Do anthropologists get culture shock?

May 10, 2015

In 2009 I took an elective paper called ‘Intro to Anthropology’ to fill a gap in my course requirements. I had never heard the word anthropology before and I had no idea what it was or what anthropologists did. By the end of the semester I was enamoured to the point of changing my major from psychology to anthro. One of the first books I read for that course was a classic text by one of the founders of modern anthropology Malinowski – he pioneered the methods of living with another culture and immersing yourself in their language, beliefs and practices. His book detailed his time spent in New Guinea studying the Trobriand Islanders. Ever since reading it I wanted to follow in his footsteps and land myself on an exotic island where I would befriend the local peoples, learn their customs and converse with them in their native tongues.

Fast forward to 2013 and I was given this opportunity when I enrolled in my master’s degree, and my wonderful supervisors were wholeheartedly supportive of my idea to go to Samoa. Due to time and financial constraints I was only able to plan a trip for six weeks but I did so with the utmost enthusiasm. I found myself a Samoan tutor and visited her regularly, I read voraciously and I filled my suitcases with gifts for everyone from the Head of State to children in the village I would be staying in.

I was prepared for some adjustments when I arrived. I knew it would be hot, and I would be alone and it would take some time to befriend the local people and gain their trust.  But, I was filled with a naive enthusiasm and belief that because I had worked so hard to get there and prepared so well I wouldn’t face too many challenges. Boy was I wrong! I spent my first week absolutely miserable, often in tears and feeling completely lost both personally and academically.

I faced a few major challenges;

Language barriers. 

While I spoke a little bit of the language, I had been taught the formal dialect – and most people spoke to each other in the more relaxed informal version of Samoan meaning I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, not to mention they spoke to rapidly!  The Samoan’s are also a people who love to laugh, they literally laugh at everything.  This extends to Palagi (foreigners) trying to speak Samoan – even if they are doing so correctly.  I found it so disconcerting the first couple of weeks when every greeting I uttered would be met with giggles.  Eventually I got used to it and learned to laugh along with them.

A drawing from the kids helping me learn Samoan body parts

Feelings of isolation.

It’s true that I was in paradise – I was steps away from a beautiful lagoon, there were coconut palms right outside my door, my fridge was filled with ice cold beer and I was eating some of the most delicious fresh tuna and papaya every day.  But, I was by myself, I had no internet connection and no one to talk to for long periods of time.  By the beginning of my second week however I had made a couple of friends, and the local children had screwed up their courage and come over to my unit where I let them draw pictures for my walls, teach me songs, and show me to open coconuts.  Soon they were coming over every day after school and my house was filled with their laughter and squabbling.

↑ Some of my regular visitors playing a game on my porch ↑ 

Cultural differences.

I was prepared to stand out (I have olive skin, light brown hair and green eyes) as an obvious foreigner, but I wasn’t expecting the completely different treatment reserved for Palagi’s (foreigners).  I was ushered to the front of queues, blatantly stared at in public, offered seats when others were standing and introduced to people as “my Palagi friend Pippa”.  Though I never got used to this, and tried to gently discourage it wherever possible I learned to accept it for the most part.

I learned that culture shock can happen to anyone, even (and perhaps especially) to anthropologists.  I don’t think there’s much you can do to prevent it either, if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen.  But, it won’t last forever or even very long. My remaining five weeks in Samoa were some of the best I’ve ever had, and I really think my initial negative experience made me appreciate it all the more.  I made many friends, experienced a true taste of island life, participated in some fascinating rituals, and wrote a thesis that I’m really proud of.

I’d love to say that this was my last encounter with culture shock but unfortunately it wasn’t.  The following year when I moved to Vientiane, Laos I had a similar experience.  Even when I returned to Mexico in 2015 with Guy it took me a few days to adjust.  I’ve finally learned to accept it as a part of travel, and I know now that it’s only temporary.  It will get better.  You will feel better.

If you have any stories of culture shock, I’d love to hear them 🙂


  • Reply Ralitsa M. March 2, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Hi Pippa! 🙂

    This is a really interesting topic you touch upon, and I can completely understand how overwhelming this must have been for you. At the same time, it’s admirable and definitely not something a lot of people would feel comfortable with. Even here in Europe it’s sometimes hard when you go for a student exchange program, or just moving to another country. Let alone spending time surrounded by a completely different culture.

    You mentioned that your MA thesis was from a linguistic perspective, and it got me curious — what did you set out to find out when you went to Samoa? Your MA was on Social Anthropology, right?

    Love your blog and how it combines travel, culture and colorful food picks. Keep it up! 🙂

  • Reply March 3, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks so much Ralitsa, you’re very kind. I’m still finding my feet but it’s nice to hear a nice word :).
    My MA was in Social Anthropology but I also had a linguistics supervisor (linguists is the one that got away for me). So I went to Samoa with the intention of studying cross cultural communication between generations and how the English language was tying into that, but I ended up writing my thesis on how English has been integrated into Samoan culture and exploring how it’s taught to children through the three spheres of social life; home, church and school.
    I agree culture shock can happen to anyone, anywhere. I think I was foolish to assume it wouldn’t happen to me ha! 🙂

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