Cultural Adjustment: Responses to Living Abroad

In order to understand what culture shock is, you need to remember that your ability to function in the world depends on your being able to read hundreds of signs, to respond to subtle cues, and to behave according to countless explicit and implicit rules.  At home, much of what you do in your daily life is automatic and requires little thought.  Overseas, the reverse is true, and simple tasks can become difficult.  Because you are not always able to understand the messages you receive and cannot always communicate what you mean, you may suffer anxieties.  When you are confronted with new ways of thinking and acting, including oftentimes a different value system, you can become disoriented.  Your ‘normal’, ‘common-sense’, or ‘logical’ way of looking at things suddenly may not apply.  Suffering culture shock can, at its worst, lead to severe stress and depression.  Even a light case of culture shock will manifest as frustration and irritation.  

Culture shock usually manifests itself as a cycle of readjustment phases that may last quite a while before one adapts.  Most people experience at least two lows during a stay overseas, but the length and severity of these vary greatly for each individual.  Fortunately, culture shock is both predictable (it will happen) and manageable (you will survive it).  If you are prepared for it, you can do a great deal to control it or at least understand its effect.  The best advice may be to remain flexible and open-minded to new things, maintain a sense of humor about the mistakes you will make (and you will make some), and try to integrate as quickly as possible into your new culture.  Whatever happens, the program director is available to help you through rough periods.  We encourage students to talk to the on-site staff when they meet problems and not to wait until the problem gets bigger and more complicated.  Also, talk with other students on the program, as they may be going through the same issues.  

Responses to Living Abroad:

  1. First weeks, riding high with enthusiasm.  Commonly known as the "honeymoon stage."
  2. Possible entrance of a slight anti-American streak such as thorough disgust with all American tourists... or "I am never going to go back to America again."
  3. Feeling of being overwhelmed by all the possibilities presented in your host country, i.e. cultural events, restaurants, student clubs, traveling in your host country and elsewhere, etc. 
  4. Realization of aloneness, some independence, absence of family, problems of communicating by letter, struggle with the language, utilizing free time, heating and housing discomforts, etc.
  5. This often coincides with mid semester examinations adding academic pressure to all of the above, which results usually in a very low period or dark depression.  Psychologist L. Oberg states that some of the symptoms of this period are: "Excessive washing of the hands; excessive concern over drinking water, food, dishes, and bedding; a feeling of helplessness, fits of anger over delays and other minor frustrations; delay and outright refusal to learn the language of the host country; excessive fear of being cheated, robbed or injured; great concern over minor pains and eruptions of the skin; and finally, that terrible longing to be back home, talking to people who really make sense."
  6. Hostility or aggressive phase. Complaints about the local people, their customs and attitudes.  Complaints about the program, regulations, and attitudes. This phase can become petty.
  7. Identity crisis.  Searching within oneself, "Why am I here?", "Am I in the right major?"

Recovery:

  1. Slowly finding a balance between academic work and other compelling interests.  Better organization of one's time, and separation of the romantic preconceptions from the reality.
  2. Oberg again says, "The recovery stage usually finds a growing sense of humor, with the visitor able to joke not only about the host country, but also about his own difficulties.  In the final stage, adjustment, the visitor learns to accept the foods, drinks, habits, and customs of the host country and even to enjoy them."
  3. Important realizations include getting to know the local people as individuals and not as stereotypes, suddenly realizing the great personal freedom and appreciating it, making deep friendships with fellow students and the local people, finally leaving America and trying to learn something about the host country with an accompanying decision to appreciate the best of both countries. 

Our Advice:

Soon after arriving, you will undoubtedly confront the temptation to withdraw into the American group.  Work hard to resist this crutch.  Extreme dependence on the American group will limit ties and friendships outside your immediate circle.  You should make a genuine and constant effort to penetrate and become part of the host culture.  Opportunities are there from the moment you arrive, but you must take the first step and probably the second and third.

Try not to get offended if people make it difficult to get to know them.  Many of them feel like you don’t care that much to get to know them because you are leaving in 5 or 6 months.  You have to make a true effort and show them that’s not true.  

Look for clubs and activity groups, which provide opportunities for meeting people and for doing things that you enjoy.  Get involved in some of the many activities in your college. If you do join a group, realize that you are the one who will have to fit yourself in.  People will not necessarily go out of their way to accommodate you.  Even if you are not a "joiner,” you should get involved in things that interest you.

Beware of cultural stereotypes!  They can operate against you, as well as against the culture the local people and prevent you from getting to the rich reality behind the surface.

Avoid making negative comparisons with how you do things or what you have in the U.S.  It can be a challenge to understand why things are done differently, but try to be patient and figure out what the difference is and why.  Remember, you are not going abroad just to find the same things that exist here in the States.  Beware of ethnocentrism, the attitude of superiority of one group over another.  We tend to think our culture and society are the most important, worthy, and civilized in the world, and you may be surprised to find that others do not share our view.

Your experience abroad will not always be a bed of roses, and you may experience great loneliness at first.  There will be a vacuum of comfortable social, cultural, and political structure.  Activities and status symbols that make you who you are at home and on campus will be missing or meaningless:  meetings, contacts, cars, sororities and fraternities, and extra curricular recognition.  There will be the void of a familiar routine in your life.

What can you do to survive with grace?  Re organize and learn to budget your time and avoid the temptation of too much travel.  Keep a journal for future reference.  Be patient; you will not learn the language perfectly or make friends in the first two weeks after arrival.  Accept that you cannot become totally submerged in host culture.  Be proud, although not intrusively so, of being an American.  You will unavoidably carry your American cultural background with you.  Accept that wherever you are is the center of the world for the people who live there.  Behave as a guest, and show the inhabitants that you feel lucky to be there, in the center of their world.

And most importantly, remember that early disorientation is normal, healthy, and perfectly OK!