Studying abroad has become more and more popular during the last decade. In 2009 there were 3.7 million international students worldwide. Comparing this figure with those from previous generations, an exponential growth can be observed: in 1975 there were only 0.8 million (OECD, 2009). Most students who decide to go to another country are looking forward to interacting with different cultures and understanding others’ beliefs and values. However, are we always prepared to embrace diversity?
Moving abroad is similar in some ways to many other transitions: changing jobs, finding a new house or starting a new relationship. Generally, we start with a lot of energy and excitement. We are eager to try different foods, learn new words in the foreign language and find all the cool places in the city. This phase is typically called the Honeymoon stage (Lysegaard, 1955; Paige 1993) but it could also be called the Tourist stage. In a sense we are still only tourists paying attention to the superficial details of culture: clothes, food, monuments. However, tourists eventually will go back home to find the familiar environment comfortable and relaxing.
Does this mean that everybody has to be euphoric at the beginning? Of course not: maybe it is your first time abroad and you are finding all the new stimuli overwhelming, maybe you miss your loved ones too much, etc. If this is your case, why not try to soothe yourself with the things that help you feel better at home? And remember, if it doesn’t improve, it is always ok to ask for help.
Suddenly, you are craving a familiar plate of mac ‘n cheese and you run to the supermarket to buy the ingredients. However, when you get there you realize they don’t have the same brands you have back at home. Moreover, they don’t have many choices of cheese and you find them all tasteless.
Culture Shock doesn’t normally appear this way: frequently it is an accumulation of frustration and anxiety due to living in an unfamiliar atmosphere. It is common that it even appears when you already seem adjusted to your new routine. It can be useful to understand the process of Cultural Adjustment as being on a roller coaster: when you are already adjusted to eating time tables you might be annoyed by people always being late, etc. You are constantly going up and down on your roller coaster.
If after some months you feel unable to call your new environment home, maybe it is the moment to find someone with whom to talk about it.
There are some people who naturally are flexible and patient with changes. These people might not have severe problems adjusting. Others prefer coping with difficulties by surrounding themselves with people from their own country and native language, recreating “home” abroad (Cohen and Paige, 2005). However, is that really adjusting to a new country and culture?
How can we deal with difficulties while engaging ourselves in our new community? A good start would be taking a look at yourself: who are you? What defines you? Are Christian values and going to mass often very important for you? Do you love playing soccer or practicing yoga? Find places where you can be yourself while you engage in the community. This will help you create lasting bonds with locals and develop a sense of belonging.
Unfortunately, many students abroad don’t have enough interaction with locals to complete their Cultural Adaptation. If it is not your case and you decided to immerse yourself by living with a host family, never forget to communicate.
Difficulties with host families usually come because there is not fluid communication. For example: your family knows you are vegetarian and they are always very careful with your diet. However, one day you find tuna in your salad. You decide not to tell them to not make a fuss. Then, another day something else happens and you also decide not to tell them. Beware of the Snowball effect, an issue that could have been solved easily if talked through in the moment can contribute (with many others) to a bigger problem later on.
Finally, there comes a moment when you actually start diving into the culture. You understand some of the values that are behind common behaviors. You may even decide to take some of those values with you for the rest of your life.
Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime, enriching experience. Use all your opportunities to interact with locals while learning about yourself!
Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (seen at: https://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20120926-the-statistics-of-studying-abroad)
Paige, R. Michael, ed. (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press
Paige, R. M. & Cohen, A.D. (2005) Maximizing Study Abroad. Minnesota, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition- University of Minnesota
Photographer: Atlas green (Seen at: instagram.com/atlas_green)