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Your stay abroad is going to be a mixture of exciting as well as difficult moments. It is normal to have ups and downs while adjusting to the cultural differences of your new home. The feeling of anxiety is common as we lose familiar surroundings and have to learn new ways of communicating. Do not be afraid to make mistakes; this is all part of the learning process. Most seasoned travelers have a story or two to tell about a mishap or embarrassing situation. The most important thing is to maintain a positive attitude, remain flexible, and keep an open mind.
Subjectivity and Culture Shock
Not everyone will experience culture shock in the same way or to the same degree. This is a very individual process that you will need to work through in your own way. Advice from past study abroad participants suggest that the best way to get through the difficult times is to recognize when you are feeling stressed, agitated, depressed, or excessively tired. Take a step back from the situation you are in and re-focus. For some, it is important to do something that they might expect to do at home when stressed such as exercise, write in a journal, spend time with a good friend, or do something else you enjoy.
The Glimpse Foundation's Culture Shock acclimation guide is an excellent resource for students preparing to study abroad. While there are no set rules on how one adjusts to a new culture, there are some phases that individuals typically experience in cross-cultural adaptation:
General Attitude: Anticipation
Events: Planning, packing, processing, partying, orientation
Emotional Response: Excitement, enthusiasm, nervousness, anxiety, concern about leaving loved ones, desire to leave
Physical Response: Anticipation, loss of interest in current responsibilities
Verbal Response: I can't wait to...
Honeymoon Phase: Weeks 1-4
General Attitude: Exhilaration, euphoria, excitement
Events: Red carpet welcome, living environment, classes/faculty, exploration of sights and shop
Emotional Response: Tourist enthusiasm, sense of adventure
Behavioral Response: Outward curiosity about host nationals, avoidance of negative stereotypes enthusiasm for studies and host institution, passive observer of culture
Physical Response: Intestinal disturbances, minor insomnia
Verbal Response: How quaint, this place is so charming, the people are so nice, this place and the people are a lot like home
Increasing Participation Phase
Time: Weeks 5-8
General Attitude: Bewildered, disenchantment, restlessness, impatience
Events: Classes, homework, everyday life, responsibilities in dorm/homestay, unfamiliar food, manners, language, customs, cost of living
Emotional Response: Qualms, uncertainty, irritability, loss of enthusiasm, skepticism, frustration, questioning of values of self and others
Behavioral Response: Search for security in familiar activities, increased alcohol and/or food consumption, withdrawal
Physical Response: Colds, headaches, tiredness
Verbal Response: "Why do they do it like that? Why can't they just...?"
Time: Weeks 9-12
General Attitude: Hostility, irritation, aggression
Events: Uneven work performance, confrontation with differences
Emotional Response: Discouragement, lethargy, depression, anger, extreme sensitivity and irritability, loneliness
Behavioral Response: Withdrawal, avoiding contact with host nationals, excessive sleep, fits of weeping, loss of concentration, tension and conflict with others
Physical Response: Minor illnesses, headaches, preoccupation, and personal cleanliness
Verbal Response: This place s___s! I can't wait to go home, use of stereotypes, chauvinism, nationalism, ethnocentrism. "We" excludes host nationals
Time: Weeks 13-20+
General Attitude: Recovery
Events: Work performance improves, able to interpret cultural clues, can laugh at and tell jokes
Emotional Response: Sense of comfort with surroundings, sense of belonging, sense of shared fate, biculturalism
Behavioral Response: Ability to see things from perspective of host nationals, empathy
Physical Response: Normal health
Verbal Response: "Home" is homestay or dorm room. "We" includes host nationals
Time: Returning home
General Attitude: Ambivalence
Events: Wanting to share stories about experience and finding others generally not interested
Emotional Response: Mixed-up, disconnected, disoriented, irritability, depression, homesickness for overseas site, uncertainty about home
Behavioral Response: Criticism about home and friends, lethargy, keen interest in foreign affairs and news
Physical Response: Colds, headaches
Verbal Response: "I never realized," or "In ___ we used to..."
(Adapted from the Fulbright Newsletter, 1988)