Overcoming Culture Shock

24 Jul

Regardless of where you study abroad, you will almost certainly experience some kind of culture shock.  Feelings of anxiety, confusion, isolation, disorientation and apprehension due to the stress and difficulty in adjusting yourself to the new environment/culture can result in various symptoms of culture shock such as: homesickness, anger, irritability, resentfulness, sadness, and irrational behavior.

When you first arrive, you will experience feelings of excitement and euphoria in which everything seems like a brand new adventure.  You will likely spend most of your time with other students from your home country during orientation and settling in periods and even during your free time as you all explore the city together. This is often referred to as the “Honeymoon Phase”.

After the “Honeymoon Phase”, things may suddenly seem very difficult and it can be hard to adjust to the new culture. Once you are no longer constantly surrounded by people from your home country you may begin to notice that the way in which you do things is no longer apropos.  Simple tasks may suddenly become very stressful because you cannot go about them in the exact same way as you would back home and even minor problems will begin to seem like major ones.  You may become somewhat depressed which can in turn affect your sleeping and eating habits.  You will likely feel very homesick and often call home to complain of how terrible everything is in the host country. However, this stage usually lasts for only a few days or weeks depending on the individual.

After this difficult period, you will begin making adjustments in both academic and personal areas to better integrate yourself into your new environment.  These adjustments may include spending less time with the participants in your program and more time with your new friends from your host country.  You will also call home much less than before, because you will be focusing your attention on your new life rather than the things back home.

Finally, you will come to accept the differences in the new culture as inherent parts of the culture (good, bad or indifferent) and not as simply contrary to your own and, to some extent, you will begin to feel like a part of it all.

And don’t forget that reverse culture shock when you return to your home country will most likely work in the same way as described above.

Some ways of dealing with culture shock are to:

1. Read about your host country before you go. Knowing about the more common customs and habits of the new culture will make the integration process easier. This will also prevent feelings of shock and embarrassment upon realizing that some habits you are accustomed to doing are inappropriate or even outright rude. Also, knowing the language and being able to communicate (even if only simply) will further assist you in feeling like you belong.  Having simple exchanges with locals will make you feel less like an outcast and more like someone who belongs.

2. Speak with/email former participants in your program. In addition to giving you ideas about what to expect in your host country, these participants experienced the same things that you will so they can offer you methods and suggestions for coping with your new environment and even enjoying it. They may offer advice on how to meet and interact with locals or at least help you to realize that other people have also experienced what you are.

3. Have realistic expectations. Examine your reasons for going abroad and have realistic expectations and goals. If you want to master the language, traveling every week and/or hanging out with your American friends is not going to accomplish that. You will have to spend time speaking with locals and studying. Also, do not expect to immediately fit right in with the natives of your host country. This will take time and patience, but it is not unattainable.  Having too great of expectations will leave you feeling sad and disappointed with yourself when you are unable to reach them.  Be realistic and realize that in addition to everything else you will be learning about and adjusting to a new culture firsthand.

4. Get involved with groups and make friends in your host country. The reason you are studying abroad is to learn about your host country.  You will not accomplish this by staying in your room, traveling extensively or hanging out with friends from your home country. Making new friends out of the locals will help you to feel like you have accomplished something in addition to being able to practice your language skills and you will feel less isolated and depressed and homesick for your friends back home.  Being active and busy by getting involved with groups or activities you find interesting will help you to learn new skills and prevent you from becoming bored which can magnify the feelings associated with culture shock.

5. Journal/blog about your thoughts and reactions to your new environment. This can be a way of taking some time away from the stress of integrating with the new culture to simply express how you feel and what you have experienced.  This will also help you to see how much you have accomplished and what you can do to help yourself.

6. Keep in touch with family and friends back home via email, instant messaging, or VoIP (like Skype). It is very important to keep in touch with your friends and family but do not spend more time doing this than experiencing your new home. Many students will use this as an excuse not to interact with their surroundings because they are more comfortable speaking English and talking to people who share similar customs.  However, by corresponding with people back home you may be able to overcome feelings of isolation, depression and homesickness.

Remember that while you are there to study, there is no reason why you can’t enjoy yourself. You chose this program/country because you found it interesting.  Go explore and have fun.

2 Responses to “Overcoming Culture Shock”

  1. Alex Tuesday, 12 August 2008 at 8:18 am #

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. travelingadventuress Monday, 25 March 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Reblogged this on Tales of a 20-something adventuress.

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