Study-abroad veteran Renatha Lussa explains what is meant by ‘culture shock’ and how to cope when you encounter it.
Going to live abroad is an exciting experience that requires preparation. I am not talking about technical issues such as how many pairs of socks you should bring with you. I am talking about the big preparation, the one that is essential to making your experience rich and positive. Before you go, get prepared to experience culture shock.
Some of you may say "Culture shock? Not for me. Where I'm going is only an hour's flight from home."
It is true that the degree of difference in one's own and the host culture is important, but this is not the only variable. And let's not forget that the concept of culture can also be used for an organization, institution or a group. As a result, even a simple reorganization may generate culture shock.
So, what is culture shock? Well, it's a mix of emotions. Feelings of loss, confusion, stress, anxiety and impotence that comes from both the challenge of new cultural surroundings and from the loss of a familiar cultural environment.
In my experience, culture shock can be divided into four stages:
1. The Honeymoon
"Oh, this is wonderful. Let's go there. Amaaazing!" You are obviously excited and have an idealised view of the new culture. Anxiety and stress may be present but your general euphoria overtakes them.
Karim Sanaz, is an Iranian student at Uppsala University in Sweden. He remembers that when he arrived in Sweden everything seemed really different from his homeland. "I actually didn't feel any sense of belonging. To me it was more like watching a beautiful movie without being part of it."
2. The Crisis Phase
"I am tired. No one understands me. I want to go home!" This could be something you would say just before you kick the closet with your bare foot. Reality is back.
This phase occurs anywhere from the first two weeks to several months. Some of these differences you found so "amaaazing" in the first place, start to really get on your nerves. Perhaps you are struggling to make yourself understood by locals, you feel like a child; confused and tired.
3. The Adjustment Phase
You are still here. Well done. Understanding, acceptance and adaptation is key now. In this phase you will start to face new challenges in a positive way.
You will finally understand the new culture is different, accept it as it is and start to adapt your values, personality and behaviour to the host culture.
4. The Resolution Phase
"This is home guys!" You have developed your routine and the efforts you put in place in the previous stage are now imperceptible. You are stable emotionally and you feel comfortable.
Clarisse Mergen is currently studying a master's degree in Canada. She arrived in Montreal three months ago and already feels like she's in the resolution phase. "I've learned new behaviors that are now automatic reflexes, like waste recycling. I am also now more curious about the country's politics and the way institutions work."
Coping with culture shock
First of all, congratulations! You've just passed the first step that leads to the resolution. Indeed, now you know more about culture shock, you will be able to identify it when it happens.
If you feel tired, if you are emotionally sensitive, if you are critical of the culture, if you want to go home then you will know it is a normal reaction and you should not give up. Just understand, accept and adapt. Easy to say, I know. So here are some more tips for you.
- Before you go, read some books about the place where you will be staying. This will help you develop more realistic expectations and will involve you even more in the project.
- Cover your basic needs and ensure your security is met. Choose a safe area to live in, ensure your budget is under control, bring any medication you may need with you, as well as your earplugs if you are sensitive to noise.
- You can also create a sense of safety and reassurance by bringing familiar items with you. Mergen admits: "I brought some pictures of my friends and family - as well as my teddy bear! It actually helped me feel at home at the beginning of my stay."
- Keep in touch with home by using MSN, Facebook, Skype, blogs, telephone and post - you are spoiled for choice! It may be difficult sometimes to keep a relationship going only by email, so do pick up your phone from time to time, it really makes the difference.
- In times of instability, a feeling for your own culture when abroad is always comforting - speaking your own language, eating typical food, reading a newspaper from home. But be careful not to overdo these tricks, as they can be a way of resisting the change. Sanaz recommends that foreigners don't spend too much time with their own community. "Try to tackle the language barrier as early as possible. It might be difficult at the beginning, but it is rewarding," he says.
- Maintain a network of people you love, you trust and who will give you confidence when you feel unsettled. If you are a fan of rugby or cinema, join a club. This is generally a good way to meet local people in a relaxed atmosphere. If you are not a fan of anything in particular then try something new and why not, something local: beach volley in Brazil, calligraphy in China, Bollywood dance in India. And don't forget charities and volunteering opportunities, which can be a great way to feel part of a local community.
Now you should be more equipped to face culture shock if it happens. Indeed, some people don't feel it at all, others feel it strongly. The intensity of culture shock depends on so many factors that you can't really generalize. But at least you are aware of it, and you'll know you're not the only one feeling this way!
Finally, make the most of this experience and wherever you are in the world, have fun!