Image of cat staring at screen in a state of culture shock

How to Overcome Culture Shock: 6 Tips for International Students

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Maybe you don’t know what to feel anymore. At first, you definitely remember screaming out with joy when you saw that college acceptance letter. You squealed so loudly that your friends, coworkers or parents rushed over thinking you had some emergency.  And all they saw was your shining, beaming smile. Heck, you even remember everyone cheering you on. Now you’re living the “dream”.  So why do you suddenly feel so sad? Maybe you’re feeling a bit of this: Culture shock.

Image of cat staring at screen in a state of culture shock

What is Culture Shock? : It’s a term that “describes impact of moving from a familiar culture to one which is unfamiliar” –UKCISA. Much more than mere homesickness, culture shock can feel quite intense in both very enjoyable and unpleasant ways.

You’re probably familiar with the enjoyable sides already (e.g. excitement, the thrill of adventure, new friends etc).

But the unpleasant sides can get really…unpleasant. Emotionally, different feelings can sometimes become easily triggered in otherwise mundane situations that might not have really mattered to you back home or in more familiar settings. Perhaps you’re feeling a sudden feeling of deep sadness and emptiness while you’re riding on a bus alone. Or maybe you’ve reacted with an uncharacteristically sudden outburst of frustration or irritability when the cashier tells you they’re out of ketchup for your fries. Or maybe you’re seriously confused what the heck is going on because one moment you’re feeling extremely excited at 11:01AM. Then, like a light switch, you suddenly feel quite sad at 11:02 AM.

Of course, other areas can indeed be quite different or unfamiliar, whether food, climate, social or cultural customs. These practical realities and unfamiliar cultural differences can definitely increase the degree of cultural shock you may experience from moving abroad.

But before you read on, please know this: it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.

And you’re definitely not alone. Believe it or not, feeling culture shock is fairly common. Even in this globally connected world, where you can learn Japanese and Sanskrit on Youtube or follow the foodie or gaming adventures of Koreans or Chinese mini-celebrities on Twitch, culture shock can still affect any of us.

Culture shock is a natural response of our human reaction to the familiar and unfamiliar experiences we encounter.

Of course, that doesn’t make living through it much easier. But becoming aware of what it is can make a big difference in how you cope with it.

Here’s one classic theory that can help you better understand it’s emotional ebbs and flows.

In 1955, sociologist, Sverre Lysgaard, came up with a visual understanding of how people adjusted to new cultures. Let’s take a closer look. The Academic Advisement Center for Missouri State University posts what this U-Curve looks like for their international students. Culture shock can involve feeling absolutely amazing (e.g. “honeymoon”) in the beginning, before quickly spiralling into feelings of “crisis”.

Image of graph curve describing the Culture Shock emotional process

Image via Academic Advisement Center, Missouri State University

So, with culture shock, you might feel anxiety, sadness about leaving home, frustrated with the new host country, and stressed about everything you have going on. There is a time of emotional “recovery” after that, and eventually, things settle down emotionally. In the “adjustment” period, the mood swings are less intense and more tolerable.

Obviously, each person’s situation is unique and diverse, and the U-Curve is not meant to be generalized in a cut-and-dry way. There are also more nuanced and detailed theories that have come up since Lysgaard’s work in 1955. I’ll talk more about those in other articles. But for starters, Lysgaard’s model can help you get started on seeing how culture shock might affect your emotional and mental health.

So why might this helpful?

Because whatever shape your experiences will take, moving to a new country can quite literally feel like an emotional rollercoaster. And better understanding that these mood swings are part of the process of moving can definitely impact your overall mental and emotional wellbeing.

Developing this awareness can equip you with the resilience and grit to better cope with culture shock, and even, if you wish to, thrive through it.

So what can you do to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally and protect your mental health?

Here are 6 Simple Tips to help you with culture shock:

1.) Let Yourself Grieve: Cherish the fond farewells.

Saying goodbye to family, friends, all that you’re familiar with (including your favourite cafe), is always tough. If you haven’t left yet, you’ll likely feel a mix of anxiety and sadness about leaving home. Some days, you might even wonder you’re going to lose your family and friends, especially if you’re quite close to them.  Obviously, you won’t. The ones who truly love you will always be there for you, if you’d like them to be. So definitely, cherish these memories, and keep them close to your heart and soul. And if you’re already in your new land, you know that they’re only a video call or text message away!

2.) Be Open & Celebrate: Treat it like an adventure.

Upon arriving in the new country, euphoria and adrenaline fills up your body and it feels like a brand new world! Embrace the excitement and adventure of learning about a new culture and making new friends. Celebrate what’s to come!

3.) Be Aware & Expect the Lows of Culture Shock: Pamper yourself.

At some point, you might find yourself feeling unhappy again. You miss everyone at home. Sometimes you feel confused, lonely, or quite homesick. Maybe you’re even feeling irritated about how home is so much better than this new country. When this happens, remember to pamper yourself. Perhaps go take a day trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. See that performance or play that you’ve always wanted to see. Check something off on your bucket list. If you like it laid back, feel free to just grab a new friend and binge-watch Netflix for the weekend. Whatever it is, it’s important to treat yourself to guilt-free indulgence.

4.) Connect with People at Home:

Keep your connections strong. Take proactive steps to connect with family and friends back home and maintain those connections. Try asking 3 trustworthy friends from home to commit to become “accountability” partners for you. This can be especially important on the days you feel really horrible and don’t feel like talking to anyone at all.  If you like, you can even give them special permission to talk to you on those days you’d rather isolate yourself. There’s a big difference between healthy solitude and social isolation. They also feel very different. So, do encourage yourself to recruit those powerful friends as your home support network while you’re away.

5.) Be Proactive About Self-Care: Build your own life.

The importance of self-care simply means this: the act of being kind and compassionate to yourself. In practice, it also means taking pro-active steps to build the life you’ve always wanted. For example, take up a new hobby, or decide to channel your energy to school, work, extracurricular activities, or campus clubs. Build and strengthen new friendships.

If you’re anything like me and quite enjoy time to yourself in solitude, then definitely make time for it. Or if you really need “you time”, schedule a week that’s free of commitments (e.g. Spring Break, or when school’s out) for a long holiday with yourself. So if you’d rather completely disappear for a week from social media and all human contact, then go for it. But make sure you tell your friends or family you’re doing this temporary disappearing act, so they won’t worry about you. Then you’ll prevent your inbox from a thousand messages wondering where you are.

6.) Keep Learning & Growing: Make the most of your experience.

In many ways, the attitude to learn and grow from your positive or challenging experiences is a choice. When things feel really tough, the idea of wanting to learn or grow in our situations can be the furthest thing from our minds. That’s certainly where your support network can come in handy.

Here’s one thing I like to do. On my better days, I’ll remember to research and post on my physical wall (or digital wall) sticky notes that can inspire me tomorrow, or for those particularly rainy days in life. Maybe I’ll even note down in my journal why I felt particularly good today compared to yesterday.  Those sticky notes might include inspirational quotes or positive affirmations that can encourage me. As for my journal reflections, they’re my own empowering words I can go back to as well.

Then when you’re ready, you can choose how much you’d like to learn or grow from this experience.

Be Kind To Yourself

Being in a new culture and country can be super exciting. Developing a deeper understanding of culture shock and a greater self-awareness of your own emotions and experiences can be powerfully beneficial. Building a practice of awareness and reflection can help you become even more appreciative of your new host culture’s positive traits and more accepting of those parts that feel frustrating for you.

Overall, be aware of culture shock, be prepared for the emotional tides that come and go and most importantly, be kind and compassionate to yourself always.

If you do, you’ll find yourself living as freely as you ever have.

If you’d like to learn more and speak to someone about your specific situation, please feel free to contact your local career centre or counselling clinic. Of course, if you’re still not sure where to start, you’re welcome to contact us and we’ll be happy to help out. 

No matter what, do feel free to consult your school counsellors or career centre abroad if you’d like someone to speak to about your situation.

 

References:

  1. “Culture Shock”. The Academic Advisement Center, Missouri State University.  https://www.missouristate.edu/advising/international/160467.htm
  2. Arthur, Nancy (2004). Show off your international experience. Natcon Papers. http://www.natcon.org/archive/natcon/papers/natcon_papers_2004_arthur.pdf
  3. Hart, W. (November 2011). InterculturalCom: Culture shock: Process of cultural adjustment. WilliamHartPHDS Notes Blog. http://williamhartphdsnotes.blogspot.com/2011/11/interculturalcom-culture-shock-process.html
  4. UK Council for International Student Affairs (2017, December). International students and culture shock. https://www.ukcisa.org.uk/Information–Advice/Preparation-and-Arrival/Facing-culture-shock
  5. University of Toronto, Student Life. Centre for Intercultural Experience. https://www.studentlife.utoronto.ca/cie/intercultural
  6. Goldsmiths, University of London. International Students Guide. https://www.gold.ac.uk/international/before-you-arrive

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