Surviving Culture Shock: Why You SHOULDN’T Let It Keep You From Studying Abroad

Let’s face it, the weeks leading up to your study abroad journey have been a dream. You were a celebrity. A big shot. The kid moving out of the hometown to the big, bad US of A. Friends threw farewell parties while relatives force fed you all traditional food your stomach could devour AND MORE. You were the child who only wished her parents knew that airlines regulate weight limit of your luggage and no mom, I absolutely cannot take the sheets and the teapot with me.

Before you know it, you are on a plane. Anxious, nervous, tired but mostly excited. You’re heading to the land of fried cookies, donut burgers, frat parties and opportunity. Are you really ready for what’s coming? And what’s really coming anyway? Who am I?! WHAT AM I DOING?!

Whether you are a long-time fan of the United States whose dream is coming true or someone who simply grabbed the opportunity that lay in front of them, you WILL experience some form of culture shock at some point during your stay. It is inevitable – science says so.

Surviving Culture Shock

Culture shock happens when you find yourself in unfamiliar environment, surrounded by people, traditions, conditions and lifestyle you have never experienced before. International students usually go through five stages of ups and downs after they relocate. For people who have travelled before, moving to another country for a semester or two might be a much easier transition.

  1. Honeymoon

New house, new people, new campus, new start!

surviving culture shock - honeymoon

It is almost impossible not to feel positive at this point. You might feel sad and homesick right at the beginning, but those feelings will be overcome quickly by your own curiosity the richness of new experience.

I got to share a house with my friend. A house! Mind you, I shared a room with my older brother until I moved away. Unless you end up living in a big city with large population, you will likely find yourself very happy with the size of personal space you get. Apart from my living situation, I was impressed by the entire campus which was clean, green and full of squirrels. Everything was very impressive and much different from my expectations.

  1. Frustration

Moving to a new place comes with a lot of legal and other responsibilities, and with that comes obstacles, and with THAT comes frustration. Especially if you move to a country that is fundamentally more developed than your home country, your expectations about organization, infrastructure and public services will understandably be very high. You’ll need to apply for a social security number (wait how do I do that?) and small frustrations of everyday life will grow on you. You might end up blaming the country’s strange system and ways of doing things for every obstacle that comes your way.

Actually going anywhere outside of my campus area was nearly impossible without having to  ask somebody for a ride. Even basic tasks such as getting groceries was a once-a-week mission with a thorough list of items and I dare you not forget something important. Sometimes, campuses are in secluded areas away from any kind of services and fun stuff. And despite your campus’ beauty, you will want to get out of there occasionally. Therefore my advice is: make friends, and make them fast!

  1. Adjustment

Do not worry, for the second phase shall pass as you slowly learn the ways of the foreign forces that have so far been playing against you. You will acquaint yourself with your host country’s processes and might even end up appreciating the rules, politeness procedures and bureaucracy.

surviving culture shock - adjustment

Having made some friends and mastering my grocery planning, I finally overcame the biggest smallest frustrations of everyday life such as having butter but no bread. For a week.

Funnily enough, I even adjusted myself to our local house invaders – roaches. Who would have thought? I became one tough cookie! That is, until I learned they fly. Then I just wanted to go home again.

  1. Adaptation

What doesn’t kill you indeed makes you stronger. As a result of your experience, you will acquire a new identity within yourself that is more resistant, innovative and understanding. Obstacles will no longer be problems but challenges. Aliens will turn into friends and your own alienation will transform into belonging.

Adapting to Culture Shock - adaptation

As a result of my stay, I became much more environmentally and politically conscious.

I have seen people throw away plastic plates and cups they did not need to use in regular container. I have seen professors printing novella sized syllabi with one page of relevant information for 30 students in the class on one-sided sheets of paper. I have seen students eat junk food snacks and I have seen their heads turning to the smell of my juicy tangerines. I attended speeches of congressmen and senators that made me seriously question the democratic system and secularity of the country that hosted me.

I also met people who raised their children in harmony with nature. People who took me to Farmers’ Market. I made friends who gave me counsel when I was upset, helped me shop and do laundry, took me to concerts and camping.

The entire experience made me aware of my own identity, but it also made me a better listener and observer, and in general, a better, more polite, respectful and assertive human being. Almost an adult!

  1. Frustration no. 2

Hold on, again?!

Yes, this is going to happen and it is going to happen when you least expect it – on your way home. What experts call re-entry shock happens to people who come home after a long time spent abroad. You will have learned a lot about yourself, you will have grown and become a multicultural person. Unfortunately, you will then find your own home to be a weird place while at the same time weirdly the same as when you left it.

People will get tired of your international stories fast because they won’t be able to relate. Your opinions and ways you deal with people and problems will have changed. They will have changed for the better and it will be appreciated in the long run, but people will find it difficult to adjust to your changes, just like you had experienced adjustment difficulties to the foreign culture.

Do not rethink whether you should or should not study abroad. If you think this is a price too high to pay for your studies, think again. You will be more resilient, more empathetic towards other people and acquire a unique insight and understanding of your country’s challenges.

Surviving culture shock may be a scary notion, but go study abroad because you can, therefore you should. In a long run, your country will thank you.

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Marketa is a writer and teacher from the Czech Republic and is working towards fluency in six languages. She has her Masters in Education and is currently attending the University of Indiana to further her studies.

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