My Biggest Culture Shock of All Time

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I often get asked about the biggest culture shock I ever experienced while traveling solo. People’s eyes gleam with curiosity, expecting me to tell tales of overcrowded streets in India, plates piled with steaming offal in China, marriage proposals and heartbreaking poverty and squat toilets. No. Nothing like that.

But the biggest culture shock of all time?

It wasn’t at the airport in Amman, Jordan, where the men greeted each other by clasping hands and kissing on the cheek three times in a row.

It wasn’t in the north of England, when I realized that pigs in a blanket here were full-size sausages wrapped in bacon, they were a side dish to the roast, and still they thought we Americans were the gluttons.

It wasn’t in El Tunco, El Salvador, where a lady working at the guesthouse fainted from high blood pressure and instead of calling a doctor, the other women called the nuns to pray over her.

It was something quieter.

I was in Southern Laos, about six weeks into my long-term travels. After finishing a solo motorbike adventure from Pakse to Tat Lo and back, I grabbed a bus down to Si Phan Don, the 4,000 Islands region, and the backpacker hotspot of Don Det.

Laos was gentle — a big contrast to Thailand’s mischief and laughter. Women and men worked side by side and took turns caring for children. Girls huddled in groups, each of them wearing collared shirts and long skirts. Aside from the ever-present “Why you no have boyfriend?” questions, I was welcomed with soft smiles.

After surveying the island’s offerings, I rented a bungalow for the equivalent of a few dollars a night. A house of my own, a full-size bed, a hammock on the porch: island perfection. Soon after, I dropped off my laundry bag with the teenage daughter.

Later that afternoon, the girl was filling a baby pool with water next to a pile of clothing. I recognized my belongings.

My heart lurched. Oh my God — there are period panties in there.

This girl would be washing my bloody underwear by hand.

The specific circumstances of my laundry had never crossed my mind before. I simply dropped it off, paid the equivalent of a dollar, and picked it up, fresh-smelling and folded, the next morning. Obviously, I couldn’t expect industrial machines to be in the back of every soi in Bangkok, but I never thought of how it got done.

Her job was to help her family make a living.

What the fuck was I doing?

Here I was, a wealthy foreigner from the country that bombed hers to oblivion, swaggering in ridiculous pants and spending more money than her family had seen in their lives. Here I was, nearly naked and drinking firewater with strange men as a boat dragged us through the Mekong at sunset. Here I was, perusing a menu of “happy shakes” and complaining about the lack of wifi on the island.

And she scrubbed the menstrual blood out of my underwear. Underwear that I cavalierly ruined because I was too lazy to put my Diva Cup in, and what’s the difference, I could always buy more.

I have never felt more like a piece of shit in my life. And what could I do, really? Spend as much money as possible at her family’s guesthouse, then get out of their lives forever? How do you fix this?

The laundry was waiting in my bungalow the next day. My clothes were stiff and starchy, like they hadn’t been rinsed.

A bus would take me to Cambodia, a country with a painful history for which I was bracing myself. A group of backpackers would hold our group hostage at the border in protest of a $2 bribe.

More destinations would be visited across Southeast Asia. More laundry would be dropped off. But the next time I wound up with a pair of bloody underwear, I did it myself, scrubbing the stains until my hands were pruned.

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13 thoughts on “My Biggest Culture Shock of All Time”

  1. Hi Kate,

    “How do you fix this?” is so well said, and I’m sure it’s something a lot of travelers will relate to.

    In Nicaragua, I had to admit to some friends that nearly everyone in the USA uses machines to do laundry (and we still complain about it!) when they noticed my lack of practice washing clothes by hand.

    These moments highlight the pure coincidence of birth and circumstance, and although there is little we can do in the moment to fix inequality I do think it is a virtue of travel that we take that humility home with us.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. Thanks for Sharing this Kate. It is a good lesson for travelers out there. I salute the young lady for doing what she did to support the family. Young ladies should emulate this.

  3. What a humbling story. Travel is the best way to exercise & build gratitude, humility, and understanding. I have also traveled the world (Asia, Europe, South America) – but this New-Jersey-native felt the biggest culture shock when I spent a week in Lawrence, Kansas five years ago. The landscape, people, and lifestyle were polar opposite of what I was familiar with!

    1. Hey, Kara, I’m from Wichita, KS. I would love to hear why Lawrence was such a culture shock to you! Nothing beats those Kansas sunsets though, right?!

  4. Well said, very humbling for sure. We get to travel cause we can and sometimes don’t realize our impact on the earth or a community. I’m still trying to figure out how to offset the carbon footprint from my flights abroad.

  5. Francesca Beckett

    It’s posts like this that make you my favourite travel writer. I can’t wait until you’ve written a book and I can read thousands of your words at once.

  6. Sometimes we are so caught up in the wonder of travel that we forget how rich we appear to be. Your article is a real eye opener, a reality check. Something I will remember next time I travel. 🙂

    Thanks Kate

  7. I can imagine the feeling you must have had then. I have also experienced these moments when you realize how privileged and effortless your own life is comparing to the ones that millions of other people face every day. Traveling indeed open eyes 🙂 Thank you for sharing this!

  8. I didn’t expect that when I started reading your story. I can only imagine how you felt once you realized what’s happening. Traveling teaches us big, powerful lessons the hard way sometimes. Thanks for sharing and letting us learn from your mistake!

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