The minute you land in your new study abroad country, you’re busy taking in the newness around you. You’re smiling at the street vendors selling fruit on every corner. You’re captivated by the sudden openness of the people around you. Or perhaps you’re noticing a discreet segregation of genders, ages, or confused by why your host mother shies away from some of your questions. This, brave study abroad student, is called culture shock.
Most people who have traveled more extensively than a brief vacation have heard the term. Whether you’ve just long ago been bitten by the travel bug, or are heading off on your first time abroad, you’ll need to understand culture shock and how to cope with it on your study abroad trip.
Now, let’s get down to strategies and tips for dealing with culture shock.
1. Learn as much about your host country as possible
Get to know as much as you can about what’s considered polite or rude (for example, did you know it’s rude to step over someone’s bag in Madagascar?) and prepare yourself for some of the differences before you go.
2. Ask study abroad coordinators for advice
Specifically, ask them what other students have had a hard time adapting to and what they’ve done to cope. Each country has its own nuances, so you’re going to face a different situation in France as you would in Thailand. Ask those who know best!
3. Set learning goals for your study abroad trip
This may be obvious, but make sure you have goals for your study abroad trip and make sure they include learning about your host culture. Do you love food? Make it a goal to learn how to cook a local dish.
4. Write down what you love when you first arrive and look back later
During the honeymoon phase, write down all the things you love about your new host country (maybe even in your new study abroad blog?). Later, when you’re feeling frustrated or irritated, use this list to remind yourself of all the good things about your host country, instead of the things that annoy you.
5. Find a healthy distraction
Especially in stage two, when you may have negative feelings towards your host culture, find a healthy distraction. Take some time to yourself, watch an episode of your favorite TV show, cook a meal from home, or have a solo dance party in your house. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed and need a break from your host country — just make sure it’s a healthy distraction and you don’t spend your whole time locked up in your house!
6. Talk to other students about how you feel
You’ll likely know other students who are studying abroad with you. Talk to them about how they feel about your host culture. Ask them about how they feel, strategies they’ve used to cope with cultural differences.
Also, learn from them. They may have figured out something you’re still confused about — like why everyone keeps saying a particular phrase or how to politely say “no” when your host mom insists you finish everything on your plate.
7. Push yourself to make local friends
Of course, you’ll learn even more if you make local friends. They’re experts in their own culture and will be able to explain all the crazy little questions you have. And if they’re a truly good friend, they’ll pull you aside and tell you if you’re unwittingly doing something offensive or weird. *Phew*!
8. Try to see things through your host culture’s eyes
Throughout every stage of culture shock, try to put your own worldview in your pocket and try to understand the world the way your host culture does.
9. Get involved with the local community
Part of your feelings of culture shock may be because you feel like too much of an outsider, so get involved in your local community as much as possible. If you went to church at home, go to church there. If you volunteered at home, find a volunteer project in your host city. Join a sports team, go to major festivals, and make this new home a home!
10. Make an effort to learn the local language
Even if your program is in English, make an effort to learn a few basic phrases (or more!) in the local language. It’s not just a way to understand more of the culture (language and culture are linked), but also to make friends feel more included, and hey — it’s just fun!
Study abroad isn’t all weekend getaways and late night parties. It’s a challenge, an introduction to a new culture, and an emotional roller coaster at times. However, it’s one worth taking. We promise you though, once you’re home you’ll forget about all the things that irritated you and treasure the memories and friends you made.