You have chosen to study abroad to have a different cultural experience. Remember that people are not the same and that assessing difference from a simple better/worse dichotomy will diminish your experience. By choosing to study abroad you have given yourself the opportunity to see and experience things from a different vantage point. It will not be always easy and at times it might actually be quite challenging. Go for it! Take advantage of being outside your comfort zone. While sometimes difficult, remember that this experience can leave you with broader perspectives, deeper insights and wider tolerance. This will be as valuable as the courses you take while abroad.
Culture Shock and Adjustment
Living and learning overseas successfully usually means adjustment to a different lifestyle, food, climate and time zone, and it often involves having to learn to communicate in a foreign language. This process is never easy and can include mood swings alternating between exhilaration and mild depression. In the early weeks, you will probably feel excited about your new experiences and environment. Soon, you may find the excitement of new surroundings and sensations increasingly replaced by frustration with how different things are from home. This frustration and confusion is usually called culture shock. It helps if you are aware that it is a natural and essential part of adjusting to a foreign culture. Symptoms can include depression, sleeping difficulties, homesickness, trouble concentrating, an urge to isolate yourself and irritation with your host culture.
Knowing what you might expect when you first arrive in your host country can ease the effects of culture shock and help you make the most of the experience from the start. The internet has become a valuable resource for learning about all aspects of other countries. Talk with faculty and study abroad returnees who have lived in your host country as well as international students from there. Visit libraries and bookstores and contact the embassy, consulate or tourist office to get materials.
Coping with Culture Shock
+ Be aware of cultural differences, but do not view them with an “us” versus “them” perspective.
+ Don’t sit around being negative and critical—go out and do something. Keep yourself busy doing things you enjoy. When you have free time, visit museums, go to movies and tour local sites of interest.
+ Look for the best, not the worst.
+ Keep an open mind.
+ Embrace your sense of humor.
+ Keep in touch with your family and friends at home – this can help you feel less isolated.
You will probably find that after the first few weeks, as you begin to understand your host culture better, the symptoms of culture shock slowly disappear. However, if you find that feelings of irritability and depression remain, you may need help from a doctor or counselor. Your program director or the international student office at your host university should be able to direct you to counseling or support organizations.
Challenges of a New Culture
Your study abroad experience will be heightened if you pay attention to the local social environment. In many ways, key to adapting to the new environment is your ability to quickly understand what behavior is and is not appropriate and make necessary adjustments. Observe local students and your host family, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about local customs. In fact, people will appreciate that you are trying to learn about their culture and lifestyle, and are likely to help you adjust. It is important, however, to keep in mind that a semester lasts only a few months, so “integration” into a new culture is a very relative thing.
It also may help to realize that most students at host universities abroad or people in general might be highly informed about world issues, with all sorts of questions and opinions for you to listen to and consider. Knowledge about political and social and cultural conditions in your destination will be of great use in your attempt to integrate with and make friends with local people.
Keeping up with political and cultural happenings in the U.S. will also be helpful, as you can expect that in a foreign environment you will occasionally be put in the position of being a spokesperson for the US and American culture. Politics are taken very seriously by many foreign university students. If you encounter anti-American sentiment, be prepared to deal with the situation gracefully.
Personal Identity Gender
As gender-based treatment in a foreign culture may differ significantly from your native culture, be aware that it can affect your experience abroad. For women, concerns include sexual harassment, safety and social expectations. To avoid problems, it is important to understand the roles of the sexes in the culture in which you are living. Observe how the host country’s people dress and behave. Also remember at all times that what may be appropriate or friendly behavior in the U.S. may bring you unwanted, even dangerous, attention in another culture.
Race, Ethnicity and Class
Be aware that because of your race or ethnicity, you may be accorded different privileges or experience different barriers abroad than those you experience at home. Different cultures define race and ethnicity differently, create different categories and expect different things of people within these categories. The same with class: different cultures have different ideas and perceptions about class, which can also affect your experience abroad. In certain contexts, working class Americans may be considered rich, while in others, upper-middle class Americans may be considered poor. Consider where your program is located, especially in a city: is it in an affluent or middle-class neighborhood? Where you will be living? Once you arrive at your destination, take cues from your surroundings and, as you go about your every day rountines, determine what is appropriate and prudent.
Depending on your sexual orientation you may be granted different privileges or encounter different challenges abroad than at home. Since many ideas we have about sexual orientation and sexuality are culturally based, students need to be aware of how this will affect their relationships with host nationals, cultural adjustment and the overall study abroad experience. For information regarding sexual orientation issues in countries outside the US, check out NAFSA’s Association of International Educator’s LesBiGay Special Interest Group.
Travel is always a challenge to a person's problem-solving abilities; this is no different for a person with a disability. While overseas, people with disabilities will likely find some things inaccessible, but preparation and persistence can help. Mobility International USA (phone/TTY: 541-343-1284) is anexcellent resource on travel for people with physical disabilities.
For more information and tips of dealing with cultural differences consult the Study Abroad Handbook provided by your study abroad program provider.
“The whole world,” insisted one of my professors years ago, “can be divided into two kinds of people when they come face to face with diversity. Some will say: ‘How different from us, how strange of them.’ Others will say: ‘How different from us, how interesting! There is so much to learn from them.’” My old professor… had exaggerated to make a point, but his pedagogical hyperbole nonetheless offered an important insight into human behavior. Whereas one reaction to diversity leads to intolerance, prejudice and alienation, the other promotes the kind of openness, sharing and respectful curiosity that should characterize university life and, by extension, the best of civil discourse and civic life and, by still further extension, harmony and peace in our world.” (from “One Though Many,” by Rev. Joseph Currie, S.J., Director of Campus Ministry)