Culture Shock and Homesickness

Wondering about what your initial experience might be like in your host country?  Getting anxious that you'll do everything wrong and won't be prepared to understand what is happening around you?  

The following are a few disconcerting situations that even "well prepared" study abroad participants experienced:

  • Not knowing how to set the dinner table.
  • Making embarrassing hand gestures without even realizing it.
  • Misinterpreting hand gestures.
  • Not getting innuendoes.
  • Not understanding what people are saying even though they are speaking English.
  • Ordering chips and getting fries.
  • Knowing when to kiss and when not to.
  • Living in the host country for 6 months and still getting gasps of surprise from host nationals when you say a basic greeting and order food in a restaurant.

All of the above mentioned situations and many others that you may experience are all a part of the learning process.  How you react to these situations will guide your process of cultural adjustment.  Culture shock/adjustment is anxiety experienced by those who attempt to go about normal, daily activities in the absence of familiar patterns of communication and social interaction.  Our expectations of the host culture, shaped by our own patterns of behavior or culture, sometimes 'clash' with the reality of the host country's culture.  Initially many travelers experience feelings of anxiousness and excitement, which turn to feelings of discomfort, frustration, or anxiety over the absence of familiar patterns.  Eventually these feelings change again and mellow out as you begin to accommodate and integrate new cultural norms. 

There are three responses to the process of cultural adjustment: Fight, Flight, and Adaptation.  The disease called “always being right” best expresses the response FIGHT.  This is wanting to show the natives a better way of doing something.  Be very conscious of some of your responses and behaviors.  You may have engaged in “Fight” and have been unaware of it.  Your journal can assist you here because you can analyze your daily interactions.
You may notice US students hanging out together a lot while studying abroad.  These students are engaged in FLIGHT.  That is, avoidance of the host culture and things that make them feel uncomfortable by surrounding themselves with only familiar people and things. 
ADAPTATION basically represents the process of adjustment, i.e., understanding the culture of your host country, accepting new ideas and integrating new concepts into your existing patterns of interaction.  During this process you may find yourself compromising.  There is nothing wrong with that.  You must decide for yourself what actions are right for you.  You may realize that for your acceptance into your new community you may do things that you would not do at home.  That's okay, because you are not at home and the rules are different there.  Here’s one example:
“In my host family, the expectation was that the father was always served by a female member of the family during meals.  On one occasion all of the women, except for me, were out and I was to take care of dinner.  From my American and personal point of view, I find it very difficult to be expected to wait on someone, particularly in a family setting.  However, I served my host father out of respect for him and the community I was living in.  I could have made other decisions about this situation and held to my personal values, but that might have created an uncomfortable situation.”
Remember, the emotional highs and lows of studying abroad are normal.  It happens to everyone, though some experience it more severely than others.  Over time it all evens out as you adapt to your new environment.