Culture shock is a phenomenon often referred to in the context of young, American college students leaving their native country to study abroad somewhere exotic for three to four months. Everyone warns, jovially, of the supposed “shock” of being suddenly displaced into a culture that is different from your own. Wait until you see what time they eat dinner! Or, People there are less friendly, but it’s just their culture. But what about experiencing culture shock in your own country…or even your own state? Having lived in a variety of different cultures– rural farm towns, a lively city in Spain, and the great behemoth of them all, NYC–I can say that the culture shock I experienced moving from Warwick to Spain almost pales in comparison to moving from Warwick to NYC.
Up until I was ready to leave for college, I had lived my whole life in the same house in the same town–Warwick, New York. A beautiful piece of countryside, Warwick is known for its apple orchards, wineries, and picturesque landscape. While my hometown is by no means a “one traffic light” type place, to many it does feel suffocating. The closest mall and movie theater is a half-hour drive, the town has had the same few bars on Main Street for the past decade, and it’s likely that the people who were in your kindergarten class are the people who surround you senior year. Many bemoan the small-town feel of Warwick, and at the earliest possible moment of escape, flee to a larger city. I, however, loved the quaintness of my town. I loved the fresh air, the space, and the pride Warwick takes in keeping things locally sourced. So when I left my town to go to college in Geneseo, an even smaller town in upstate New York, it felt familiar and safe.
Fast forward to senior year. Three and a half years in a small town not very different from my own was beginning to feel a little static. My parents had been encouraging me to study abroad, and with a minor in Spanish (which would later turn into a major in Spanish), it felt like a mistake to pass up on an opportunity to go to Spain. So in September of 2015, the start of my final year in undergrad, I packed a suitcase that weighed more than I did and boarded a plane to Seville.
I chose Seville for a variety of reasons. Being the fourth largest city in Spain (behind Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia), it was the perfect medium between too large and too small. The program I was enrolling in would allow me to live in an apartment instead of with a host family, and as an independent person who values privacy and freedom, this was essential for me. I left the U.S with fears that the difference in culture would be too dramatic; that I would miss home too much, or not be able to assimilate with the Spanish people. As someone who sometimes struggles with making new friends, I worried that I would be on my own, or that I would cling to the few Americans in my program. None of these fears turned out to happen.
Choosing to study abroad in Seville, and later move there to teach English for a year, ended up being the best decision I ever made. The culture was starkly different, that was undeniable. But I ended up having no problem adjusting my routines, behaviors, and outlook to match that of my surroundings. I went to language exchanges, went on dates, took dance classes, tried local foods, bought Spanish clothing, attended local festivals…I completely submersed myself. It almost felt as if I had always been living there. I did begin to feel homesick, but not at first. Months passed before I began to miss American food, or my sweet hometown, or not having to think about how to say a word. And when I finally came home (partly for a bacon-egg-and-cheese, partly to see my family), it was almost as if I had never left for Spain in the first place. My transition, aside from some minor bumps and bruises along the way, was essentially seamless. Which is why, when I moved to New York City a year later, my culture shock came as a…shock.
Growing up so close to the city, you would have thought I’d have visited more. My friends did; some even went weekly. However, my parents pointedly avoided the city, with its busy streets, crowded sidewalks, and expensive meals. They were country people through and through, and subsequently, as was I. Because of this, when I started attending classes at Pace, New York City felt like an entirely different world to me.
My house in Warwick is within a five mile radius of at least four different barns. Instead of concrete, we have farmland. My neighbor has two donkeys, and a flock of chickens. Our biggest event is a yearly festival celebrating apple-themed foods and crafts, and every day aside from that one, Warwick is an upstate hidden gem.
Sevilla was larger, obviously, and it felt larger too. But something about the culture and atmosphere also made it feel small. Homey. Welcoming. In Sevilla, people go out to meet people. People smile to you on the streets. In New York City, everyone operates in their own bubble. It’s a city of eight million people avoiding each other.
It wasn’t just the vastness of NYC that shook me. In Sevilla, the people are almost cartoonishly slow. Everyone takes their time, enjoys their journey, and doesn’t rush to get to their destination. It took a while for me to slow my pace, but I eventually learned to stop and smell the orange trees. In New York, even if you have no where to be, you’re in a rush. There’s a feeling of hurriedness that clouds the air. You’re always late, even if you don’t know what it is you’re late to.
I’ve also had to adjust my standard of living and my expectation of quality now that I am in the city. At home in Warwick, things aren’t cheap. Not NYC prices, but a meal out definitely cost a small fortune. However, what you’re paying for is worth it. Food is locally harvested, with large portions. In Sevilla, conversely, everything is incredibly cheap. The bottle of wine I would pick up from the grocery store would cost me 1.50€. Would it be the best quality, most delicious wine I’ve ever tasted? Absolutely not. It tasted like sour grape juice, for the most part. But hey, when something is that cheap, sometimes sour grape juice cuts it.
In the city, I feel like I’ve taken the worst of the two. You pay $15 for a sandwich from a chain store, and it’s terribly underwhelming. A popcorn at the movie theater cost more than buying the movie on DVD. And don’t get me started on rent. I’ve come to expect $1,000 a month for a room with no windows and laundry five miles away to be “not a bad deal!”
My culture shock has subsided in the months since moving here, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to feel completely like NYC is my home. That’s not to say I don’t love some aspects of living here. I’ve had a blast, grown as a person, and made unforgettable memories. I’ve met amazing people who have opened my eyes to new experiences. I’ve felt both seen and alone simultaneously. I think everyone should live in a big city at some point in their formative youth, if just to learn from the huge mass of varying cultures.
It’s fascinating to me how some cultures can feel familiar and some can feel foreign and how little that has to do with proximity. Ultimately, I am happy to be pushing my boundaries. I am in a city that oozes opportunity, and I am determined to make it mine. I still miss the fresh air of Warwick, and the slowness of Sevilla, but I am learning to see the unique charms of New York City as well, and that is amazing.