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When you’re the stranger in a strange land, it’s natural to feel out of your element. But if you hope to make the most of your study abroad experience, you need to learn to deal with discomfort and adjust instead. How can you overcome culture shock when you’re attending school overseas?
First, it helps to know the five stages of culture shock you can expect to go through — then you can take proactive measures to cope during each phase. By recognizing your adjustment period as a natural part of travel, you can tame your study-abroad culture shock and maximize the benefits of your international trek. Here’s what culture shock will feel like — and how to overcome it.
Culture Shock Stage One: The Honeymoon Stage
When you first arrive, everything is new and exciting, like you’re seeing the world for the first time. When you come across a custom you’ve never seen before, you’re confident you’ll figure it out — did you buy a new hairdryer with a plug that resembles a Picasso sketch? It’s okay! You’ll just find a converter.
It’s easy to feel enamored of your destination and a little reckless during this time. Your study-abroad culture shock has yet to kick in. However, do keep a cool head and remember you have a lot to learn. Even if you brushed up on your language skills before departure, you nevertheless need to get in tune with the local body language cues and customs. Make sure to keep your mind open to learning so you can discover how to function in your new environment.
Step Two: Distress and Anxiety
Sometimes, your first experience away from your family and culture cues disillusionment with your travels. Other times, a seemingly insignificant trifle, like getting turned around, can cause you to feel panicked and lost. Whatever the trigger, how do you overcome culture shock when you feel fed up and just want to go home?
Now’s the time to get by with a little help from your friends or family. Call someone you love and fill them in on your adventures and your fears. Their encouragement, enthusiasm and support will reinforce your decision to travel abroad. Seek out connections in your new land, too. Join a study group, participate in extracurricular activities in your community, or spend some quality time with your roommates or host family.
Most of all, maintain a balance between self-care and pushing yourself. You don’t want to lock yourself in your room, but don’t overwhelm yourself, either. Give yourself one new challenge to try or place to explore each day.
Step Three: Adjustment and Re-Integration
During the third stage, you might feel anxiety turning to irritation and frustration at the differences in your new culture. The language, foods and customs of your host country might get under your skin, and you’ll typically start to idealize life back home. You might feel like you just can’t find something familiar to relate to.
This is normal — comparing your new location to your home country means you are adjusting and finding out what grounds you in a particular culture.
Maintain your positivity during this time by taking an open-minded, cultural comparison approach. You have the comfort of knowing you’ll return home at the end of your experience, so use this time to reflect on the ways culture shapes who you are as a person — and grow from the experience. As you adjust, you’ll realize that you can integrate your definition of self into how your new culture is changing you.
Step Four: Autonomy and Adaptation
When you reach this point in your study abroad experience, you’ve become comfortable in your new culture, and you begin to “emerge,” feeling more like yourself again. This might mean speaking the native tongue to navigate everyday interactions with ease or knowing your way around the city like it’s your hometown. You can form relationships with others, and you no longer feel taken aback by unusual mannerisms. You’ve also gained newfound confidence in your ability to overcome problems.
Now is the time to deepen your immersion experience by diving into hobbies in your host culture. If you adore exploring the outdoors, you can try geocaching to find prizes — and explore off the beaten path. Enroll in a cooking class to learn how to prepare local cuisine. If you don’t currently write in a journal, keep one of your adventures — bonus points if you make it bilingual! Most of all, take your growing confidence and use it to explore everything your new culture has to offer.
Step Five: Achieving Independence
Finally, you feel completely independent and you’re operating as smoothly as a native in your new land. All vestiges of culture shock are gone, leaving you confident and autonomous. You understand and appreciate the similarities and differences between your nation and your host culture.
This is when you’ll realize you feel at home here in this new country — and you may even fall in love with it. While you probably never imagined feeling this way during the distress stage, now you might not want to go home! Appreciate each day you have abroad, and make the most of this unique time in your life.
How to Overcome the Stages of Culture Shock When You Study Abroad
Don’t let culture shock derail your dreams of studying abroad. It’s normal and healthy to progress through stages of disillusionment, distress and irritation before beginning to adjust and become confident — but you will come out on the other side. And when you do, the world will open up.