The United States of America is known as the land of opportunity. It is no wonder that so many people across the globe wish to be part of the American Dream. Studying abroad in the U.S. is an ambitious opportunity that can very well prove to be the turning point of your life. State-of-the-art institutes, multicultural communities, access to high-quality education and lifestyle are reason enough to make the United States your next destination.
But no matter how exhilarating it is to call the U.S. your home, for first timers, the cultural experience may come as a bit of a shock. It is not just in those first moments of finding yourself in a foreign country that you will feel the shock. There would be so many new things to absorb in your new environments, it could leave you feeling more unsettled than before.
So, what is a culture shock? How do international students cope with it? Let’s find out.
Everything You Need to Know About Culture Shock
Believe it or not, social scientists have studied the repercussions of culture shock for centuries now. It is not just a feeling of homesickness anymore. Many researchers around the world have taken up studies to see the effect of cross-cultural adaptations of international students.
The term “culture shock” was first coined in 1954 by Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. He identified four stages of cultural adjustment that people go through when they are adapting to a new environment. But more on that later. First, let’s understand what constitutes culture shock.
According to Oberg, culture shock is “the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.” The Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”
In simpler terms, culture shock is a series of emotional reactions that are triggered when you are in unfamiliar terrain, facing new social norms. It happens when you can no longer depend on your familiar traditions to see you through social situations. It is a common and completely normal phenomenon that happens to almost anyone who travels abroad. What’s more, you can easily manage the distress it causes with a few well-guided steps. The important thing is to be aware of how it is affecting your day-to-day interactions.
Culture Shock Stages: Its Effects and Influence
Oberg identified four stages of cultural adaptations. They are:
- The Honeymoon Stage – where you will be excited about the new place, but your involvement will be superficial, like a traveler passing by.
- The Culture Shock Stage – where you will be irritated and frustrated by the gap between your home culture and the new culture.
- The Gradual Adjustment Stage – where you might occasionally make fun of your host culture, but gradually have a better understanding and respect for it. This is perhaps the toughest part of the process, since it will have many high and low points.
- The Adaptation Stage – where you are no longer adversely affected by differences in culture and social expectations. By this stage, you will be participating in social interactions intentionally and with purpose.
Culture shock can deeply impact your wellbeing, without you being aware of the cause behind it. It is important to know the symptoms so you can identify them if they arise in you. Some of the typical symptoms of culture shock are:
- Depression, anxiety, or general melancholy
- Feeling of homesickness
- Low confidence
- Loss of identity
- Insomnia or sleep disorder
- Sudden and frequent mood change
How to Deal with Culture Shock?
There are many ways to combat culture shock. With a little bit of common sense and practical advice, you can easily manage the repercussions of culture shock.
- Research your host country well in advance before your visit. Read travel forums and guidebooks, join the community page of your college. Know what to expect, especially in terms of your course structure, social engagements, community service, etc.
- Make as many new friends and connections as possible. Strike up conversations with not just other international students. but also with local American students.
- Don’t isolate yourself from others. It will only make matters worse. All of us are social beings. Researches have shown that socializing cannot just elevate your mood, it also sharpens your cognitive skills and increases your sense of well-being.
- Get involved with some community-based activity. If possible, continue with an activity you were used to back home. It could be anything, from visiting a church to playing sports. This will give you a sense of continuity and comfort.
- Talk to your friends about how you feel. Let them share their views. There is a tremendous sense of comfort to be found in shared experiences.
Final Words of Advice
We are not born with a culture. We inherit it from our parents, our traditions, and the society we grow up in. Our values, belief-system, behaviors, and world-views are all vastly influenced by our native culture. Growing up, we take comfort in the common thread that binds us to our family, friends, and peers. We even take pride in them because it is known, familiar and it doesn’t challenge us anymore. But real evolution begins at the doorstep of the unknown.
It is only when you are ready to spread your wings and fly into an unfamiliar stretch of the world that you truly discover your potential. Challenging yourself with new ideologies, beliefs and traditions will open you up to all the possibilities of life.
The U.S. has several support mechanisms in place for international students suffering from culture shock. Generally, your first point of support will be your university administrators. They are responsible for organizing student orientation programs to get you familiar with your surroundings. Your university will also have trained therapists in case you feel the need for counseling. You can also take advantage of mental health services if provided by your health insurance.
Apart from these usual avenues, look towards your friends and peer group for support. Not only will they be able to help you cope, but you will also be fostering lifelong relationships that you can cherish. Always keep an open mind when traveling abroad. You don’t need to accept different world-views; you only need to understand them. Above all, stop trying too hard and go with the flow. The more you try to fit in, the more you will feel like a square peg in a round hole. Allow yourself time to adjust to your new environment.
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