How To Deal With Being Lost In Translation

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca

How To Learn and Grow From Culture Shock

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Lost in Translation”. The reason I like it so much is because I can relate to the main characters and the things they experience.

The film explores what it is like to be in a completely foreign environment, through the themes of loneliness, alienation, and culture shock. It takes place in modern day Tokyo Japan.

lost in translation

Plot: “Aging movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) goes to Tokyo to film a Suntory whisky advertisement. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is the young wife of a celebrity photographer on assignment in Tokyo. Left behind by her husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), she is unsure of her present and her future and about the man she has married. Harris’s own 25-year marriage is tired and lacking in romance. Harris and Charlotte meet in the bar of the hotel where they are both staying and strike up a friendship. The two bond through their adventures in Tokyo together, experiencing the differences between Japanese and American culture, and between their own generations.” –

Traveling or living abroad can be an immensely fulfilling experience. The type of experience you have will greatly depend on your attitude and what you decide to make of it.

To give you a better chance at having a pleasant experience in a new country,here are a few things to keep in mind:

Do some research to understand the culture you are going to be in. Things to consider: the people, food, weather, language, history, politics, social infra structure.

Mentally prepare yourself for change: Some people, who travel abroad for the first time make the mistake to think that it’s not a big deal. Depending on where you go, the changes can be dramatic. Be sure to keep an open mind. Have a good attitude and be willing to get out of your comfort zone, realize that this is where your experience will gain meaning and depth.

Prepare for the language: If you are not able to learn the language, make an effort to learn some basics. People really appreciate it when you make an effort to speak in their native tongue. Don’t worry about sounding silly, all that counts here is the effort. Slowly you will gain more confidence it doing basic things like greeting someone and asking for the bill for dinner. Check out my friend Benny’s unconventional “language hacking” course, on how you can become conversationally fluent in as little as 3 months. Currently I am learning Korean and his methods have already helped me out greatly.

Spend time in the community: Before your departure do some research on how you can immerse yourself in the community. One of the ways I am currently doing this is by joining a yoga class. I have already made some great friends who have made my experience much richer by inviting me to dinner, going out, and taking weekend trips. Find out how you can continue some of your hobbies in your new country.

Learn the laws: Every country is different, be sure to be conscious of its laws. You might think that something back home is not considered a big deal, but in your foreign country can mean a trip to jail. Getting in trouble in a foreign country is not where you want to be.

Sense of Humor: Living in a new environment is full of many ups and downs, how you bridge the gap between the highs and lows depends on your sense of humor.

Ability to Cope with Failure: It is important to not beat oneself up over things you would label as failing. Just remember that there is no way you can understand how everything works in your new country. There will be many things you try and fail at, brush it off. The only way you will learn is by analyzing your experience and seeing how you can handle it differently in the future.

Being Open: Be willing to communicate your feelings and thoughts to others, verbally or non-verbally. This will help you connect and deal with the communication issues which will likely arise at some point. Just remember that words are not the only way we can communicate with each other.

A memorable experience of mine is when I took a train to a very small village in the Czech Republic. I ended up drinking wine and trying different types of cheeses with the locals. They spoke all most no English, but somehow we managed to have an evening full of laughter, smiles, and hugs. We connected on a very genuine level because we where willing to embrace our differences and celebrate the things we share in common as human beings.

Curiosity: Have desire to know about other people, places, ideas, etc. Having a curious attitude will lead you to many unexpected pleasurable experiences.

Keep a journal: You will be thinking and feeling things you have never experienced before. Recognize that this is an amazing opportunity for personal growth. An opportunity to get to know yourself better. Being alone in a foreign country forces you to live more in your internal world. You will begin to become acquainted with your inner space.

You may see things going on inside you that you previously were not conscious of. Don’t be scared, things that you have repressed may rise to the surface. Just learn to watch what is going on inside you without becoming attached. This is an opportunity to gain a whole new understanding that may help you release anything that is not serving your higher purpose.

Being Lost In Translation You Will Encounter

Different cultural norms and customs: Things like how and when to shake hands. What do you say when you meet someone. When, where, and how to be polite. There might be significant differences in how you address men and woman, or young and old people. Be aware of the different body language and the meanings it implies.

Culture Shock: It is going from a familiar environment to new environment that is unknown and the subsequent reactions of your mind and body.

Physical symptoms include:

  • You might notice that you are sleeping too much or too little.
  • You might find comfort in eating too much or actually have no appetite.
  • You might experience frequent minor illnesses like upset stomach and headaches.

Some of the psychological symptoms of culture shock include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Loneliness or boredom
  • Fear of being alone, cheated, robbed, etc.
  • Homesickness, constantly thinking of how things are going back home
  • Feeling lost and like you have no control in your life
  • Feeling helpless and dependent
  • Trivial things make you easily irritated and hostile
  • Feeling unimportant to your new environment
  • Negative stereotyping of the people in your host country
  • Feeling dependent and seeking comfort from people of your own nationality
  • Feeling frustrated over language and communication with others
  • Feeling a terrible longing to be back home

It is important to acknowledge if you are having any of these symptoms. First step in trying to overcome them is to be consciously aware of them. Secondly analyze objectively all the differences you see between your country and the host country, how could they be causing the sensations you are feeling. Think about what steps you need to take to overcome these differences.

Finally make some goals for yourself, what is it that you want to accomplish from your stay. Do you want to learn the language? Do you want to make new friends? Do you want to write a story? Do you want to understand the culture? Be pro active and take action, remember that your experience depends on what you decide to do.

Feeling Alone: Most likely you will initially not know anyone. See this as something positive as is gives you incentive to get out there and meet some new people. This is also a great opportunity to get to know yourself on a very deep level. If you catch yourself escaping your loneliness with watching TV, make a conscious effort to use your time more wisely. Go for a walk at the park, take photographs, and find a new restaurant. Remember that you might not be here too long, so make the most of it.

Unexpected things do and will happen: Being out of your comfort zone unexpected things happen all the time. If you have the right attitude this will end up being the most exciting aspect of your adventure. Learn to go with the flow, let things reveal themselves to you, but be ready to take action when opportunity presents itself.

Communication Problems: You might have to deal with problems back home. It is important to be able to communicate openly with your family or loved ones. Try your best to share your experiences, keep them up to date so that they will be supportive. This can also be a challenge with a large gap in the time zones.

Finding Directions: You will need to learn to be more outgoing. Be willing to ask strangers for directions. If you approach people with a good attitude most will not mind taking a few minutes to help you out.

This is a beautiful world we live in, a world full of mystery and contrast. I hope this post motivates you to take the plunge into the land of the unknown.

Just remember that being lost in translation will actually help you find more than you can ever imagine, so go get lost.

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15 Responses to How To Deal With Being Lost In Translation

  1. Hi Ivan…great post! I felt I could understand your experiences and, as a fellow foreign traveler, could empathize with your observations and recommendations. Obviously, this post is designed to help cope with some of the challenges of foreign travel. One I personally experienced on a recent trip to South Asia was this…

    -Dealing with the sense that the locals view me as being “different” and “separate” even though I do not feel different or separate from them. (I tend to have a “one world” view and believe that we are all pretty much the same inside.)

    I wasn’t prepared for this because I had done my “homework”, was optimistic and ready for my first visit to this part of the world. I had failed to realize just how conservative and unaccustomed to Westerners the locals were. They just didn’t know what to make of my presence 🙂 At first, it was amusing – yet after a while, the recurring starring expressions reflecting back and reaffirming that I was a stranger began to wear on me. *I* was having a great time, but it was as though they were wondering what I was doing there. I found myself getting a little annoyed but then decided to confront some of those stares with smiles and waves of”hello” (which for this country was considered unusually gregarious). Smiles broke over those curious starring faces and little shy waves were returned by friendly and kind hands and I – I took a deep sigh of relief 🙂

    I learned that when in a foreign land, it’s all too easy to make a snap negative judgment about the people and what they might be thinking about you. But I’d never know how wrong I would have been if I didn’t give them a chance to warm up to me.

    Thanks Ivan for the thoughtful post and for giving me the opportunity to reflect on one reason why I think foreign travel is good for the soul.

    Take care!

  2. heya Ivan!

    Interesting post. I can totally understand what you are saying but I have not experienced it yet. I think these rules will be applicable when I go to a foreign country by myself like in asia or america. I’ve only been to europe and the culture there is pretty much what I’m used to 🙂

    I enjoyed reading this, and I have never seen the movie you mentioned. Ill take it out next weekend! Especially because it has the gorgeous Scarlett Johannson in it 🙂

    Have an awesome week!
    .-= Diggy – Upgradereality´s last blog ..Introducing Diggy & the 1000 reader challenge! =-.

  3. Great post! You nail it! It is also worth noting that the same happens in reverse cultural shock when we return home after extensive travelling!

  4. Great post, Ivan! You nail it! It’s also worth noting that the same happens in reverse cultural shock when we return home after excessive travelling. 🙂

  5. I stayed 3 months in Italy earlier this year. In my situation while yes there was a LOT to get used to, but going to Italy was (ready for the cliche?) going home. I went to meet my now husband so granted I had a personal tour guide, but there was still a lot to get used to. Simple things like which trash can to use when taking care of dishes or the more complicated things like the transit system were made a lot easier because I had him with me. However I found that even despite a language barrier the people there were helpful and friendly.

    My advice dont be intimidated by the unknown. Just because you dont know a place doesnt mean you shouldnt go. Even though we are currently in the states, it is my goal to go back there permanently, and there are many opportunities to do so. If you go to a new country even if you dont know the language just be where the people are, you may meet someone who understands you 🙂

  6. very good point heyzanie :)…how could I have forgotten..reverse culture shock can sometimes be even more intense, thanks for contributing to my site@heyzanie:
    Thanks for sharing your perspective, wish you the best in getting back to italy, I can never get enough of that gelato 🙂 @Adrianne:

  7. Hi there – I found your blog through the “A Boundless World” blog and just read this post. I had to comment because I have just recently moved to Tbilisi, Georgia (what my blog is about) from Ontario, Canada. I’ve been here for over a month now, and I must say the first month was anything but easy. Opening bank accounts, figuring out the health care system (my back problems resurfaced recently) and then realizing that the health care system is not even half up to par to North American/Western systems, finding a place to live – everything while not speaking the language. It’s terribly difficult, and at first I fell into a black hole. When I first learned about my resurfaced back problem I spent days inside crying. I thought only of the worst case scenarios. Then one day, I realized that I’m wasting away my days. If my back decides to eventually give out, I will deal with it then. For now, while I can still do things, I want to do them. I decided that day that I will live life to the fullest. I’m in a new country, and although it’s difficult, the difficulty is what makes it so interesting.

    Since, I’ve learned a few basic Georgian words – and I agree – the effort is all that matters here. People really do appreciate it when you make an effort. The first couple of weeks of being here I felt completely silly saying hello in Georgian, so I would just nod or say hello. Now, I have built the confidence to say it and I see a difference in the way people smile at me. I know they can tell I’m a foreigner, but they appreciate that I tried. And also, as Nadine said, it’s way too easy to come to a negative judgement of people, especially people who are not used to foreign travelers. They stare at you, but as soon as you say hello or smile at them, they light up.

    Thanks for this post, it was a pleasure to read.

  8. thanks for offering your perspective karina :)…getting passed that first month can be tough…It took me almost 2 weeks to find an apartment on my own in the czech republic…luckily i found one on my first day in costa rica….some days you just want to cry lol…but its all worth it…I am sure your going to have a fulfilling experience :)…good luck and live it up@Karina:

  9. Ivan,
    I came to America as a young boy of 15 and was sure that it would be just like in the movies. It was and it wasn’t. Europe is different, not quite as loud and twenty four hours a day and the people – well they are a little more outgoing to say the least. With that said after living in south east Asia, England, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and many other places I can honestly say that the differences are all learning experiences that I value immensely. Once we let go of what is familiar and embrace what is actually there to appreciate “lost in translation” very quickly becomes “lost horizon”.
    Dan Collins

  10. Ivan,

    Those of us who wander often find our true selves in the differences we encounter. If we can let go of our expectations and just enjoy the people and places for who and what they are. From England to South East Asia, from Switzerland to America I have found that what many see as “Lost in Translation” can with just a little different perspective and different set of eyes find “Lost Horizon”.

  11. This is some really great advice–which I wish I had had before I moved to Ecuador a while back. More of a sense of humor and an ability to cope with failure would have helped tremendously. Just as I arrived, Ecuador and Peru declared war on each other–as crazy as that sounds.

    Anyway, this is an excellent article of not just tips, but a complete picture of what happens, including detailed explanations. It’s nice to see something comprehensive like this; I’m sure it will help many people as they plan and make their transition to life abroad.

  12. Hello Ivan!

    I want to take a moment to say thank you for this post on culture shock or being lost in translation. I have been living in Japan for a year and 9 months. I have been in here for some time, but the culture shock is still here. It comes and goes – sometimes I find he culture here absolutely amazing and other times I just want to run away.
    I love the adventure of living in another country and I have found that I have learned so much about myself in the process.
    Reading this post was just what I needed. I am working my way through another bout of being lost in translation.
    Thank you.


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