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Culture Shock for International Students

Coming to a new country can be exciting, but also disorienting and overwhelming. Whether you already speak the native language or not, assimilating to a new culture comes with many difficulties. One of the difficulties an international student can experience is “culture shock.”

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock describes the anxiety that a person experiences when they move from a familiar culture into an entirely new culture or social environment. It occurs when the language, gestures, customs, signs and symbols that you are accustomed to suddenly shift. Perhaps the most jarring is the loss of your social support system (family, friends, classmates, coworkers) that necessitates starting all over again in an unfamiliar environment.

Typical Symptoms of Culture Shock

Some of the symptoms associated with culture shock include:
  • Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
  • Aches, pains, allergies
  • Fatigue, lethargy
  • Insomnia or excessive sleep
  • Changes in mood, feeling vulnerable
  • Anger, irritability, resentment
  • Frequent frustration, hyperirritability
  • Being easily angered
  • Loss of identity
  • Lack of confidence
  • Negative feelings towards your host culture
  • Obsessions over cleanliness
  • Longing for family
  • Feeling of being lost or overlooked
  • Depression (many symptoms overlap with those listed above)
  • Anxiety (many symptoms overlap with those listed above)

Stages of Culture Shock

Most people experience culture shock in stages. Some people go through the stages of this process multiple times, and some may only experience some of them. The stages are as follows:

  1. The Honeymoon StageDuring this stage, everything about the culture is exciting to you. You are optimistic and will generally focus on the positive aspects of your new home. You will study your potential new language with enthusiasm and make great progress. During this stage, memories of home are still recent and form a kind of protective shield.
  2. The Disintegration StageThis stage can be triggered without warning by a small incident or by no cause at all. You will start to view cultural differences as a source of conflict. You might feel isolated, confused, depressed, and miss familiar support systems.
  3. The Reintegration StageDuring this stage, you may begin to compare the new culture unfavorably with your home culture. You might begin to resent the differences you encounter, and experience feelings of anger, frustration, and hostility towards the new culture. You might seek out sources of comfort from your home country such as familiar food or customs in an attempt to reconnect with what you value about yourself and your own culture.
  4. The Acceptance StageDuring this stage, you will learn to accept both differences and similarities between your home culture and the new one. You will become more relaxed and confident while you become more familiar with new situations, and more experiences will become enjoyable.

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How Long Does Culture Shock Last?

Sometimes the symptoms of culture shock last just a few days, but more often they last weeks or even months. It may seem like your friends adjust easily while you are suffering. Multiple factors affect the degree to which you might be affected, such as your pre-departure expectations, coping skills, and past experience living abroad.

Dealing with Culture Shock

  • Remind yourself that what you are experiencing is normal.
  • Stay in touch with people from home by email, text, telephone, or video call, or sending postcards and letters.
  • Make a list of things you want to do/things you are excited about
  • Be prepared to take the first step and find activities which will give you a common interest with other students.
  • Check out what is on at the Students’ Union and its societies.
  • Include a regular form of physical activity in your routine.
  • Surround yourself with familiar things with personal meaning, such as photos or ornaments.
  • Try to find familiar food if you can. Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Finding a faith community is helpful to some students. If you cannot find the particular religious space you are looking for, many chaplaincies welcome students of all faiths for pastoral or social activities.
  • Maintain contact with your ethnic group and with local students.
  • If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you.
  • Do your best to keep a sense of humor. It’s healthy to be able to laugh at yourself and at the predicaments you get into.
  • Resist the temptation to constantly disparage your host country, and try to keep an open mind.
  • Try to stay confident in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future.

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