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Dealing with Culture Shock

(Adapted from Robert L. Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living, chapter on "Culture Shock: Occupational Hazard of Overseas Living.")

Sometimes, despite their preparation, people find themselves in their host country feeling homesick, bored or withdrawn. They might spend all their time with Americans, avoiding the host nationals. They may drink, eat or sleep too much. They might feel hostile or critical of the host culture. They are experiencing what many people refer to as "culture shock."

Culture shock is used to describe some of these more pronounced reactions to spending an extended period of time in a culture very different from your own. Not everyone will experience culture shock. But for those of you who do, it is helpful to be able to recognize culture shock when it occurs, so you can take appropriate action.

Adjustment to a new culture tends to occur in stages. Initially, there is a honeymoon phase. You are in a new country, and everything is exhilarating and exciting. Perhaps you are involved in a flurry of orientation and getting settled, getting hosted around the town or city. The sights, sounds and tastes are all a new adventure. And, at first, you may even see more of the similarities between your host country and the U.S. than the differences.


However, after some time, you realize that things aren't the same. Maybe you are tired of the food or struggling with the language. Maybe the university seems incomprehensible and bureaucratic. Maybe you are tired of long commutes whenever you need to go somewhere. Maybe everything is much more expensive than you anticipated. Or perhaps things are less expensive, but not of the quality or variety you appreciate at home. Your initial enthusiasm has drifted away and you have entered the stage of irritability and hostility. Worse, you may just feel like you don't really belong.
Be patient. Almost always, these symptoms disappear with time and you will experience a stage of gradual adjustment. Your sense of humor will reappear. Things that seemed strange or just inconvenient will gradually become familiar.

Lastly, there is the stage of adaptation or biculturalism. You have finally arrived. You have managed to retain your own cultural identity but recognize the right of other cultures to retain theirs. You have a better understanding of yourself and others, and you can communicate easily and convey warmth and understanding across the cultural barriers.

There is no one way to experience culture shock. It may be acute or barely noticeable. You may find it returns once after you thought you had already passed through all the stages. If you are experiencing the irritability and hostility associated with culture shock, there are positive steps you can take and the sooner you take them, the better.

Here are some Do's and Dont's when dealing with symptoms:

DO'S

Be aware that culture shock exists, that it will probably affect you one way or another, but that it doesn't last forever.

  • Try to keep busy.
  • Plan fun things to do.
  • Set goals for yourself.
  • Look for the best in your situation.
  • Enjoy the diversity of people and cultures.

Remember that culture shock can be a very valuable experience, which can leave you with broader perspectives, deeper insight into yourself and a wider tolerance for other people.

Keep a journal. Writing about your daily experiences provides you with a detailed record of your experience and may also help you cope with culture shock.

DON'TS

Don't think you're strange or abnormal. It's not surprising you'd miss some aspects of home or feel a sense of loss.

Don't just sit around being negative and critical; it will only prolong your unhappiness.

Don't focus on the bad things. Instead, look for the humor in difficult situations. Things that go wrong often make the best stories when you return.

Don't be judgmental. When you find yourself feeling like the U.S. is superior in some aspects, try to understand what needs your host culture is meeting by their different ways of doing things.

Do not be offended by characteristics of the culture which are not polite or appropriate here. Try to understand that country's mannerism, habits and accepted norms to avoid taking offense at things you are not used to.

Don't immediately call/write/e-mail your family/friends to tell them how miserable you are. The mood may pass the next day and you know that you are fine, but your family/friends are left thinking the worst. One tactic is to write the letter or e-mail and get your frustrations out, but do not send them right away. If you feel better the next day, throw away the letter, delete the e-mail... if you're still upset, do share your feelings with your family or friends.
As impossible as it may seem, reverse culture shock can also occur upon your return to the United States. Be aware of this possibility and use some of the same steps listed above to help you re-adjust to life in the United States.

REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK

Just as you will have had to brace yourself for a period of psychological disorientation when you leave the USA, you should know that after your time abroad, you may also have to prepare yourself for a parallel period of readjustment when you return 'home.' Why? Simply because, if you have had a full experience living and learning overseas, you are likely to have changed some, while you have been away, so the place you return to may itself appear to have changed, as indeed it might have. Even though these changes are seldom huge, and may not be apparent to others, you are likely to be very aware of them, and this can be confusing, all the moreso because it is unexpected.

Immediately after your return, you can probably expect to go through an initial stage of euphoria and excitement. Most people are overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being back on their native turf. But as you try to settle back into your former routine, you may recognize that your overseas experience has changed some or many of your perceptions and assumptions, your ways of doing things, even what it means to 'be yourself.' You might have become, in a sense, a somewhat new person. After all, that is what education is all about! But this intellectual and personal growth means that you can expect a period of disorientation as you adjust to the "new" environment at home.

The re-adjustment period is usually rather short-lived, since 'home' will never be as "foreign" to you as the foreign environment you adjusted to overseas. Also, your experience of dealing successfully with culture shock abroad will have provided you with the psychological tools for dealing with the challenges of readjustment. Obviously, the more you have changed-often a by- product of the time you were away and how deeply you immersed yourself--the more difficult it will be to have things go back to a previous notion of normality. However, if you are aware of the changes (and seek to learn from them, smooth adaptation is more likely."

As a means of readjusting and staying in touch with the international scene, you may want to consider contacting students who have been abroad, who are currently abroad, or who are thinking about going abroad. There are many ways of maintaining contact with friends you made overseas, foreign and domestic, and also of remaining in touch with the culture you entered and now have left--via letters, e-mail, phoning, magazines, books, etc. and other means . Discussing things and sharing experiences with others is almost always worthwile. Remembering what it was like for you to have been, for a time, a 'foreigner' should inspire you to try to get to know the international students on your campus or others from 'minority' backgrounds, who may themselves be feeling some of the same social dislocation and alientation you once felt when you were overseas. The key is to build on the cross-cultural coping skills you now possess and to find conscious ways of integrating your new 'self' into your evolving personal and academic life, not seeing it as a 'dream' or something irrelevant to your future.