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How Indian Students Can Cope With Culture Shock While Studying Abroad

Posted on Jul 14, 2018
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Here’s an excerpt from a letter written by one of our students who went abroad:

“The first two months abroad were excruciatingly difficult. Finding roommates to share the room, adjusting with their cultural and personal lifestyle, and then the challenges of adjusting in the sea of diversity in class. Every day was a new experience at the cafeteria. Initially, it was fun to try out new foods, but I started to miss the aromas and tastes of my home. At times, this distance and homesickness would drive me crazy. I would sit up nights thinking about the overload of cultural differences I was going through. Missed my mom so much. I had nobody to help me with my laundry, cooking, and even tiny jobs like fix the light in my room. I thought I’d suffocate!”

What the student was experiencing was culture shock. Believe it or not, most students studying or working in foreign countries go through a state of culture shock. The stark, glaring dissimilarities in cuisine, ambience, language, social skills, and other cultural aspects make you feel like an alien. It is common for students to feel isolated, lonely and homesick. Culture shock is a reality, that needs to be addressed.

What Is Culture Shock?
While studying and living abroad, you may face a ‘newness’ in everything you do. You may not be used to the rules and regulations in your host country. People’s attitudes and behavior may seem strange to you. You don’t recognize or understand social signals, behavior, or speech accents. What you considered taboo, may be the accepted norm, and vice-versa.

“Severe symptoms could include emotional upheavals, inability to concentrate or work, and panic attack.”

Culture shock is not a hair-raising experience. It is the feeling of disorientation, and difficulty to accept and adjust to the change in environment. If you allow the shock to settle in, it will affect your study and work. You will find yourself feeling low, pining for your family back home, and unwilling to blend in your new surroundings.

How Do You Know If You Are Suffering From Culture Shock?
The telltale signs of culture shock could be any one or a combination of the following:

  • Feeling low, angry, irritated or anxious
  • Inability to eat, Overeating or Drinking
  • Not making friends with other international students
  • Hostility toward host country students
  • Physical ailments like cold, headaches, or fever.

Severe symptoms could include homesickness, emotional upheavals, inability to concentrate or work, and panic attack.

How Will You Overcome Culture Shock?
Well, the good news is that it does not last for long. According to psychologists, culture shock goes through four different phases: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance.

1. The Honeymoon Phase of Euphoria
In the first stage, you feel overwhelmingly positive. You are excited about everything that’s new. You also rationalize by finding the similarities in your country, and accept the newness as a part of the study abroad deal. You enjoy the travel, discovery, and meeting new people.

2. The Frustration Stage of Irritation and Hostility:
When the love season is over, reality starts to bite. The differences now seem to glare in your face. Things that seemed to be fun, special or interesting, now irritate you. You question everything, want to change the way things are, and grow increasingly hostile towards your host country and the culture. Frustration gets triggered for the smallest reason. A roommate’s habits may blow your fuse. Or a wrong turn you took because of confusing traffic signs will frustrate you.

3. The Adjustment Stage or a Period of Acceptance
This stage happens to different people at different times. But it will surely come through. Once you get over the second phase, the third will be a relief. Soon, you learn the new ways of living. You understand and accept the language, food, and culture of your host country. You find your own identity in this alien world.

4. The Acceptance Stage
In most cases, international students reach the acceptance stage after their first trip back home in their summer break. Once you adjust to the host country, you begin to identify yourself as a part of the new ecosystem. The new culture becomes a part of you. Hence, most students who go back to their home country during holidays, find themselves at a loss in their own country of origin. You may even begin to miss college life. You appreciate the things you took for granted. You may even learn to become bicultural, by learning to balance both cultural worlds.

8 Tips to Cope With Culture Shock

Here are some tips to help you deal with culture shock.

1. Realize that culture shock is a common affliction, and you are not the only one who has had a difficult cultural experience. Be realistic about how you feel. Don’t deny when you are confused, irritated or uncomfortable. You should know that cultural fluency isn’t achieved overnight.

2. Learn as much about your host country as possible. Talk to students, alumni, or residents who have been to your host country.

3. Find a healthy distraction. Take some time to yourself. Catch up with a movie on Netflix or in your local theater. Cook a meal from home, or invite friends for a cultural exchange party. You’d be surprised how many have been through culture shock.

4. Push yourself to make local friends. Get to know the culture from the experts. Explain how you are feeling, and they may have some remedies available.

5. Participate in cultural festivals, community work, and social exchanges in your new college. This is your best platform to soak in the cultural diversity from different countries. It could even enhance your education. Stay active, and keep learning.

6. Make an effort to learn the local language. You will understand the culture lot better when you learn the language. Pick up customs and traditions by following the language.

7. Be more accepting of cultural differences. Back home, you may have been following rigid beliefs. You have the opportunity to increase your breadth of awareness simply by absorbing other cultural beliefs.

8. Don’t shy away from seeking help. You may feel that you can cope with the challenges alone. But it is always best to talk it out with a friend who can help you change.