason remains valid for you, especially during the difficult times. Because starting a new life and adapting to a new country, culture, language and society isn’t easy. It will take time and it’s normal to feel down at times. I’ve heard expats say that, as much as they love Colombia, it’s taken them a year, 18 months, 2 years to get through the culture shock of moving there.

As for me, I just want to be in Bogotá with Javi or in London with Mum. The rest is just a matter of choices… choosing (and striving) to move forward, doing things you enjoy with people you care about; or succumbing to despair. And despair leads down a ruinous road to nowhere. So if you’ve recently moved somewhere new and you’re at a low point; firstly, don’t worry – it’s ok and it’s normal (send me a message and we’ll talk it through – I’ve been there!). Secondly, climb out of the rut and start doing things you enjoy; why not head out of your apartment and start walking until you see something good? Whether you happen to stroll up to Usaqúen market or into the Wednesday SpeakEasy in the Candelaria to meet someone new, keep exploring the good things and keep persevering… until Stage 5 comes along! 🙂

As my mum is now thankfully in remission for a while, I’ll be starting all over again in Bogotá in the new year; I won’t be back at Stage 1 though; I’ve come a long way in two years, and will endeavour to keep going!

3 Comments on Culture Shock in Colombia, 2 years on

  1. Hung-Wah Cheung // October 31, 2015 at 12:03 pm // Reply

    Hello young lady
    As a new arrival in Bogota I have to compliment you on the quality and depth of material which you posted. Your blog is full of wonderful ideas and I am busy drawing up a list of things to do which are based upon your recommendations.

    • Hi and thank you for your kind comments! Welcome to Bogotá, I hope you enjoy your time here, and if there’s anything else you would like me to write about, please let me know! All the best!

  2. Bogota is indeed a sad city. It has so much potential, but it will take decades to reach it. The problem is a systemic unconcern for other citizens. Rarely saw a simple smile in that city. This approach to living impacts all areas, including commerce, transportation, tourism, etc. Bogota will never be a world-class city until this changes.

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