Studying Abroad? If you’ve decided to pursue international university studies, it’s likely that one of your objectives is to gain an appreciation of the new culture in which you will interact. For some, the shock of culture absorption may be overwhelming. It’s natural and common for any traveler to experience a bit of anxiety in exploring the unknown, but the key for any study abroad student is to transform that culture shock into a cultural adventure!
Embrace the New and Unusual
In many cases, the country in which you’ve chosen to study will be vastly dissimilar from the one in which you’re accustomed. One may experience differences in language, cuisine, mode of transportation, style of dress, music, and a host of other concepts. The important thing to remember: diversity is the reason you chose to study abroad in that particular country. So, embrace the new and the unusual, get your fingers sticky with it. Before long, what feels strange will become familiar.
Ride the Emotional Wave
The mix of emotions you experience may include loss, fatigue, stress, anxiety, and confusion. Some degree of culture shock is inevitable, and the range of emotions at any given time typically transition through four stages:
- the honeymoon stage
- the frustration phase
- the depression/isolation stage, and
- the adjustment and acceptance phase
Awareness of these stages may help alleviate the issue, and may provide a smoother path to the final stage. As long as one lives the cultural transition fully, rather than resists this normal phenomenon, the experience will feel much more positive, much sooner.
Remember, what you will learn and make your own will soon become a part of you, a worldliness to your character that you will always carry with you. Embrace the adventure, and you may learn to speak a new language. You might add an entire play list of ethnic music that comforts or drives you. You might enhance your wardrobe with a style of dress you might never have considered. Hopping onto a subway, or biking, may even become your primary mode of transport when you return home, a practice you might have never tried had you not been exposed to it elsewhere. The novelty of the adventure will soon become your reality, and you’ll reap the lifelong benefits of embracing it.
Know Before You Go, and Ease into the Adventure
Learn the language now, and later. Sign up for local, short-term language immersion classes, or longer-term classroom study to enhance conversation in your host country. There are also a number of home computer programs, like Rosetta Stone, and apps, like Duolingo, Babel and iTranslate, that will assist preparation for the trip, and aid assimilation once arrived.
Learn the culture, and use it before you go. Practice cooking the local fare or visit restaurants that serves that country’s cuisine. Listen to the host country’s popular music. Live stream the host country’s popular TV shows. Research the lesser known historic and artistic gems, and become well versed in the popular ones before arrival. Involvement and practice of the host country’s customs and practical life before you go will better your chances of achieving a higher comfort level, sooner, once you arrive.
Chat on-line with study abroad students who’ve been through the process and have studied or are studying in the host country, for advice that might range from packing, traveling, and coping with homesickness, all the way to ideas for places to eat, visit, or shop. There are many public on-line forums where international students gather and provide advice, as well as private group chats among those students traveling through a school community.
When you Get There, Achieve a Balance
When you get there, where the goal is to embrace the adventure, it’s also important to stay true to one’s self.
- Try new cuisine on a regular basis, but when you’re feeling blue, offset it with a visit to your favorite fast-food chain or cook up something that you’d normally fix at home.
- Pick up a local trinket or don clothing that reflects the local custom, but take some time to revel in the items you bring from home, like photos, a teddy bear, or a favorite sweater.
- Attend music performances that typically reside outside your genre, but keep your favorite tunes plugged in on your way to class.
- Learn to bike ride through traffic or hillsides, but walk or grab a taxi when the mood moves you.
- Join a club or volunteer to become a part of the society around you, but feel free to kick back with a newspaper about home.
In other words, when most of the day or evening is spent tackling something brand new and outside your comfort zone, be sure to balance the challenge with a taste of home – your transition will be smoother and less intimidating. You’ll be more likely to look forward to the next challenge, rather than resist it if you allow yourself an occasional taste of your own culture.
Get by with a Little Help from Your Friends and Family
Don’t underestimate the power of companionship. Whether you seek the tutelage of a professor, the commonality of a roommate with a similar background, or even a brand new group of classmates, it’s important to stay connected. Share your experiences, and you just might learn a few things. Also, meeting locals is a great way to immerse in the culture, and they may end up friends in which to visit or correspond long after you’ve returned home, or otherwise contacts in which to network should you extend your stay.
Finally, stay in touch with those back home. They will boost your morale, and keep you grounded during those times when you’re a little tired of spreading your wings. Upon return, sharing your adventure will be more meaningful if others have stayed abreast of your ongoing activity while you’re away.
All in all, international studies provides many benefits, including exposure to an entirely different culture. Often times, culture shock may hinder a student’s opportunity to fully appreciate all that their host country has to offer. Live it fully, don’t resist the mix of emotions. Learning to transform culture shock into a “cultural adventure” will ensure that you will benefit most from this rewarding experience.
Author Gina Fava studied abroad in Rome, Italy during college. Much of her suspense thriller, THE SCULPTOR, is based on her “cultural adventure.” The mysterious serial killer in her story is entirely fictional, or so she says. Learn more at www.GinaFava.com.