New Cultural Experiences + Culture Shock

New Cultural Experiences + Culture Shock

This is part three of my summer study abroad series! Follow along this summer as I post about my travels in Sweden and Denmark while I study in Stockholm and Copenhagen through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS).

Culture shock. I’m sure you’re familiar with the term. We’ve all heard it thrown around in conversations with parents, friends, or even on television and in the movies. It’s used to describe when someone goes to a place completely different from their home. It probably comes as no shock to you (pun fully intended) that I’ve experienced some culture shock since coming here. Instead of just saying, “You’ll feel this way if you study abroad!” I thought it might be nice to give you an idea of what culture shock actually looks like.

Swedish cuisine? To my shock, as I was preparing to study abroad, I looked up Swedish restaurants in New York and only got one result: Ikea. I’m not even kidding; there are little to no Swedish and Danish restaurants in the New York City area, and if there are, you really need to look for them. That being said, I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to Sweden for food. If you’re a picky eater, adjusting to any new culture’s food is going to be difficult. Something which I personally didn’t expect was how hard it would be to find dishes without pork or shellfish of some sort in them. Since arriving in Sweden, I’ve basically become a vegetarian, so .. .there’s that!

Some cities do, in fact, sleep. In New York, it’s not hard or uncommon to find something to do at literally any hour of the day — many coffee shops, restaurants, and cultural institutions are open until nighttime or even the early hours of the morning, and our subway runs 24/7. However, that’s not the case in many other cities, even major capitals like Stockholm! Having lived in New York my entire life, I was used to something being open at all hours of the day. You can imagine my shock when just about everything besides restaurants (excluding bakeries and small cafés) closed at 5pm on the weekends!

New Yorkers don’t like small talk but Stockholmers hate it. If you’ve ever been in a New York City subway, you’ve probably noticed New Yorkers keep their bags to themselves, their headphones in, and their noses tucked in a book (or pointed at their phone screen). Occasionally, when at a coffee shop or some other place where people are not in a hurry, however, you may encounter some people more than willing to chat for a second. That is not the case in Sweden, as the DIS faculty warned us from our very first day. As you may be able to surmise from this fact, the metro, even during the busy morning rush hour, is quiet.

Where did the moon go? Scandinavian winters are notorious for being extremely dark. By now you may have heard of hygge, the Danish word which seems to have intrigued many Americans as of late. For anyone unacquainted, this word has no direct translation to English, but is translated often to “cozy” and is used to describe specifically the warm feeling in the period of winter where there are about six or seven hours of sunlight and Danes have to curl up around a good book, with a cat, in front of some candles or a fireplace wrapped in a warm blanket...at least, this is how it has been described to me by a Danish friend. Something I didn’t realize until about a month before actually getting to Sweden is how bright and light their summers are: on the summer solstice, there might be 18 hours of sunlight! I arrived a solid month before the summer solstice and the sun was setting at 9:30 pm and rising around 4:00 am.

Feminism is mainstream. If you’re familiar with the Nordic countries and their world image, you probably already know that the political left in the U.S. hails them as the ideal for a progressive state. However, did you know Sweden ranks #7 on the United Nations’ Gender Development Index? (Norway, Sweden’s neighbor, ranks #1!) Feminism is mainstream in Sweden and Swedes self-report themselves as feminists more than their Nordic neighbors. Women make up 45% of Parliament and 43% of local legislatures in Sweden (according to Wikipedia), a pretty sizeable number when compared to 23.7% of the U.S. Congress. In a similar progressive vein, environmental issues seem to be more prevalent and talked about in Sweden than in the U.S.

So when you’re submerged in a new culture...what can you do?

If you’re in a foreign country for any extended period of time, your relationship with an unfamiliar culture will fluctuate. There will be moments when you love what you’re experiencing. There will be moments when you just get so frustrated, you feel like you want to go home. And then there will be moments where you scratch your head and think to yourself, Huh, that’s different.

But that’s the beauty of living in a world where you have the opportunity to interact with people of different histories and cultures: you learn from them and take something from your experiences in different places. The most invaluable thing about studying abroad, in my opinion, is being able to learn from a different perspective, not only in the classroom, but about life in general and maybe challenge your own ways of thinking and living, as dramatic as that sounds.

My advice to you if you study abroad is wherever you go, lean into the new experience. Recognize that there is good and there is bad (and you don’t have to feel “uncultured” for not understanding or even liking something you encounter abroad!) wherever you find yourself. Encountering new things is how we grow and mature.

As a bonus, I’d like to share with you some little things you may not have known about Sweden which I certainly didn’t know when I got off the plane in Landet Lagom (land where everything is done just the right amount):

  • Water at restaurants is not free. It’s common in the U.S. (or at least, in New York!) to get a glass or bottle of tap water for free with your meal. Not so in Europe! (Learned that the hard way and paid a lot for it--$8 to be exact.)

  • Swedes will very readily and happily switch to English without even asking!

  • Skills you learn in the New York subway system are universally applicable and invaluable when navigating another city’s metro.

  • Scandinavia is extremely green, figuratively and literally! There is not much air conditioning in Sweden, but the buildings are built so they aren’t necessary, plus there’s so many trees and flowers, everything feels like a breath of fresh, clean air.

  • That being said, Stockholm in general is MUCH cleaner than any city I’ve been to in the United States.

  • Swedish 7-Elevens are nice! I wouldn’t normally mention that but Swedes really like their 7-Elevens. They even sell pizza.

  • That being said, Swedish pizza does not compare to New York pizza.

  • Swedes love their sweets. I don’t even feel bad about eating at least one pastry every day because everything just tastes so fresh and natural in Sweden. My personal recommendations: kanelbullar and vaniljbullar.

  • Swedes also love their fika (coffee break). I’ve certainly been enjoying it as well, especially since their coffee is so great (and often affordable--I got a cappuccino yesterday for $2)!

In my next post, I’ll be taking you through a day in my life in Sweden to give you a sense of what it’s like to study abroad on a day-to-day basis. Hej då! Until next time!

Want to read more about my study abroad adventures? Check out my first two posts: Summer Study Abroad: Oh, the Places You Could Go! and Trevlig Resa! / God Rejsa!: Bon Voyage!.

A Day in the Life: Studying Abroad in Stockholm

A Day in the Life: Studying Abroad in Stockholm

Trevlig Resa! / God Rejsa!: Bon Voyage!

Trevlig Resa! / God Rejsa!: Bon Voyage!