W is for...What is culture shock?

Peace and love on the year abroad by Marshall Astor

This article was written by Kim Marshall & Steven Goodman, published on 28th December 2010 and has been read 37489 times.

Culture shock affects people in all sorts of situations. However, it is deeply felt by students on the year abroad - whether it’s adjusting at the very start to your new surroundings, getting to know the locals, coming back home to notice things aren’t quite the same as when you left them, going back out there, still struggling with the language more than 3 months in...Though you can find articles on culture shock to do with specific countries, here are some tell-tell signs and general advice on how to cope.
Research by the University of Minnesota, in the United States, has suggested that culture shock manifests itself in a ‘W curve’. Essentially, this is to do with your moods peaking at the beginning, only to shoot down after the first few steps, and repeating this pattern over your time abroad. Essentially, the steps you might go through are as follows:

1) Excitement
This stage starts even before you get to your year abroad destination - you might have just been accepted on your work abroad placement, your first choice of foreign university might have come back to you with an offer, or you might have secured some accommodation. You’ll get to your chosen destination and you’ll meet loads of people in the same boat as - sweet as a nut, you’ll be thinking. 

How to cope: What with all these new faces, new places and foreign parties, it’s still quite common for people to get the blues, thinking back on life left back home. Making and keeping friends abroad can seem a little overwhelming - why not read Gina’s ideas, here.

2) The shock of being abroad
What? No fresh milk?! What the hell is up with the metro system here, we hear you cry. As well as joining groups and finding other students from your home country to have a little rant with, you’re going to have to face up to the (foreign) music, and it’s not looking too pretty. The reality of having moved away will start to kick in, you’ll have to cope with continental kissing (is it one kiss or two?)...But joking and flirting aside, this really can feel like a bit of a mine field, and it’s hard to find people to turn to. Frustration with new systems, both working or studying abroad, is a feeling that is felt by many - you’ll have to adjust to situations out there, and readjust home relationships, too, with your university, your friends and your family. 

How to cope: First things first, you need to look at the funny side of things - many students start a blog, write a journal or find a society of their interest, to vent out some of their spleen. It also helps to take each day/week as it comes and not stress too much about what’s on your plate. Remember, it’s early days yet, and with every hurdle, you’ll learn something new - be it a word, a task or a way of doing things, it’s all part and parcel of the learning curve that is the year abroad. It won’t be easy to start with, but you’ll soon get the hang of things, it’s just a question of being persistent. And not persistently moaning.

3) Adjusting to your new found ways
Hey, it’s like it’s January and you’ve got all these New Year’s resolutions that you’ve actually stuck to! You’re starting to understand this weird and wonderful foreign land, the bread does actually taste better and of course it’s normal to put a good dollop of [insert condiment] on everything! Overcoming the initial cultural shock brings out a sense of well-being, nay, euphoria, as you’ll be carving out new routines, holding new friendships and really enjoying your life abroad.

How to cope: Though you’re now finding your feet, you need to also think about how to best spend your time to improve your language and skills. Though it may seem tempting to go to the pub with all the rest of the Erasmus lot tonight, like last night and the night before, try and also do some activities with locals. Sign up for new courses, even if it just one evening a week, or go out and travel - you never know what may come about at the end of your stay, so if there’s somewhere you’re dying to go, do it now!

4) Feeling alone and making comparisons
Though, by now, you will have become used to your new surroundings, you might still dip into some form of homesickness, as you’ll be comparing your new life and habits to those you had back home. If there’s a holiday break in between your first few months out there, going home might actually exacerbate your feelings, as you’ll be comparing home life to your new life abroad, and you’ll also notice that life back home has changed, too. You might feel out of the loop, like you’re missing out and none of your close pals and family will understand what you’re going through. Feeling caught between two lives, as it were, is quite normal, as you might not feel at home in either place. Feelings of your values/beliefs being challenged by these new situations are in actual fact quite commonplace.

How to cope: You need to learn to adapt your values/ way of living to your new surroundings. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side, despite what the Anchor adverts portray back home. By all means enjoy your holidays back home, but don’t look to them as a way of escaping your year abroad - you are merely recharging your batteries. Keep ties with your friends abroad when you’re coming back to your home university, or parents’ home, as this will allow you to maintain ties and know what’s going on abroad. And look forward to joining in on the fun.

5) The final hurdle
As you’ll get more and more involved with university/working life, you’ll start to build real connections and relationships around you. You’ll get to know staff more in depth, and thus be able to build on rapport, making you more at ease with your surroundings. With habit and familiarity, you will start to hold a more balanced view of the foreign culture you have put yourself in. You might be less in touch with parents and friends back home, as you will be busy with your life out there. Generally speaking, this is the point of acceptance and integration on the year abroad.

How to cope: You’re already coping! This is the point when you’ll feel at ease abroad, and might even find it more to be like home than home itself...Don’t forget, if you’re splitting your year abroad to look into the next part of your year. If you’re staying put, relax and enjoy, but don’t just stick your new found comfort zone - try out other things (places, foods, interests) too!

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