I remember clear as day, being sat on my final plane from Sydney to Wellington after travelling for almost 30 hours, when the prospect of living in a foreign country for an entire year hit me.
I had spent the flight completely fangirling over New Zealand, a country I had been dreaming about for over a year. The moment we touched down at Wellington airport, my exhilaration and anticipation suddenly turned to nerves. What the hell had I just done? I couldn’t just nip back home now if I ended up hating New Zealand. I couldn’t just call up the family to have a quick chat due to the time difference. And things only got even scarier. What if I’d done my visa wrong? What if they didn’t let me in the country? What if this entire time they don’t actually speak English, and I wouldn’t be able to understand anyone? I think it’s safe to say this was my first instance of culture shock.
Culture shock *clears throat* can be defined as the feeling of disorientation you experience when you’re suddenly surrounded by a new, and unfamiliar culture. If you’re currently on a study exchange or year abroad and this happens to you, remember that it’s incredibly common and not a reason to panic. Here are just a handful of the hilarious (and cringe) culture shock moments I experienced on my own exchange trip to New Zealand.
Not having a clue what to do in a foreign airport
Wellington airport provided my first exposure to culture shock. Being from the UK, I was mostly used to visiting Europe, so visas are a concept I’d never had to face before. So, when I was preparing to go on exchange, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of applying for a visa. There were so many, with lots of different requirements, and I spent most of my time being completely lost and calling the immigration office up to 5,000 times a day, begging for help.
While on my last plane, the staff gave out welcome forms that we had to fill out to declare what we were bringing into the country. New Zealand is very strict when it comes to this, and if you’re found lying you can get a steep fine. I’m not sure why I struggled so much with this form. It was probably because it was my first time travelling alone, but I thought the form was solely about hand luggage. Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking either. So, when it asked if we were bringing in any food, I happily ticked the “no” box.
So, you can imagine my horror when they placed my suitcase, containing six boxes of Jaffa Cakes and two big boxes of Yorkshire Tea (lol, “Northern lass” priorities), on the X-ray scanner. The guy in charge immediately spotted the food and proceeded to stare into my soul. All I could do was stare back, wide-eyed, attempting to plead with him. Luckily for me, my pleas were registered, and the kind gentleman allowed me to safely leave with my Jaffa Cakes and Yorkshire Tea intact. (Thank you, kind person).
Not being able to pronounce anything
I think one of the most significant cultural differences between the UK and New Zealand is that there is a widely spoken language in New Zealand other than English. Yes, of course they speak English, but I was naive enough to be unaware that most place names are in fact Maori names. My first glimpse of this was when I got off the plane to be welcomed with the words Kia ora. Maybe I should’ve done research, and learned a few basic Maori phrases.
My crappy Maori skills would be a recurring theme throughout my entire exchange. I remember, one time, I was trying to get to a city just north of Wellington, called Porirua. I happily got on the bus, and asked the Maori bus driver for a return to Porirua, only to completely butcher the name. I had pronounced it Por-eye-ru-ay, which (spoiler alert) is not how you pronounce that word. The bus driver just stared at me, trying not to laugh, and corrected me, which resulted in me cringing for the rest of the day.
I soon learnt that each vowel is pronounced entirely different in Maori. And there are several letter combinations that form completely different sounds than in English. For example, ng is pronounced as it sounds in the word singer and wh is pronounced like an f sound. I think every foreign person living in New Zealand has pronounced the word whakapapa wrong at some point. Luckily, New Zealanders tend to be sweet and get the gist of what you’re trying to say (it’s still awkward though).
My own accent made things even worse. I have quite a strong (understatement of the year) Yorkshire accent which made trying to pronounce things even worse. In Yorkshire, we don’t tend to pronounce the h at the start of a word, so hat tends to become ‘at, happy is ‘appy, and so on. So, when I tried to catch a bus to a Wellington suburb called Hataitai, you can imagine it generated a few chuckles from the driver.
Not being able to find anything in shops
It’s always confusing shopping in a foreign country, but, I had wrongly thought there wouldn’t be any issues in New Zealand. Instead, everything had a different name. Peppers were no longer peppers, they were capsicums. Courgettes were zucchinis. Heinz was called Watties…the list goes on. I’d find myself wandering around shops lost.
To make things worse, I ran out of my two massive bags of Yorkshire Tea within the first month. I ran down to Countdown (the closest supermarket to my flat) in search of England’s greatest tea (definitely not biased). Did they have it? Nope. So, I ran to the next nearest supermarket, they had it but it was $12. I didn’t want to pay for that so I had to buy the cheapest New Zealand brand I could find, which wasn’t as good as Yorkshire Tea. Fortunately, my friends all sent over Yorkshire Tea reinforcements.
Not having a clue what anyone is saying
One thing Kiwis seem to always do is mumble. I’d have to continually ask people to repeat themselves, only for me to still not have a clue what they’d said. So, I’d just awkwardly smile, hoping it would make up for the fact that I didn’t know what was going on.
At the start of lectures, some New Zealand lecturers would speak in Maori. You’re not a true exchange student if you haven’t experienced this and started shaking with fear, thinking you’ve accidentally signed up for a Maori language class.
New Zealand slang was also something I had to master. The first time somebody said, “sweet as” to me, I thought they were complimenting my body. Yes, that actually happened, and it was mortifying.
So, as you can see, culture shock can happen even somewhere as seemingly straightforward and non-threatening as New Zealand. The first few weeks in a foreign country are always the most unsettling, but remember it will pass. Culture shock may truly never leave you, but you will start to see the funny side of these moments. Not having a clue what is going on can often be the best kind of icebreaker; often locals would end up taking pity on me and looking after me.
So, don’t worry, laugh at yourself, and embrace the culture shock. At least when you get home, you’ll have plenty of funny stories to tell.