Culture Shock

Most students, regardless of maturity, disposition, previous experience abroad, or knowledge of the country in which they will be living, experience some degree of culture shock. Culture shock is a term used to describe some of these more pronounced reactions to spending an extended period of time in a culture  different from your own. Culture shock can be characterized by periods of frustration, adjustment, and even depression. The worst homesickness often occurs two to three months after students leave home, frequently arriving just in time for the holidays (for fall or academic year students).

Not everyone will experience culture shock. However if you do, it is helpful to be able to recognize when it occurs so you will understand what is really happening. The following breakdown of the four stages of cultural adaptation will help you recognize the process as it happens.

Honeymoon Phase

Adjustment to a new culture tends to occur in stages. Initially, there is a honeymoon phase. A student is in a new country, and everything is exhilarating and exciting. Perhaps they 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, a student may even see more of the similarities between the host country and the U.S. than the differences.

Irritability and Hostility

After the first couple of weeks, the initial excitement might pass and a student may begin to confront the deeper differences in their new location. Maybe he or she will be tired of the food or struggling with the language. Maybe the university seems incomprehensible and bureaucratic. Maybe he or she will be tired of long commutes whenever going somewhere. Maybe everything is much more expensive than the student originally anticipated. Or perhaps things are less expensive, but not of the quality or variety that is customary at home. The initial enthusiasm has drifted away and the student has entered the stage of irritability and hostility. Worse, a student may just feel like he or she doesn't really belong.

Gradual Adjustment

Be patient. Almost always, the initial struggles will disappear with time and a student will experience a stage of gradual adjustment. A sense of humor will reappear. Things that seemed strange or just inconvenient will gradually become familiar. A student will be able to function more easily within the culture. When contacting home, the participant will begin sharing the enjoyable experiences with you again.

Adaptation or Biculturalism

Lastly, there is the stage of adaptation or biculturalism. A student has managed to retain his or her own cultural identity but recognizes the right of other cultures to retain theirs. The participant has a better understanding of him or herself and others, and can communicate easily and convey warmth and understanding across the cultural barriers.