Living in a new culture can be physically exhilarating, intellectually challenging, personally rewarding, and/or highly frustrating. When we visit another country, we interact with its culture in a superficial way and simply don’t have the time to experience it with much depth. When we live in another country for an extended period, we have the opportunity to experience the culture from within, to participate in it, and be governed by different social codes.
Adjusting to those codes - even simply identifying them - will take time; more time for some than for others. Study abroad experts like to think of culture as an iceberg: It has aspects that are readily visible and identifiable (such as language, food, holidays, and dress), but much of what defines a culture is invisible. Your encounters with those invisible elements of culture - from beliefs about family, education, and relationships to all the unstated forms of polite behavior - have the most potential to frustrate you.
The main thing to keep in mind as you adjust to life in your host country is that, although you may initially be disoriented and even frustrated or disappointed, you will find your equilibrium. Remain patient and open to the experience and to the similarities and differences. Remember, too, that though you may find some aspects of the host culture confusing, you should not judge or try to alter the culture. You are the guest, and it is your responsibility to respect the customs, laws, and norms of the host country and to adapt your behavior.
Stages of Cultural Adjustment
Adapted from the University of California–Irvine’s Center for International Education
The preliminary phase includes anticipation of and preparation for your journey. It is characterized by a growing awareness of the host culture, preparation for the trip, and involvement in farewell activities.
The initial euphoric phase begins with your arrival in the new country. Everything seems wonderful and exciting at first, and you are struck by how similar people seem to be.
During the irritability phase, your focus turns from the similarities to the differences. You will be acclimating to your setting and will likely become frustrated with elementary aspects of everyday life because things still appear so foreign to you. Insignificant difficulties can seem like major problems. One typical reaction during this stage is to associate mainly with other Americans -- but remember, you are going abroad to get to know your host country, its people, culture, and language. If you avoid contact with others, you cheat yourself of valuable experiences and lengthen the process of adaptation. This phase is often called "culture shock.”
When you become more used to the new culture, you will slip into the gradual adjustment stage -- you may not even be aware that this is happening. You will begin to orient yourself, to interpret subtle cultural clues, and to feel comfortable and familiar with the culture.
Adaptation and Biculturalism
Eventually, not only will you be more comfortable with the host culture, but you may also feel a part of it and even value aspects of it over your native culture.
This is a term that psychologists use to describe the disorientation people experience when they move for an extended period of time to a culture different from their own. Some of the symptoms of relatively severe cases of culture shock include:
- Withdrawal (e.g., spending excessive time alone or only with Americans)
- Excessive sleeping or eating
- Stereotyping of or hostility toward host nationals
- Physical or psychosomatic ailments
Although not everyone will suffer from such dramatic symptoms, students going abroad will all likely experience some degree of culture shock. In fact, recent studies have shown that virtually everyone who lives abroad goes through a distinct set of phases as they adjust to their new culture.
Once abroad, you can take some steps to minimize emotional and physical ups and downs.
- Learn as much as you can about the host country before going.
- Keep yourself healthy through regular exercise, staying hydrated, and good eating habits.
- Get enough sleep. While staying out late can be fun, your body is still adjusting to the new time-zone.
- Try to establish routines that incorporate both the difficult and enjoyable tasks of the day or week.
- Don't expect things to be the same as they are at home. You have left home to experience new things.
- Stay in touch with your friends and family, but don’t just call them when you are lonely or frustrated. Share your accomplishments and the positive moments with them. They will like knowing that you are enjoying your time abroad.
- Don’t confuse difference with inferiority. The U.S. is a unique and well-developed country, but that does not necessarily make it the best one. Others will likely love their country as much as you may love the U.S.
- Don’t judge the people of a country by the one person with whom you have trouble with.
- Resist looking down on or making jokes and comments about the host culture. Avoid others who take part in such derogatory remarks.
- Treat yourself to an occasional indulgence, such as an American magazine or newspaper, a favorite meal or beverage, or a long talk with other Americans experiencing the same challenges.
- Accept invitations to activities that will allow you to see parts of the host culture outside the classroom and help you to meet new people.
- Remember that you are a guest in the host country and that when you treat a host with respect, you will be treated similarly.
- Be flexible and open to new experiences. Your trip, classes, or stay may not be exactly what you expected. Be open to change and all that comes with it.
- Above all keep an open mind, be sensitive to the feelings of others, and maintain your sense of humor.
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