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Culture Shock for International Students

Written by Ross Mason

Coming to a new country can be disorienting and overwhelming. Whether you are studying in a country with the same first language as your own or not, assimilating to a new culture comes with many difficulties. One of the dangers of being an international student is experiencing “culture shock.”

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock describes the anxiety that a person experiences when he or she moves from a familiar culture to an entirely new culture or social environment. It occurs when the language, gestures, customs, signs and symbols that you are used to and previously helped you to make such of your surrounding suddenly have no meaning or have new meanings. Perhaps most upsetting is the loss of social support system (family, friends, classmates, coworkers), and the necessity of 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
  • Preoccupation with health
  • Aches, pains, allergies
  • Insomnia or excessive sleep
  • Changes in mood, depression, feeling vulnerable
  • Anger, irritability, resentment
  • Frequent frustration
  • Being easily angered
  • Loss of identity
  • Lack of confidence
  • Obsessions over cleanliness
  • Longing for family
  • Feeling of being lost or overlooked

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 partially apply to you. The stages are:

  1. The Honeymoon Stage
    During this stage, everything about the new culture is exciting to you. You are optimistic and will generally focus on the positive aspects of your new home. You will study your 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 Stage
    This 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, and depressed, and miss familiar supports.
  3. The Reintegration Stage
    During this stage, you may begin to compare the new culture unfavorably with your home culture. You might begin to reject the differences you encounter, and experience feelings of anger, frustration, and hostility towards the new culture. You might seek out comfort feed from your home country in an attempt to reconnect with what you value about yourself and your own culture.
  4. The Acceptance Stage
    During 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 become enjoyable.

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 home by email, text, telephone, or Skype.
  • 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.
  • Include a regular form of physical activity in your routine.
  • Links with a faith community is helpful to some students. Many chaplaincies welcome students of all faiths for pastoral or social activities.
  • Maintain contact with your ethnic group and with local students.
  • 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.
  • Maintain confidence in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future.
  • If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you.
  • Maintain a sense of humor. Be able to laugh at yourself and at the predicaments you get into.
  • Resist the temptation to constantly disparage your host country. Begin to consciously look for logical reasons for anything in the United States that seems strange, confusing, or threatening. There is a reason why Americans do things differently than people do in your country.

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