Unpacking Culture Shock in Bali, Indonesia

Traveling is in my blood. My grandpa is always jetting off to his next destination and my grandma never says no to an adventure abroad. Ever since I was a little girl, my grandpa and my parents would take me to faraway places like Germany, China, and Italy where I would be introduced to new foods, a different way of life, and even relatives that I had never met before. I was lucky enough that the world was open to me from a very young age, so when I entered University, studying abroad was a no brainer.

After going back and forth between prospective host countries, I landed on Sweden. I went through all of the stages in order to go abroad, and it was during my pre-departure preparation that I heard about culture shock. My advisers warned me that I might experience culture shock in Sweden through feelings of disorientation, uncertainty, and anxiety when confronted with a different way of life or set of attitudes than I was used to. To be honest, I did not pay much attention to their warnings and as it turned out, I felt more at home in Sweden than I had ever felt in my home country. Sweden became my safe place, so much so that I decided to move back after completing my undergraduate degree to pursue a master’s degree. Throughout the four years I lived in Sweden, I never experienced anything like the culture shock my advisers had warned me about, which made it all the more debilitating when I came face to face with culture shock in Bali.

After I finished my Master’s degree I decided to do something totally different and unexpected before entering the workforce. So when I saw a posting for a sea turtle conservation project in Bali with IVHQ, I jumped at the chance. It was never something I imagined myself doing so I figured I would go for it.

Before volunteering, I had to take an online course to prepare. A large part of this course was about culture shock. Although I completed the course, I must admit that I didn’t pay too much attention to the culture shock portion. I figured that I had been through it all before, that I was a born traveler, and that I would thrive in this new situation like I had in Sweden. Boy, was I naïve.

When I arrived in Bali I was greeted by what seemed like hundreds of people all hoping I would take their cab to my destination. After a twenty-seven hour journey this was a little disorienting to say the least, but I soldiered on and eventually found the group that I was supposed to meet with the help of some kind Balinese people. After making it to my new home that I was sharing with other volunteers and a Balinese family, I went straight to bed and eagerly awaited the start of my new adventure.

Shelby working with sea turtles at the conservation project.

The first thing I noticed about Bali was the heat. It was a heat where it did not even matter if you took a shower because you would be drenched in sweat two minutes after going outside anyway. We spent the first few days of my adventure touring around the island, but on the third day I started to feel the effects of culture shock. I felt completely isolated and disoriented. I had traveled to Bali alone and entering into a new culture that I had never experienced before was jarring. I could not understand Indonesian and, of course, they could not understand me. In addition, the customs that were part of their everyday lives, like making daily offerings to the Gods and living in homes with many buildings and generations of family members, were completely foreign to me. The new culture and customs that I was experiencing combined with the heat and lack of air conditioning was making me go insane. I had always considered myself to be up for any adventure but my initial experience was making me question that. I started to wonder why I had even come and spent more than a couple of hours crying on the phone to my husband about how I was feeling in my new surroundings.

Shelby and new friends swimming while visiting Nusa Penida, an island southeast of Bali.

However, I did my best not to let my feelings of culture shock consume my experience. To do this, I put myself out there in a way that I had never done before. I tried to get to know people before they tried to get to know me, something that had always terrified my social anxiety ridden self, and I started to embrace the sometimes overwhelming island of Bali by bargaining with the locals, trying new foods, and even making my own offerings for the Gods. Embracing the culture of Bali had an unexpected benefit for me. By immersing myself in an environment that was completely foreign to me, I gained self-acceptance.

I have always been my own worst critic. I never let myself go outside without make-up on, I always thought that I was not good enough, and my anxiety had more control over my social interactions than I care to admit. Seeing a different way of life that was not so focused on the superficial, and was not nearly as fast paced as what I had experienced growing up in Los Angeles, changed me in a way that is difficult to put into words. Not only did it make me more adaptable, easy-going, and understanding of other cultures, but it also gave me a better understanding of myself. By overcoming culture shock I was able to prove to myself that I can be confident in difficult and uncomfortable situations. After volunteering in Bali, I am proud to say that I no longer have to put makeup on to go outside unless I want to, and that the voice in my head telling me that I am not good enough has gotten a little quieter. These are all things that can help me in the rest of my life and that is why I am so thankful for my time in Bali. Through culture shock, Bali taught me to be more accepting of others, and myself, and for that I am forever grateful.

About the Author:  Shelby Vogl is always up for an adventure. She loves to travel and experience different cultures. In her free time she enjoys writing, going to the movies, and discovering new worlds through reading.