Adjusting to a New Culture
Nearly everyone goes through an adjustment when starting a new job or moving to a new city, so adjusting to a new culture and country is like other transitions, but a little more difficult because of the culture and language differences.
Being able to adjust to your new environment and culture is perhaps one of the most important facets of your experience abroad. Not only will your cross-cultural adjustment help your learning and development in the new country, it will make your international life more rewarding and interesting.
Remember, it is totally normal to experience some challenges and frustrations-the key is to recognize them and make efforts to work through them. There are multiple stages of culture shock, and not everyone goes through each of them at the same time or with the same intensity. It is important to remember that these stages may occur repeatedly; however, the intensity will diminish as time goes by.
STAGES OF CULTURE SHOCK
Stage 1 - Cultural Euphoria.
This is the starting point, both as you prepare for your experience abroad and upon your arrival. Everything is new and exciting. You enjoy the differences you are finding. Although you miss your friends from last year, the novelty and excitement of experiencing a new environment outweigh the loss. This stage seems pleasant enough, but there are some drawbacks. You tend to see the culture through rose-colored glasses, and your interpretations aren't necessarily realistic. You also focus more on all the visible aspects of the culture (e.g. food, scenery, clothing) and are ignoring the more complex and less obvious cultural aspects. In addition, you tend to focus on similarities rather than differences in the early stage of the visit.
Stage 2 - Cultural Confrontation
One to four months after you arrive, the newness wears off; and you will feel frustrated. Your feelings can shift from very positive to extremely negative. You may view both the home and host cultures in unrealistic terms. One is superior while the other is lacking. This is because everything that you used to do with relative ease back home appears more difficult due to the culture and/or language. Homesickness may also contribute to your feelings of discomfort. You feel discouraged and begin to doubt whether you can learn the language or adjust to the culture. Despite these feelings, you are making critical progress in expanding your cross-cultural awareness. Whether or not you are aware of it, you are developing your own strategies for coping with cultural differences. This is the stage known as 'culture shock.' There are steps you can take to make a smooth transition through this stage.
How to Cope with Stage 2
Stage 3 - Cultural Adjustment and Adaptation
You are starting to feel at home. You feel increasingly comfortable and competent in the culture. You start to look forward to further interactions in the host country and what you can learn throughout the remainder of your experience.
Undergoing culture shock is in itself a learning experience, and you should take advantage of it. It is a way of sensitizing yourself to another culture at a level that goes beyond the intellectual and rational. Once you have gone through the uncomfortable stages of psychological adjustment, you will be in a much better position to fully appreciate the cultural differences that exist.
The intensity and process of passing through the stages of culture shock vary depending on the characteristics of the individual, the host country and the program. Some study abroad students may experience few changes while others may be more aware of major differences. One major factor that slows down your adjustment to the new environment is excessive contact with family and friends back home or on the home campus. Constant e-mail and phone contact with friends and family in the US may be reassuring but it will also keep you from learning about a new environment and making new friends. We suggest you limit your communication to a few hours one day a week and spend the rest of the week living your new life.
Try to bond as much as you can with other people besides the ones you are coming with from NOLA, and I guarantee you that you'll have a great experience, i.e. I was the only one coming from Loyola this semester so I was forced to bond with the Spanish kids. Now, I have a bunch of friends and I'm trying to get them to come abroad to LOYNO.
If I had known the importance of the language before hand, I would have at least learned the basics. (Catalan) Even though it will be very tempting to go out to the places Americans go, try to do what locals do. Go to their bars, parks, etc. There are always wonderful places that may not be so visible to the nonlocals. Make an effort to find them and socialize with locals. It will pay off.
Photo by Megan Rohrer