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Culture Shock in Costa Rica

Moving to Costa Rica is an adventure full of new experiences. As you delve into a foreign culture, you’ll soon realize that everyday life has changed in unexpected ways. The unfamiliar surroundings, language, and pace of life may stir feeling of anxiety in new expats. A bit of culture shock is completely normal, and passes with time.

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Culture shock is generally characterized by four phases: honeymoon, rejection, adjustment and recovery. During the honeymoon stage, which often lasts six or eight weeks, the quirks of Costa Rican culture seem fascinating. As you move into the rejection phase, you may feel irritated or frustrated by those same quirks. Stick it out, and 6-12 months after you move, you’ll transition into the adjustment stage, when you begin to accept differences and develop new routines. Finally, as you recover, you will retain certain aspects of your native culture, but also feel comfortable participating in Costa Rican society.

Preparation is key in minimizing culture shock, especially the unpleasant rejection phase. Read up on local culture; books and blogs from expats who have already made the transition can be especially enlightening. Arm yourself with knowledge, and you’ll be better prepared to navigate the twists and turns of cultural acclimation.

By far, my biggest adjustment was to local bureaucracy and wait times. Everything here seems to require several tramites (official steps), seals, signatures and other approvals. Your first introduction to Costa Rican red tape will be at Immigration, when you file for residency. If you go to Immigration yourself, you may be surprised by new requirements or fees – not published on their website – and you’ll certainly have to wait in line for hours. I now take a book or mp3 player everywhere I go, so even when a long line or unexpected procedure surprises me, I never have to wait in boredom. (In related news, I read more than 70 books last year.)

During my first year in Costa Rica, I was surprised to find that I sweat the small stuff much more than any major differences. It took me awhile to adjust to not flushing toilet paper, or having hot water only in my shower. When I couldn’t find certain favorite foods, or imports were too expensive – ricotta cheese and baba ghanoush, to name a couple – l learned to make them myself. Paying bills was novel, as most utility companies don’t accept checks and everything is paid at the bank or online. And I slowly learned how to navigate San Jose not by car, but by the prevalent bus system and my own two feet.

Years later, it’s easy to recount these adjustments, but at the time, there was plenty of frustration. As you go through the phases of culture shock, it’s important to give yourself permission to feel and react. You may swing from elation to irritation in one day and these feelings are normal. In the meantime, work on cultivating extra patience, and always assume that you’ll have to wait in lines. Go prepared and remember: Costa Rica is pura vida! The benefits of life in paradise far outweigh the challenges.

Culture Shock in Costa Rica in Pictures

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