Small World Map

Crossing Cultures

Survival strategies

Going abroad requires that you adjust to the same sorts of things that you would if you moved to another part of the United States: being away from family and friends, living in an unfamiliar environment, meeting new people, adjusting to a different climate, and so on. These changes alone could cause high stress levels, but you will also be going through cultural adjustments and you may experience "culture shock." In another cultural context, you will often find that your everyday "normal" behavior becomes "abnormal." The unspoken rules of social interaction are different, and the attitudes and behaviors that characterize life in the United States are not necessarily appropriate in the host country. These "rules" concern not only language differences, but also wide-ranging matters such as family structure, faculty-student relationships, friendships, and gender and personal relations.

One way to handle these social and personal changes is to understand the cycle of adjustment that occurs. You can expect to go through an initial period of euphoria and excitement as you are overwhelmed by the thrill of being in a totally new and unusual environment. This initial period is filled with details of getting settled into housing, scheduling classes, meeting new friends, and a tendency to spend a great deal of time with other U.S. students, during both orientation activities and free time.

As this initial sense of "adventure" wears off, you may gradually become aware that your old habits and routine ways of doing things are no longer relevant. A bit of frustration can be expected, and you may find yourself becoming unusually irritable, resentful, and even angry. Minor problems suddenly assume the proportions of major crises, and you may grow somewhat depressed. Your stress and sense of isolation may affect your eating and sleeping habits. You may write letters, send emails, or call home criticizing the new environment and indicating that you are having a terrible time adjusting to the new country. Symptoms include anxiety, sadness, and homesickness.

The human psyche is extremely flexible, however, and most students weather this initial period and make personal and academic adjustments as the months pass. You may begin to spend less time with U.S. Americans and more time forming friendships with local people. You may even forget to communicate home.

Finally, when the adjustment is complete, most students begin to feel that they are finally in tune with their surroundings, neither praising nor criticizing the culture but becoming, to some extent, part of it.

Recognizing the existence of and your vulnerability to culture shock will certainly ease some of the strain, but there are also several short-term strategies that you can use beforehand as well as on site when you recognize culture shock and are faced with the challenge of adjustment.

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