You will experience a range of emotions during and after studying abroad. Keep in mind that initial disorientation is a normal part of adjusting to a new culture. This feeling will soon pass and you will begin to enjoy your new experiences. While it may be disconcerting, culture shock can be a growth process that increases your understanding of your host culture and of yourself. One of the most effective strategies to mitigate culture shock is to prepare yourself. The more you know about what to expect, the more comfortable you will be.
Understanding Culture Shock in 5 Steps
The Honeymoon Stage
When you first arrive in a new culture, differences are intriguing and you may feel excited, stimulated and curious. Like any new experience, there’s a feeling of euphoria upon arrival, and you will be in awe of the differences you see and experience. You will feel excited, stimulated and enriched. During this stage, you will still feel close to everything familiar back home.
The Distress Stage
A little later, differences create an impact. Everything you experience no longer feels new; in fact, it’s starting to get you down. You may feel confused, isolated or inadequate and realize that your familiar support systems (e.g. family and friends) are not as easily accessible.
During this stage, you may begin to dislike the culture, the language, the food. You may reject it as inferior and may even develop some prejudices towards the new culture. You may feel angry, frustrated and even feel hostile to those around you. You may even question your decision to study abroad. You may start to idealize life “back home” and compare your current culture to what is familiar. Don’t worry. This is absolutely normal and a healthy reaction – it means that you are adjusting. You are reconnecting with what you value about yourself and your own culture.
This is the first stage in acceptance. This stage is sometimes called the emergence stage when you start to come out of the ‘fog’ and finally begins to feel like yourself again. You start to accept the differences and feel like you can begin to live with them. You will feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that may arise based on your growing experience. You no longer feels isolated, and instead, are able to look at the world around and appreciate where you are.
You will begin to feel like yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. Things start to become enjoyable. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences and values. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You will begin to understand and appreciate both the differences and similarities of both the home and host culture. You start to feel at home.
Symptoms of culture shock range from physical to emotional. They may include:
- Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
- Loss of appetite
- Irritability and anger over minor frustrations
- A feeling of sadness, loneliness, and vulnerability
- Idealization of home culture
- Feeling shy or insecure
- Feeling lost or confused
- Questioning of the decision to move to the host country
There are also many positive steps you can take to help overcome potential feelings of loneliness and shock. Here are a few suggestions:
- Before you go, research the local history, politics, cultural norms, etiquette, and education systems in your host country. Speak to other students who have been abroad.
- Once you arrive, start keeping a journal when you settle into your residence.
- Push yourself to leave your comfort zone, it might feel uncomfortable at first but it is part of the process.
- Try to make friends by practicing your language skills.
- Find at least one person—a fellow student, professor or host parent—to talk to if difficulties arise.
- Get involved in an enjoyable activity that helps you meet people.
- Plan excursions and participate in sports and recreational activities.
Find your support systems:
Although it is possible that you will be the only ISEP student from your home institution in your chosen program of study, remember that you are not alone.
Your host ISEP Coordinator can be an important resource when dealing with any issues that arise during your program. Your host institution may also organize clubs for foreign students or groups where you can meet people dealing with issues similar to your own.