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Culture Shock
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Culture Shock

Cultural adjustment is a continuous, on-going process. It never stops, and it varies from one individual to another and from one culture to another. Your own situation may require you to confront not only differences in your new culture but it may also force you to take a good look at your own cultural values and practices. The concept of adjustment implies change. In your case, you will be moving from your "American" culture to one overseas. The nature of your adjustment depends on the nature of the differences between your original culture and the new one and on the objectives you seek to complete in the new culture.

The concept of adjustment assumes that you already have well-established sets of behaviors for "operating" in your own culture. As you enter into new cultures, those patterns of behavior may no longer satisfy your needs. In developing new patterns of coping with your new environment, you may experience varying degrees of disorientation and discomfort. This is called "culture shock."

What is Culture Shock

Culture shock is not quite as shocking or as sudden as most people expect. It is part of the process of learning a new culture that, as you have learned already, is called "cultural adaptation." One definition of culture shock is:

"The feeling of frustration and anxiety which arises when familiar cultural cues are suddenly removed and replaced by new and seemingly bizarre behavior."

- Lewis and Jugman, On Being Foreign

You may experience some discomfort before you are able to function well in a new setting. This discomfort is the "culture shock" stage of the adaptation process. The main thing to remember is that this is a very normal process that nearly everyone goes through.

Just as you will bring with you overseas clothes and other personal items, you will also carry invisible "cultural baggage" when you travel, as was discussed in the previous chapter. That baggage is not as obvious as the items in your suitcases, but it will play a major role in your adaptation abroad. Cultural baggage contains the values that are important to you and the patterns of behavior that are customary in your culture. The more you know about your personal values and how they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see and understand the cultural differences you will encounter abroad.

Know What to Expect

Anticipating future events and possibilities makes it easier to deal with them when they happen. For example, it helps to anticipate your initial departure and plan ways to maintain relationships with people at home while you are away, i.e. family, roommates, professors. Be sure to allow ample time to say goodbye to all the people who are important to you, and plan how to keep in touch. This assures people that you will continue to care about them.

Planning to stay in touch does not require a promise to write or telephone on a strict schedule, but it does help to establish a realistic interval between communications. You will be extremely busy getting settled and learning about your new environment, so it is essential that long periods between communications not alarm your family and friends at home.

Some surprises always await you when you arrive in a new place. People may walk and talk more quickly, traffic patterns may be confusing, and buildings may look different than expected. Such differences are easy to see and quickly learned. The housing arrangements at your university or college, the manner in which classes are taught, registration for courses, and other procedures may seem strange or very confusing. The international student office is often the place to go for help with such matters.

Studying abroad, however, means making big changes in your daily life. Generations of students have found that they go through a predictable series of stages as they adjust to living abroad. At first, although the new situation is a bit confusing, most students also find it to be exhilarating, a time of new experiences, sights, sounds, and activities. With so much to learn and absorb in the new culture, the initial period of settling in often seems like an adventure. During this time, you will tend to look for and identify similarities between your home culture and your host culture. You will find that people really are friendly and helpful. The procedures are different, but there are patterns, things that you can learn and depend on. You may classify other aspects of the culture that seem unusual or even unattractive as curious, interesting, or "quaint". There will be many opportunities to meet people in your community; such opportunities can be rewarding, but they also present an expanded array of cultural puzzles.

Emerging Differences

Gradually, as you become more involved in activities and get to know the people around you, differences - rather than similarities - will become increasingly apparent to you. Those differences may begin to seem more irritating than interesting or quaint. Small incidents and difficulties may make you anxious and concerned about how best to carry on with academic social life. As these differences emerge, they can be troubling and sometimes shocking. But culture shock does not happen all at once. It is a feeling that grows little by little as you interact with other students, faculty, and people within the community.

For many this gradual process culminates in an emotional state known as "culture shock," although it is seldom as dramatic as the term implies. Common symptoms of culture shock are:
  • Extreme homesickness
  • Desire to avoid social settings which seem threatening or unpleasant
  • Physical complaints and sleep disturbances
  • Depression and feelings of helplessness
  • Difficulty with coursework and concentration
  • Loss of your sense of humor
  • Boredom or fatigue
  • Hostility towards the host culture
Students are sometimes unaware of the fact that they are experiencing culture shock when these symptoms occur. There are ways to deal with this period of culture shock, so it helps to recognize that culture shock may lie behind physical symptoms and irritability.

Coping with Culture Shock

The most effective way to combat culture shock is to step back from a given event that has bothered you, assess it, and search for an appropriate explanation and response. Try the following:
  • Observe how others are acting in the same situation.
  • Describe the situation, what it means to you, and your response to it.
  • Ask a local resident or someone with extensive experience how they would have handled the situation and what it means in the host culture.
  • Plan how you might act in this or similar situations in the future.
  • Test the new behavior and evaluate how well it works.
  • Decide how you can apply what you have learned the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.
  • Be open-minded and flexible.
Throughout the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or rent a video in your home language, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty of rest, write a letter or telephone home, eat good food, and do things you enjoy with friends. Take special notice of things you enjoy about living in the host culture.

Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, the "shock" gradually eases as you begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you - and you toward them - are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come in conflict, the easier it becomes to make adjustments that can help you avoid serious difficulties.