Can you remember the first time you went to camp as a child? The first night away from home? Those first few days without your parents?
That feeling, of being homesick, is somewhat like the initial experience of culture shock. Most expatriated persons, international students included, go through a cycle that is completely normal and transitory. Going abroad on vacation is exciting yet filled only with immediate pleasures. Moving to another country and culture for several years may be a whole different experience. International students should prepare themselves for some natural obstacles and frustrations: culture shock is almost inevitable.
Culture shock is a term used to describe the group of symptoms that are produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. It expresses a lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, of not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. The feeling generally sets in after the first few weeks of arriving to a new place and it may include emotions such as sadness, loneliness, preoccupation with one’s health, insomnia, a desire to sleep too much or too little and changes in temperament. For some it can culminate in depression, a lack of confidence feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless. It can produce anger, irritability, resentment and an unwillingness to interact with others or the new culture before them.
Research shows that most people follow similar patterns and timelines when moving into a new culture. The first few months are considered to be ‘the honeymoon period.’ During this initial stage, one all tend to be in awe of the new country they live in. Everything looks amazing and attractive. Our brain is stimulated by the novelty as students busy themselves settling in and taking care of initial survival issues of arranging basic needs in our new place. In those months we can become infatuated with everything around us and a sense of euphoria can accompany our lives as we explore new and exciting adventures.
The second stage – the so-called ‘frustration period’ – is undoubtedly the hardest. After several months in a new culture, and after having settled in and taken care of basic needs, most people will feel a gradual sense of fatigue and disorientation. It is during this stage that the aforementioned symptoms appear strongly and they can be disruptive to normal life. The novelty wears off, the excitement subsides and a feeling of “What am I doing here?” can sink in, heavy and persistent. It is during this two- or three-month period that most people begin to experience a sense of homesickness and longing to the familiar: loved people, favorite food, norms, routines, places, holidays, language, entertainment and so forth.
At this stage, obstacles set in. Some are created by, for instance, not understanding small gestures, signs, the language or slang. Miscommunication can be a frequent problem. Small things – such as losing one’s keys, missing the bus or not being able to easily order food in a restaurant – may trigger anger and frustration. Not being clear on the laws, social customs and norms of your adopted country, or finding it hard to create social networks and make friends can deepen the isolation. Missing out on many subtle aspects of your adopted culture – from interaction cues to the meaning of a holiday – may create a strong sense of alienation and a tendency to idealise one’s homeland, painting as negative everything in the new culture that surrounds them.
This juncture goes to the heart of a person’s identity and it’s a tipping point in the adaptation process: resolving the conflict in a positive manner will lead to a successful experience and the ability to continue to thrive in a new culture. From that point on, trust should develop between the person and his/her new environment.
Adjustment and acceptance
The third stage, ‘the adjustment period,’ is characterised by gaining more and more understanding of one’s new culture, achieving balance and harmony. A new feeling of pleasure and a sense of humour may be experienced. One may start to feel a certain psychological wellbeing. You may not feel as lost, and may start to have a clearer notion of direction. By now, you are more familiar with the environment and want to belong, to fit in. This is a period when friendships are consolidated, social circles are defined and a sense of belonging becomes truly real. It also initiates an evaluation of the old ways versus those of the new.
The final stage is ‘the acceptance period,’ which is normally achieved within the first year and is the stage of ultimate balance and the sign of a healthy adaptation. This is a stage of maturity when one realises that all cultures have positive and negative aspects, advantages and disadvantages and a whole range of diversities amongst them. The most beautiful realisation is that one can be a part of many cultures simultaneously.
Tackling culture shock
So what can you do to minimise the impact of culture shock?
The first and most important thing is to realise that this cycle is a normal reaction, one that happens to everyone. Embrace the changes with an open mind and can-do attitude. Accept that incorporating a new culture into your life does not mean erasing your old one. We can all be multicultural. Educate yourself about your new country and culture, reach out, form roots and support networks. Be flexible and train yourself to function in ambiguous environments. Seek help when you need it and do not isolate yourself. Recognise the sorrow of leaving your old country behind but accept the new country. Focus your power on getting through the transition. Find groups of people who are in the same boat, for example through international student clubs on campus.
I’d like to close this column with a comment from an international student: “I thought that moving to a different country for a couple of years wouldn’t be a big deal in the long run. I thought I could easily go back to the status quo once my adventuring was over. But those years are your life, and they cannot be compartmentalised. You will grow and make mistakes, discover surprising things about yourself that you didn’t know, push limits and learn to create boundaries, fall in and out of love, and meet some of your best friends in the whole wide world. It will turn your life inside out and upside down. It will change you completely and forever.”