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Cultural Adjustment & Exploration

Living and learning overseas successfully usually means adjustment to a different lifestyle, food, climate, and time zone, often accompanied by the necessity of learning to communicate in a foreign language. This process is never easy and can include mood swings alternating between heady exhilaration and mild depression. In the early weeks, you will probably feel excited about your new experiences and environment. Soon, you may find the excitement of new surroundings and sensations increasingly replaced by frustration with how different things are from home.

Culture Shock. This frustration and confusion is usually called 'culture shock.' Variations of culture shock can affect even experienced travelers and is considered a natural (and perhaps even essential) part of adjusting to a foreign culture. Symptoms can include depression, sleeping difficulties, homesickness, trouble concentrating, an urge to isolate yourself, and irritation with your host culture.

Even if you are used to being away from your family, you may still have problems. After all, you are now away from everything that's familiar. There are numerous ways to combat your feelings of disorientation until they pass (as they usually do):

  • Learn as much as possible from local residents about their culture.
  • Keep in touch with other American students. If you are directly enrolled in a foreign university, find out if there is a local hangout for American students. It can sometimes be helpful to meet with them and share experiences. Avoid letting these become gripe sessions, however.
  • Keep yourself busy doing things you enjoy. When you have free time, visit museums, go to movies, and tour local sites of interest.
  • Keep in touch with your family and friends at home. Letters, phone calls, or e-mail contact will make you feel less isolated.
  • Try to keep your long-range goals in mind. Experiencing a new culture will inevitably involve some frustration and feelings of loneliness as you leave the familiar and incorporate the new, but they don't last forever. Don't overdo any of the preceding suggestions or you risk never making the adjustments to your new environment which are requisite to your purposes for being overseas. In sum, since there is almost no way to avoid culture shock completely, you should try to accept it as something everyone goes through. Keep in mind that students returning from study abroad often describe working their way through culture shock as a necessary maturing experience, something that provided insight into their own cultural assumptions. You can ease your transition by recognizing the factors that cause culture shock and taking steps to minimize them.

For most students, the symptoms of culture shock wane after the first few weeks or months, as they begin to understand their host culture better. However, if you find that feelings of irritability and depression linger, you may need help from a doctor or counselor. Your program director or the international students office at your host university should be able to direct you to counseling or support organizations.