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.