Adjusting to a New Culture
Adjusting to life in a different country is similar to other transitions, like moving to a new city or starting a new job, but with the added dimensions of adapting to cultural and language differences. Cultural adjustment takes time and involves a certain degree of coping with frustration, isolation, and other negative feelings. It's important to understand that this process is real and a normal part of the study abroad experience. Adjusting your new environment is a key driver of the personal development you'll experience during your time abroad.
Preparing to Live in a New Culture
Study up on your country
Research online, meet with study abroad alumni or foreign students from your host country, absorb media like movies, music, books, news, etc. to get a sense of your host culture and its attitudes, values, and beliefs. Learn the basics about the host country's politics, geography, history, religion, popular pastimes and sports, and so on. This shows your respect for the culture and helps you to be able to engage in conversations. You should be able to answer the following basic questions:
- Who are the current major political parties and figures?
- What religions/belief systems are currently prevalent?
- What are the current events in the country?
- Have any conflicts have occured recently? Was the U.S. involved in any way?
- What type of government exists?
- What are the current economic conditions?
- What degree of cultural diversity exists? (also with relation to immigration and refugee populations, etc.)
- What role does the U.S. have in local economy, politics, and culture?
You can use the following resources to find our the answers to these questions and learn more information:
- Read books, novels, short stories, poetry, etc. from your host country. Learn about the major literary figures and their works.
- Explore language readers and textbooks for cultural information.
- Read non-fiction books on history, geography, politics, etc.
- Seek out travel writing.
- Read local newspapers from the major cities of the world.
- The CIA World Factbook provides information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, and more for 267 world entites.
- StudentsAbroad.com handbooks focus on different countries.
- Look up maps of the country to have an understanding of where the major cities and other important geographical areas are located.
- What's Up With Culture? is an online cultural training resource for study abroad created by the University of the Pacific.
Learn the language
Learning the language will help you fit in and navigate your environment more easily. If you do not know the language, learn some before you go, even if your courses will be instructed in English. Find out about differences in body language, personal space, manners, . People will appreciate your attempts, and you will have a much richer experience if you can interact in more complex ways with people in your host country. You can begin by searching for videos and learning materials online, finding a tutor, or taking a class.
Stages of Cultural Adjustment
There are multiple stages of culture adjustment ranging between highs and lows. It's important to recognize that individuals may go through different stages at different times and experience each of them with different degrees of intensity. Remember that you won't be the only student abroad experiencing culture shock, and that experiencing culture shock doesn't imply any personal shortcomings. It also helps to maintain the perspective that study abroad is only a temporary experience. However, don't hesitate to reach out for help if you feel that you do need help. Your host program/university's staff, Rice Study Abroad, and Rice Wellbeing and Counseling Center are all available to provide support.
Stage 1: The "Honeymoon"
This stage is characterized by the excitement and anticipation of spending time in a new country mixed with the sadness of leaving family and friends. Everything seems different, new, and exciting. The language is different, the food is exciting, and you are eager to meet host country friends. Although you miss your family and friends, the novelty and excitement of experiencing a new setting outweigh those feelings.
Stage 2: Frustration/Cultural Confrontation
After about three to six weeks, the things you may begin to find frustrations withy certain things you initially found exciting. Your feelings can shift between extremes from positive to negative. Symptoms of culture shock can vary by individual. Some may demonstrate few or no symptoms during this phase; others may feel fatigued physically and emotionally because of things like trying to understand the language, customs, and unfamiliar daily tasks. Disappointment and irritability can set in. Homesickness and missing things like hearing English as well as familiar foods and conveniences may also contribute to feelings of discomfort.
Stage 3: Cultural Adjustment and Adaptation
Eventually you feel increasingly comfortable and competent in the culture. The minor frustrations that may have accumulated no longer seem to bother you as much. You've made friends and may feel that your language skills are beginning to develop. You start to look forward to further interactions in the host country and what you can learn throughout the remainder of your experience.
Stage 4: Acceptance
This stage occurs when the new culture feels less "new" and more like a second home. You are able to compare your host culture and your home culture and find things you prefer more or less about both. These differences are no longer a problem for you, but a source of richness. You appreciate both cultures and are able to critique both. You're able to live successfully in two different cultures. These are all skills and personal achievements that you can bring back home with you, and that can help you back at Rice and in your professional life.
Tips on How to Cope and Maximize your Experience Abroad
- Prepare to be flexible, open-minded, and a problem solver; these are some of the most crucial skills you'll use while abroad.
- Learn the language
- Create realistic expectations of what your academic and personal experiences will be like while abroad. Write down what you want to achieve on while abroad. Don't put off accomplishing these or other goals, like experiencing a cultural site or activity--study abroad goes by quickly.
- Record and reflect on your experience by keeping a journal or scrapbook, or by writing letters/postcards to yourself to send home. Journals can also be used to deal with frustrations. It can be helpful to write about smaller or more basic issues in a journal and sleep on them before you call home or act.
- Keep busy and get involved. Join a student group or club, or volunteer with an organization related to your interests. Resist withdrawing socially. Make a conscious effort to meet local peopld and avoid surrounding yourself with other Americans.
- Take care of yourself: Eat healthy, exercise and get enough rest.
- Share your experience with friends and family at home, such as by creating a blog or simply by staying in touch. However, it's best to avoid excessive contact with individuals back in the U.S.; it may be reassuring, but it may also inhibit your immersion into your country. Find a balance that works for you.
- Avoid being judgmental and respect the customs and opinions of people you meet. Remember that you are a visitor and guest; you're going abroad to learn about a new culture, not to change it.