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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Bogota, Colombia

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Bogota, Colombia

A woman who was born in Colombia and left when she was four years old moved back 58 years later to search for a place to retire. The challenges for her are getting a better grip on the language, making friends, learning to pace herself, and being patient and tolerant.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Bogota

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

I obtained dual citizenship with Colombia last year as I was born in Bogota in 1953, but hadn't been back until 2014. (My American parents took me back to the USA when I was 4 yrs old). I lived in the Dominican Republic for half a year in 1986. I also had friends in Brazil whom I visited for the 1982 Rock in Rio concert and ended up staying for another 6 months. I went to Hawaii as a Traveling Nurse and was given cross-cultural training to work in a large Honolulu hospitals. I ended up staying in Hawaii for almost 30 years.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

I began studying Spanish in June 2014 using Rocket Languages. When I went to Bogota, I signed up for language classes and studied intensively for two weeks. When I returned home I continued studying with a tutor from the school in Bogota via Skype for 4months.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

Not really. I had traveled the world and lived briefly in other countries so I felt like "Culture "Shock" wasn't going to happen to me!

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Things like no hot water in the kitchen sink or bathroom sink are annoying, but I can always heat up water on the stove. Putting dirty toilet paper in the wastebasket was something I learned in Brazil. Having to worry about being safe on public transit and in the street I was familiar with from living in Manhattan, NYC in the late 70s but had easily forgotten about living on an island for 30 years where I never locked my doors. The things that are hardest to deal with are the confusing bus transit routes, the capricious climate and the millions of people in this city.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

The Honeymoon phase was definitely present the first two weeks after arrival along with a bit of irritation. I would have to say that I am now in the "disappointment" phase. I have not been here long enough to experience any other phases.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Anxiety is a big one for me. Trying to conduct business without enough knowledge of the language is nearly impossible. Asking for directions in Spanish, I can do, but my ear is not acclimated enough to understand what the responses are.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The new culture is invigorating, energetic, exuberant, fast-paced, challenging and exciting. I so needed a change from Hawaii where I had become bored and complacent.

The people are very sincere and helpful. They are happy and easy-going and really know how to have fun.

The family unit is so close and includes most of the family tree, all of whom go to church together, visit each other frequently, even travel together. Most U.S. families that I know are no where near as close knit as those of the Colombian culture.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

The challenges for me are getting a better grip on the language, making friends, learning to pace myself, and being patient and tolerant.

I don't want to be over-dependent on friends but at the moment I don't have another choice.

My biggest challenge will be finding a suitable place to retire in this beautiful country that has so much to offer. And being a single woman without any family making this journey makes me feel very much like an odd ball.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

One evening, after walking a lot more than I am used to, I came out of a department store and it was dark. I didn't want to walk home the 20 blocks to my residence, so I flagged a SITP bus. Not knowing that you tell the driver where you are going, then pay when you get on, I just got on and sat down. After watching a few more passengers I realized I needed to go talk to the bus driver, who, luckily, had US and UK flags hanging behind his seat to decorate the partition. As soon as I opened my mouth my broken Spanish became evident to everyone on the bus. A man in the first row offered to tell me when my stop arrived, the lady sitting next to me wanted to know where I was from, what I was doing in Bogota and why I was alone. Another person asked me if I was afraid. When I got off the bus all the passengers were waving and smiling at me! I felt so embarrassed! I had completely and unwittingly broken the timely Bogotano Tabu of "No dar papayas!", which means, don't call attention to yourself.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Be patient with yourself. There is a learning curve to everything. Try to have a companion, close friend or point of contact in the new location that you can talk to honestly and share feelings with. Skype or email just doesn't cut it. Take care of your health and safety. Wash your hands frequently, wear glasses and a face mask if you are sensitive to pollution in the cities, or catch colds easily. Get advice on where and when it is safe to walk alone. Eat healthy, get enough rest and try to minimize stress, which can sometimes be very difficult to do.

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