One of the most important, and most neglected, aspects of studying abroad is preparing yourself at a cultural level for your time outside of the United States.
What is culture?
The word culture has many definitions. You can think of it as the set of values, beliefs, and customs which members of a group or community share. Culture can also be thought of as the filter through which you look at others within your community and those outside of it as well. Finally, culture can be seen as a pattern of predicted behaviors andreactions to certain situations within members of a specific group.
For the overwhelming majority of people in the world, these sets of beliefs are ingrained, unconscious behaviors, meaning that few people ever raise serious questions about their own set of values, beliefs or behaviors until they are challenged to do so in some way. Studying abroad may be your first experience outside of your home culture and may bring to light many of your own cultural beliefs and behaviors of which you were not previously conscious.
No matter where you go, no matter how long you go for, no matter how much you have dreamed about spending time in your host country, you are bound to come to a point where being there turns into something other than what you imagined. It could be a big thing like being sick to death of having to speak in a language you are not comfortable with. It could be something as minor as becoming frustrated at not being able to run down to the Giant at 3 AM to get snacks because it is illegal for grocery stores to stay open after 6 PM.
The term culture shock describes the feelings you will experience - the anxiety and disorientation associated with leaving a familiar environment and entering a new world where everything seems different. Until you learn how to read the signals of the new culture you find yourself in, you are going to feel, to some degree, lost, confused and frustrated. Rarely is culture shock a single moment that hits you like a brick in the face. Culture shock is a process - sometimes you recognize when it is going on, other times you will just feel frustrated or annoyed.
At first when you arrive in your host country, you will be fascinated by everything. Everything about your new home is great - the food is wonderful, the people are quaint, the music is amazing, and you never want to leave. You have planned for months, if not years, to get to this spot, and you are finally here. While it would be wonderful for this honeymoon stage of cultural adjustment to last forever, it will not.
Slowly, however, little things start to bother you about your host country. Things that only a few weeks ago you found amazing and fun are now stale and annoying. You are about to enter the fright stage. Things that used to be easy - going to the grocery store, opening a bank account, getting on a bus, carrying on a simple conversation - are now challenges. After a few weeks of non-stop challenges, anyone is bound to get frustrated. The most common reaction is to take it out on your host country.
This is the flight stage. Instead of seeing the positive things you used to see in your host country, you see all of its faults and problems. It is very easy to start viewing your host country as one big stereotype, as a failed version of how things really should work back in the United States. If you are not careful you can spend the rest of your time overseas convincing yourself that everything at home is better.
You may experience culture shock in any of the following ways:
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Disorientation about how to work and relate to others
- Language difficulties and mental fatigue from speaking and listening to a foreign language
- Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness
- Unexplainable crying
- Placing blame for difficulties on the program or host culture
- Homesickness, feeling depressed
- Getting angry easily
- Decline in inventiveness, spontaneity, or flexibility
- Stereotyping of host country/culture
- Increase in physical ailments or pain
- Compulsive eating or lack of appetite
- Unable to work effectively
With time, with patience, and with an attitude of seeing the positive side of your host country, you can get past this difficult phase of your study abroad experience. There will still be times when you really just want things to be “normal.” But these times will become less and less frequent as you start to understand the logic behind why people do things the way they do in your host country. Instead of viewing everything in front of you through your American cultural perspective, you can start to see them through the eyes of someone from your host country. When you can see the good in both your home and your host culture, you will have gotten past culture shock and become, in effect, bicultural.
How long will this process take? It depends on you. Some people can wallow in misery, hating everything about their host country for their entire time outside of the United States. Others have a very short period of adjustment. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, having a series of good days and bad days until they start to get the hang of life in their new environment.
Helping this adjustment process along also depends largely upon you. Here are a couple of strategies you might want to employ:
- Observe, listen and describe rather than judge. Do not try to interpret what you have seen before you are sure you have observed carefully.
- Try to be objective, but realize that you never can be completely objective. You are a product of your culture, and your culture will always have an impact on how you perceive events.
- Ask why people are doing what they are doing. Listen carefully to the answers. Try to see through the other person’s point of view.
- Keep involved in your host culture. Instead of withdrawing into a small circle of grumpy fellow Americans, get out there and experience your host country. You did not pay all this money and fly thousands of miles away from home to spend time with other Americans, complaining about how backwards people in your host country are.
- Allow yourself one guilty pleasure on a bad day. Even if you would never set foot in a McDonalds at home, go visit one. Just don’t make a habit of it.
Reverse Culture Shock
Few students getting ready to study abroad contemplate what coming back to the United States after an international experience will be like. While you may think that returning from your study abroad experience will simply mean stepping back into your life as you have always lived it, most past participants will tell you that coming home was the hardest part of the experience.
Coming home should be easy – after all, you grew up in this culture, and your friends and family will be dying to hear all about your adventures overseas. However, as much as you may think that coming home will not be an issue, most past participants report that they went through a similar kind of adjustment to life back in the United States. Things that you used to dream about doing when you come home are now annoying or unpleasant. Your overseas experience can almost become all-consuming – everything about it was incredible, everything about your host country was perfect and you wish that everyone back home would just see reason.
Just as you went through a cultural adjustment to life in your host country, you will also need some time to find balance in your life as an internationalized American. How? By getting involved – talking to future study abroad students, international students here on the UMBC campus or in the community as a whole. And know that there is always one place on campus where someone will listen to your stories, look at your photos, and sympathize with you as you go through the process of coming back to the States, the Study Abroad Office.