Culture shock is not quite as shocking or as sudden as most people expect. It is part of a process of learning a new culture that is called "cultural adaptation". The discomfort you may experience before you are able to function well in your new setting is the "culture shock" stage of the adaptation process. The main thing to remember is that this is a very normal process that nearly everyone goes through.
Just as you bring clothes and other personal items to the United States, you also carry invisible "cultural baggage" when you travel. Cultural baggage contains the values that are important to you and the patterns of behavior that are customary in your culture. The more you know about your personal values and how they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see and understand the cultural differences you will encounter in the United States. While you are learning about this new culture, you may be surprised to learn more about yourself and your home country.
You will be living in a different culture than the one to you are accustomed. People may walk and talk more quickly, traffic patterns may be confusing, buildings may look different than expected. In fact everything may seem different than expected, especially if you've formed opinions based on from novels, movies, and television shows.
Expect to go through a period of adjustment. You will tend to look for and identify similarities between your home country and your host country. You will find that people really are friendly and helpful. Once a daily routine has been established and the novelty of living in a new culture has begun to diminish, students often begin to experience culture shock and feel negatively toward many aspects of their new, previously exciting experience. Differences between American culture and your own may seem bothersome rather than interesting. Some International students have a great need to connect with others with whom they have something in common. Some become frustrated and discouraged by the time and persistence it takes to establish new relationships and can feel isolated when experiencing so much that is new and different without the support of friends. It is quite common for international students to feel:
- Extreme homesickness
- Little or no interest in socializing
- Physical complaints or sleep disturbances
- Feeling helpless
- Unable to concentrate on coursework
- Bored or tired
- Hostility toward the host culture
Experiencing any combination of these feelings is quite natural and usually, temporary. Students are sometimes unaware of the fact that they are experiencing culture shock when these symptoms occur.
There are ways to deal with this period of adjustment. It will be important for you to tap into campus resources to help you navigate through this phase. Join an organization, such as the revitalized International Student Association, the Caribbean Students Association or a departmental organization in your major field. Actively participate in campus events. Working with other students as a member of an organization will give you the opportunity to develop valuable friendships. Involvement of this kind also gives students the chance to develop skills that will become important in securing internships prior to graduation and full time employment after graduation.
Additional strategies for working through culture shock:
- Talk to someone who can help- your faculty advisor, the international student advisor, your resident advisor, resident director, a faculty member, or another international student.
- Exercise, get plenty of rest and eat food that is familiar to you.
- Write, call or email friends and/or family at home.
- Read a book or watch a video in your home language.
- Take the first step towards friendship and invite a new acquaintance to lunch, out to a move, out for coffee, etc.
- Allow yourself time to work through these feelings. They are common and temporary.
If you don't know how to deal comfortably with a given situation because you can't "read" it or don't know what's expected of you, try the following:
- Observe how others are acting in the same situation.
- Describe the situation to yourself, what it means to you, and your response to it.
- Ask a local resident or someone with extensive experience how they would handled the situation and what it means in the host culture. Test the new behavior and evaluate how it works.
Culture shock gradually eases as you begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you - and you toward them - are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come into conflict, the easier it will become to make adjustments that help you avoid serious difficulties.
American culture is fairly casual and can be confusing. Within it are degrees of friendship ranging from casual acquaintances to intimate friends. Americans often refer to an acquaintance (someone they see on a regular basis but don't actually know well) as a friend while also referring to a person with whom they have an intimate, long time relationship as a friend.
People greet each other asking "How are you?" but often don't wait for a response. Others say "let's get together some time" but don't follow through to actually make plans. International students may experience this casual friendliness as superficial and find it frustrating to attempt to make new friends. It is important to remember that you left established friendships at home and that you are starting entirely new friendships. It will take time for these friendships to develop.
It will be helpful for you not to judge your new acquaintances by the standards of your home culture. Refrain from being critical of your host country and its people. Just as you will find different viewpoints within your own country, you will also find that Americans differ in how they view their government or in how they live. The United States is a multicultural country with a variety of religious and political differences. Rarely will you make friends by pointing out short-comings of their country as perceived by you.
In time, you will discover your own comfort level and methods of developing friendships in the U.S. Remember that the American students are also adapting to new experiences and people from other regions of the United States and the world. Many look forward to meeting students from other countries.