Culture Shock; Hitting Home - Week 4

Have you ever had culture shock hit you in your face so hard that it made you irrationally angry? It didn’t happen to me until My first day in Zanzibar.


I was initially staying in Arusha, but the program moved to Stone Town, Zanzibar, a Tanzanian island. I was used to getting gawked at in Arusha because I’m a black American with pink hair. Zanzibar was a whole other playing field. The power dynamics, cultural norms, and tourist customs in Zanzibar are more than an interesting topic. I’ve decided to talk about this topic right now because it has been a constant stressor for the past two weeks and a huge learning curve. 

"This study abroad has tested me in ways I could have never imagined."

I want to preface this by saying I am in no way special or of any celebratory importance, but these situations still suck, and I want to talk about them. One of my friends told me that Zanzibar is similar to being thrown back into the 50s, but I didn’t know how to process that statement until we were in the heart of Stone Town.

I want to cover the grabbing first and how it all shakes out.


Men grabbed me in the streets because:

I wasn’t in a hijab or entirely covered in modest clothing 
I wasn’t Tanzanian/Zanzibari
I wasn’t with a man 


So, because I had cargo pants on and a t-shirt (my pink hair and tattoos were visible), it was okay for him to grab me by my arm, pull me to you, and tell me that you love me and my “sexy figure.” Ooh ooh, I guess it was also okay to get followed down the block because no doesn’t mean no and coercion is imminent.

I tried so hard to omit every interaction to culture and how life is different. I have never struggled with walking down a street until this trip. I could not make eye contact with anyone, smile, or even look up from the ground from location to location. The confidence I lost in such a short amount of time severely damaged my mental health and self-esteem. I was no longer this powerful, black woman--I was this scared, naive kid in the street. 

This post was initially meant to be about Zanzibari culture, but I refuse to minimize it to my intense experiences so this will continue as a post on mental health and the reasoning for me being home. 

This study abroad has tested me in ways I could have never imagined. Being a tourist for a week and living somewhere for a month is exceptionally different, especially with severe culture shock. Before this trip, I did not know I could do 6 hours of Swahili class every day. I did not think I could handle living in an actual town the size of the main campus(MSU) with none of the amenities. I definitely didn’t know that I could process mass amounts of anxiety and depression while living a life I’ve never had to live before. 

While attempting to live this life I’ve never even considered, I often forgot that I was still living my life that exists at home. I was in charge of keeping up with 11 credit hours worth of work per week, I was in charge of taking my meds on time every day, and I was in charge of my diet. I was not taking care of myself while trying to adjust, and then I continued to disregard my feelings to continue to coast by every day. Ignoring my mental health in the name of studies and work was the worst decision I made while eight thousand miles away from home.

Ignoring my mental health made every interaction exponentially worse. Each grab made me more anxious, each time I left the house made me shakier, each interaction with a man made me angrier. I did not know how to handle my spiraling anxiety, and I underestimated it in the name of adjusting to a new environment. 

If anything, this trip taught me about the impact of not taking care of myself. I have never been so lost in my life before, I don’t know what I want to focus my major on anymore, I don’t know where I want to travel, I don’t even know what I want to do after undergrad anymore. I have never had my core shaken like this before, and it is so unsettling. My generalized anxiety, the development of suicidal depression, and actually having a chest cold last almost a month made me realize the situation I was in. I was not in a safe environment for myself, and I could not continue to learn and thrive.

This takes me to my last point, I am very fortunate to be able to come home and take care of my mental and physical health. Not everyone has that advantage, and I am very thankful to have it. It is imperative to take care of your mental health when available. I will talk about health(psychological and physical) and culture in Zanzibar next, but I wanted to preface that blog post with this one. 

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