Dealing with culture shock
Living and studying in a new country is a great adventure, filled with excitement and potential. However, it is worth preparing yourself for the shock of leaving friends and family behind, and suddenly finding yourself far from home.
As you start living in an environment with an entirely different culture than your own, your ideas and beliefs about the way things are will be challenged (especially if you have always lived in the same area your whole life). Living in this new environment for months at a time, you may be surprised to find yourself questioning those things which you have always thought of being just a certain way; this can include attitudes towards sexuality, race or religion, as well as those things which are slightly less obvious. Some may be disconcerting which you wish not to take on board, whereas others will strongly define you as an individual for the rest of your life – this is why your student days are so important in shaping you as an individual.
Here are a few tips to help you acclimatise to a new culture (an even avoid causing offence):
If you have a rough idea about some of the principles and practices of a country you’re planning to study in, you won’t be in for such a shock when you arrive. In fact, things may make sense more so if you have only read about them up to that point (especially if you’ve been hotly anticipating your time abroad). With things like YouTube and Google Maps at your disposal, you can get a better idea of the culture and what you can expect.
If you have chosen to study abroad, then you are probably already open-minded to new cultures and ways of thinking. While you may feel very strongly about some issues, you may be given a new perspective on policies on immigration or social class, which are more widely debated from both sides. Try to approach new ways of thinking as simply being “different” to your own, rather than “wrong”, “backwards” and even “odd”. If you don’t agree still, don’t worry.
If you keep in mind that your time in a country is only temporary, you’ll see everything more positively, and as an opportunity that you have to make the most of – time will seem too short to fit in everything you want to do. Rather than pine for home and your eventual return, consider that you only have a limited time to experience this way of life. A whole term, a month or even three years may seem like a long time when you move, but it will fly by so quickly in the grand scheme of things. Unless you plan to remain in the country once you graduate and find a job there, you really won’t have this kind of opportunity again as you entire adult life beckons.
One of the great benefits of studying abroad is that you’ll arm yourself with enough stories to make even the dullest of evening meals, dates and social occasions more interesting...and you’ll be the one everyone listens to. While being in the middle of a particular scenario can be intimidating or overwhelming, focus on a later date when you’re speaking to your closest friend at home or your family about this. You may even find that thinking in these terms means you ask more questions about what you come across and take note of details more.
If you have doubts about your language skills, then this can make you feel even more overwhelmed and intimidated when in a new country. Things always seem that much more foreign if you are surrounded by different characters, languages and signs. If you have a good grasp of the language however, you’ll find that you can keep up and are less concerned with understanding, leaving more time to take in and think about these concepts and attitudes.
This is often the hardest to do, but usually the quickest fix. Ask those around you for a friendly chat if you find yourself struggling with the culture shock. If you don’t share this with others, they won’t know and can’t help. There may well be other international students struggling like you, so it’s a good idea to seek them out and befriend them for the occasional moment when things get tough.
Personalising your space with those things which remind you of home can give you a sanctuary from the foreign culture you are otherwise surrounded by. These may include certain furnishings, music which reminds you of home or a treasure trove of snacks you can’t find in your new country which you dig into when you want a familiar taste. It’s important to throw yourself into the culture of a new country, but it’s perfectly fine to have those things which remind you of home for just a few hours.
However if you share a dorm or a room with someone else, always take them into consideration.
Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.