Culture Shock and How to Deal

You’ve arrived in the United States and you’re feeling a mixture of emotions, which is completely understandable– and normal!

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“Culture shock” is a term used to describe the difficult emotions and feelings that come along with being immersed in or exposed to a new and different cultural setting. It also refers to the anxiety and stress you can feel when you miss the familiarities of your home culture. For both students and Host Families, culture shock is a very real part of the experience of studying abroad. Feelings of sadness, nervousness, anxiety, anger, loneliness, worry, fear, and confusion are all a part of culture shock, and you might experience them at any time after arriving in the United States.

While culture shock is thought to occur in several stages, any of the feelings attached to culture shock can happen at any time – even several months – after you are in a new place. Also, for you returning students, culture shock can happen to you when you go back to your home country and again when you return to the United States. It may seem like even though you have spent a lot of time in a place that you should be comfortable and used to it, but it’s normal and acceptable for you to still feel anxious, overwhelmed, uncomfortable, homesick, or lonely at any time in the school year. Here are some examples of the stages of culture shock and what they make look like for you.

smileStage 1: Happiness and Excitement

  • You feel very happy and excited about everything in your new community
  • You love all of the new food
  • You are happy to meet so many new, different people
  • You feel confident and motivated to learn English and other new topics
  • You enjoy your new school and want to get very involved with activities

stressed smileStage 2: Frustration and Stress

  • You feel sad
  • You miss your home, parents, and friends and want to go home
  • You may feel angry or be annoyed and irritated by things that don’t usually bother you, such as:
  • Different sounds (kitchen appliances, traffic, barking dogs, voices, music)
  • The behaviors of people around you (host family, U.S. students, teachers)
  • The way food tastes or is cooked (not warm enough, too salty, not filling)
  • Communication difficulties with your friends (not learning English fast enough, misunderstanding of American slang or phrases)
  • Differences in the rules of your home culture and new host setting (sleeping rules, homework time, socializing expectations)
  • The way members of your host family talk to each other (parent roles or behaviors, children’s behavior toward parents)
  • You might have difficulty concentrating on your school work or lack motivation to study
  • You are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • You feel sick with stomach pains or headaches
  • You feel tired often
  • You have many negative things to say about the people or places in your community
  • You feel guilty about being in the United States and away from your parents
  • You worry often about money, classes, and being successful

understanding smileStage 3: Understanding

  • You become more familiar and comfortable with the U.S. culture, your host family, teachers, other students, American food, and the English language
  • You begin to understand and appreciate the cultural differences between the United States and your home country
  • The cultural traits that once annoyed or bothered you become accepted as normal
  • You will have made friends
  • You become less homesick
  • You’ll be more comfortable with speaking and listening to English
  • You become more comfortable and relaxed in your new environment
  • You better handle the situations you previously found frustrating

Stage 4: Acclimation and Acceptance

  • You will be able to compare the good and bad of the U.S. with the good and bad of your home country
  • You feel less like a foreigner and more like the U.S.  is your second home
  • You laugh about things that once made you feel frustrated and angry

Now that you have an understanding of the feelings that can come along with culture shock, I will give you some tools of how to manage all of these different feelings. First of all, it’s important to know that experiencing anger, anxiety, sadness, homesickness, frustration, and worry is very normal and expected. International students go through many different feelings, and you are not alone in this. Here are some tips and reminders on how to manage your culture shock:

  • Remind yourself that you’re in a new culture and that it takes time to feel comfortable in a new place. Give yourself the time and patience you need to feel comfortable.
  • Don’t blame the United States, your host family, your parents, fellow students, or teachers for your feelings. This anxiety and frustration is very normal and happens to many people who study, work or travel abroad.
  • Be honest with others about your feelings. If you need to take a break from your host family or fellow students, tell them how you are feeling and that being alone may help you feel better.
  • Try to not be negative. When you notice that you are feeling angry, anxious or frustrated, talk to others who may understand why you are feeling this way. Teachers, counselors, pastors, host parents, or other international students all understand that this change is difficult. They will help you through the difficult time until you feel more comfortable.
  • Stay positive. Think about the experience you’re having living abroad and learning about new people, food, and culture.
  • Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal about your experiences.
  • Write letters or emails to people from home.
  • Ask your host parents if you can cook them a traditional meal from your home country. Share with them why you like it and how it reminds you of home.
  • Find alternative ways to deal with your stress. If you find yourself feeling frustrated or anxious, start an activity that you know will make you feel better. For example: play soccer, listen to your favorite music, walk outside, play a game, or make art.
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