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Hassaan Ahmed

Writer, serial procrastinator. Wild-haired, tired-eyed purveyor of words like purveyor. Academic-in-training, Master of Communication at Deakin. @ancienthydra

How to overcome culture shock during your study abroad

Living and studying abroad as an international student is tough, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. At times, it can take a toll on us, in ways both bad and good. You experience new cultures, but face cultural differences. You battle loneliness, but you learn to be independent.  You face hardship, but you become resolute.

Suffice to say, the experience is life changing. One of the biggest challenges of this experience, that often gets ignored, are the personal grapples with identity.

Not personal identity, mind. I’d like to discuss the sense of self that are tied to and shaped by our cultural and social roots. Everyone’s lived experiences will be different but all international students (and migrants in general) tussle with this form of identity crisis. Let’s dive into this, shall we?

Feeling the disconnect from your culture 

Most Asian cultures, whether South Asian or in the East, are built around large, usually tight-knit families and communal gatherings. That’s why moving to study abroad often leaves these community-shaped holes in our lives.

However, that ache rears its head every time holidays and special event days roll around, and it’s a depressingly surreal experience seeing your friends and family back home celebrating while you go about the daily grind in another country. And it’s hard to explain to the people around you why you can’t concentrate on work or study that day, why you lack motivation to do anything.

That’s why, while most people have just started discovering the joys of video conferencing during this pandemic-induced quarantine, so many Asian students already have a weekly video chat schedule in place for years.

Living in another country, you will probably find small pockets of your community in the city you’re living in that can help in keeping those traditions alive and bridging that disconnect. COVID-19, however, brought that to a screeching halt, which means that a lot of you may be feeling more disconnected than usual.

A good way to overcome that is to introduce that particular cultural event and its rituals to your friends here, so they can help you celebrate. Ramadan, for instance, has been one such time for me personally this year.

Ramadan is a month of fasting and reflection, and it was always celebrated with communal prayers and feasting, whether among family or larger gathering at the local mosque. I’d found that same warmth in the student community in Australia since I’d gotten here, but this year everyone’s had to observe Ramadan in quarantine for the greater good.

This meant that by the time Eid rolled around at the end of Ramadan, I was feeling that disconnect, badly. I decided to hold an impromptu Eid lunch, inviting my housemates and prepping festive outfits and traditional food. Folks, believe me, it worked. Not only did a group of my friends get to partake in my traditions and learn more about them, they also figured out just why it was so important to me and bolstered me with their cheer and enthusiasm.

I still feel bizarrely disjointed sometimes, but in that moment, on that day, it felt like home.


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Struggling to fit in socially

You’ve landed, you’re here, you’re ready for the college experience, bring it on! In time, you will build another circle of friends and discover people who share in your hobbies, but before that lies a sea of uncertainty you need to cross as you try to navigate cultural differences and find your new comfort zone. It’s inevitable, whether you’re young and green, or old and set in your ways (like me).

As an example, there is no denying that a lot of socialising in Western culture revolves around grilling meat and consuming alcohol (I cringed at how stereotyped that sounds, but it’s true). If you’re someone who imbibes in neither, you may feel neglected and left out as the rest of your friends congregate and bond. You may even find yourself considering joining them and finding out what all the fuss is about. 

But it’s important to remember that like apples and oranges, Asian cultures are different to Western cultures. Not superior, not inferior. Just different. Even though a single country like Australia may have a plethora of varied and complex cultures, there’s usually some commonly accepted trademarks and behaviours typically associated with the country. 

So, if you’re not joining the weekly barbie for steak and beer because you’re vegetarian and you don’t drink, this doesn’t mean you’re rejecting the culture or refusing to ‘fit in’, and it isn’t something to feel guilty or question yourself over. There are more ways than one to embrace the culture and society you’re living in without having to compromise on your cultural and personal identity.

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Embracing multiculturalism

Integrating socially and culturally is something that takes time, and there are no shortcuts for it. And as this time passes by, you most likely will find yourself evolving, including your beliefs and your values. That is a natural part of life abroad.

However, this doesn’t mean letting people invalidate your ideals in order to ‘fit in’. That can be tough as you feel the constant pressure to conform. Remember though that this is not a binary situation, adjusting to a new culture does not necessarily mean invalidating the culture you grew up with, or diminish its relevance in your daily life.

Fortunately, a vast majority of the people you will interact with during your study abroad are highly respectful and inclusive of various cultures and traditions and will encourage you to be yourself. In fact, the diverse international student population (and the migrant community at large) are part of the fabric of multiculturalism that makes the country attractive for people like you from around the world to study abroad in. 

You can be a part of that fabric – the people here are eager to learn and embrace new customs and rituals from different cultures. Tell them your story. Be proud of your heritage and keep connected to your culture during your study abroad journey. 

Did you find this article helpful?

You can explore more stories by international students in our blog.


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