When you arrive at your volunteering placement, your host country will surely be very different to your home country. In fact, it may even be different to what you would have expected based on your preparation and research. In this section we discuss exploring your placement area and adapting to it.
There are a number of ways you can learn more about a country to get a sense of its characteristics. According to Philpott (n.d.), one of the most important things is to do your homework so that you know what to expect. Make sure you have some basic information about the culture, customs and cuisine. But once you arrive, the best thing you can do is to explore:
Get to know your immediate environment – where you will stay, where you will work, where the nearest place to shop is, where to go in case of an emergency, what transport options are available, who to approach if you need advice or have questions, how you can stay in touch with friends and family back home.
Get to know the people and their customs – when, where and what they eat, what religious customs they observe, how men and women interact, how elders and young people interact.
All tasks are compulsory in order to successfully complete the course. Your answers must be a minimum of 200 words and a maximum of 500 words.
Write down your first impressions of your placement area. Comment on the following aspects:
Once you have settled in and know a bit more about your placement area, you may experience some of the culture shock which was discussed previously. Adapting to a new environment can be difficult, and it can take some time. You may experience extreme homesickness, physical complaints and difficulty sleeping, an inability to concentrate, irritability, and a tendency to avoid social situations. There are several strategies which you can use to adapt to your new environment (University of Texas, n.d.):
Culture is relative – you will be exposed to many new customs, habits and ideas. Try to avoid labeling them as good or bad according to the culture you are from. Remember that there may be parts of a culture you dislike or disapprove of, but these are part of a broader social system, and therefore make more sense inside that system.
Be open-minded and curious – adjusting to a new culture does not mean that you must change your own values, but it is important to respect those of other people. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, try to think of it as a new adventure. Allow yourself to be curious about the way things are perceived and done in this new environment.
Use your observation skills – since you will encounter unfamiliar rules and norms, observing how others are acting in situations can help you understand what behaviour is expected of you. Pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal communication of others to get a more complete picture of what is going on.
Ask questions – asking for assistance or an explanation does not have to be considered a sign of weakness. Understanding others and making yourself understood in a new language (or context) requires lots of rephrasing, repeating and clarification. It may be helpful to ask questions like “as I understand it you are saying… Is that correct?”
It is ok to experience anxiety – learning to function in a new environment is not easy. It is natural to feel anxious or frustrated sometimes. The key is to remind yourself that these feelings are normal and are likely temporary and in response to your current situation.
Give yourself (and others) permission to make mistakes – you will inevitably make mistakes as you explore a new culture. If you can find the humour in these situations and laugh at them, others will likely respond to you with friendliness and support. Keep in mind that others will probably make mistakes, too; when someone makes an inaccurate assumption or a generalised statement about your culture, it may be due to a lack of information.
Find a cultural ally – someone who shares a similar cultural background can be a great consultant on cultural expectations. When you have questions or need a second opinion on something, this person can help clarify confusions and provide support as you adjust to your new environment. Seek out support from other international volunteers – talking with others about their adjustment to the new culture can provide ideas and insights about your own experience.
Be patient – do not try to understand everything immediately. The process of adjusting to a new culture requires time. It may also require a different amount of time for different areas of adjustment. Try to encourage yourself to be patient with this experience and not to be overly critical of yourself.
It is important to remember that Volunteer World will be there with you, ready to answer any questions you have and any issues that need to be addressed.