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Culture shock and how to deal with it  

Our international education expert, Sarthak Tandon, who’s been an international student himself, talks about culture shock

It is not uncommon anymore for students hailing from all backgrounds to study abroad. Given the quality of education and life, work-opportunities, desire for a new adventure, research opportunities, etc., many students opt for international education to create a better future for themselves. While students prepare for all formalities and conditions like admissions, finances, documentation, accommodation, and VISA formalities, they often miss out on something very common and important – culture shock. 

The term “culture shock” basically refers to the feeling of confusion or disorientation upon finding yourself in a culture or environment which you are unfamiliar with. This is something which is experienced by nearly all international students, thus, is very common. The key is to acknowledge it, and deal with it. All students have their own way of dealing with culture shock and so do you, there is nothing wrong in taking a little extra time to adjust in the new setting. In a way, culture shock may even help you adapt to a new environment. 

Factors causing culture shock

1. A different way of living

You realise it fairly quickly that your way of life has completely changed. This newfound independence can be very overwhelming. With a sudden change in your routine life, it can get difficult to understand how to cope without it. Since every decision you make will impact your life directly, it is important to be responsible and take control. For instance, if you do not cook your meal or do your laundry or buy groceries or finish your projects, nobody else will. 

2. Language

Despite having a good grasp over the language spoken in your study country, it will be a new experience altogether when you interact with the locals in real-life. The country may have some local slangs as part of their daily language which you will get used to over time. For example, Canadians call $1 a loonie and $2 a toonie; and one of the most common coffees here is a Double-Double.

3. Weather conditions

In Canada, you might experience a new degree of cold during winters. Similarly, in the UK, you’ll experience more rains than you expected, while in Australia, you’ll experience winters and summers at different times of the year than what you are used to. Such factors can also be stressful as any change in climate may impact your health when you are least expecting it. You’d be surprised however, that life in these countries never stops because of the weather conditions and neither should you.

4. Academics

Every country has a different education system and with it comes a new structure, teaching methodologies, scoring patterns, project works, deadlines, scholarships, etc. Sometimes, there is just too much information to put together and get used to at once. Don’t get overwhelmed with this new information and try to understand each slowly to be able to adapt to it.

5. New societal rules

There are always some unspoken, well-understood rules in every society, such as your new environment. These rules have a direct impact on the day-to-day functioning of the society. For instance, when in Canada, it is common to say “thank you” or “sorry” too often at very minuscule of things. If not, you might be considered rude, despite you not intending to. In Australia, a stranger may call you a mate, even if meeting for the first time.

6. Missing home or food

It is obvious to miss home or your cuisine you’ve grown on. The best way to deal with it is to find shops or restaurants that offer the things you like. You can also learn to cook and invite friends over so it doesn’t make overly homesick. Better still, pick up your phone and make those calls home.  

Common symptoms of culture shock

1. Anxiety, depression or loneliness

These symptoms are fairly common to experience early on when you are still in the process of adjusting to the new environment. The seriousness may vary depending on the individual.

2. Homesickness

It is common to miss your home country and the people you’ve left behind. It also happens if you are unwilling to adapt to your new conditions, trying to stick as close to the things you did back home. It is best to adapt and let yourself discover new things and build new memories.

3. Disturbed sleep patterns

It is normal to have a disturbed or distinguished sleep pattern (earlier due to jet lag, later on due to difference in time zone). However, this may extend further due to extensive thinking, stress, lack of confidence, or related reasons.  

common symptoms of culture shock

4. Remoteness or isolation

While some students prefer to instantly start networking, make new friends, and explore the city, some also prefer to stick to themselves and avoid public places altogether. Not having the will to go out is fairly natural in your earlier days, but not recommended for a long duration. It is important to build a social circle which keeps you occupied. 

5. Decreased productivity

Due to the inability to cope with stress, some students find it difficult to perform academically or professionally. Sometimes, students face issues with understanding the new education system. It is important to identify what is causing this distress and deal with it. 

6. Poor time management

Being an international student, it is important to manage time properly. For example, if you miss a given deadline for a project, you might lose valuable grades. Sometimes, due to the lack of schedule (either too much to do or excess free time), your schedule may go for a toss. It is helpful to prioritise your activities and strike the right balance between work and recreation time. 

7. Drastic personality changes

Some students find it very natural to blend in the new culture, but some try to adjust their personality to the ways of their new society. This may lead to visible personality changes. For instance, change of accent of spoken language to sound more professional, sudden change in wardrobe, inability to control expenditures, etc. It is best to allow these changes to occur naturally than force to fit in.  

Various stages of culture shock

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

Excitement

Shock

Acceptance

Adaptation

This is when you arrive into the country, with an eagerness of meeting new people, starting a new program, exploring new places, etc. This stage offers the opportunity to explore as much as you can to get to know about the societal norms.

This is when your excitement settles down and you understand new responsibilities and tend to isolate yourself. This is a stage of self-realisation and an opportunity to plan your approach. Remember, it’s okay to be stressed, but don’t let it get to you. Talk to someone if required to.

This is when you start getting used to the cultural norms. It could be the longest stage as you start adjusting to your new life, make new friends and have a better vision of your goals. It helps to connect with people who’ve had similar experiences to get some advice.

This is when you’ve adapted to your new society and are an active part of it. In fact, you are aware enough to guide your fellow mates, newcomers from your experiences. You are no longer affected by the cultural differences and focus on a positive, brighter future.

Overcoming culture shock

Culture shock can be easily dealt with if you remain calm and accept the changes gradually. Here are some effective ways to help you out:  

1. Acceptance

Understand that it’s normal to be culturally shocked for every international student. You’re not alone in this. So just give yourself some time to adjust in the new environment. 

2. Keep connected

Do not try to face it alone. It’s best to keep connected with family and friends who can help you stay motivated. Be open to change and exploring this new side of things. 

3. Attend cultural events

You’ll be surprised by the number of cultural and social events organised in and around your campus. Be sure to participate in them regularly. If you get a chance, volunteer! It is a great learning experience and might even offer a great networking platform.

4. Find work

Check your visa conditions and find part-time work if possible. This will help you utilise your time and also help you earn some extra bucks for yourself. Needless to say, it also counts as valuable experience when applying for future jobs. 

5. Be social

It might take some time, but try to indulge in various social interactions. It will help in building connections and understand the challenges others are facing. You might even get a chance to explore the city, restaurants or new places together. 

6. Pursue your hobbies

Continue pursuing the hobbies you had before you moved here – be it reading, gardening, cooking, workouts, etc. Most universities also have different hobby clubs help you participate according to your interests. If not, why not build one of your own?

7. Seek professional help if required

Do not hesitate to approach your advisors, counsellors, professors in case you are in distress. Most universities have well-trained facilitators to help students facing such difficulties. Feel free to reach out to them if needed. Tackling such issues alone could cause more damage to your mental health than you imagine. 

Remember, culture shock is an absolutely common reaction when you travel to a new environment and happens with most international students – so you’re not alone. It can be easily dealt with patience and gradual acceptance of the new culture. Use it as a stepping stone to explore new opportunities and learn to be more adaptive. 

If you are still uncomfortable and unable to cope with the pressure, do not worry. Reach out to your counsellor or any IDP office near you. We would be happy to hear you out and support you in with the best guidance possible. Good Luck!

Updated on September 11, 2020

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Watch these interesting and informative videos to understand more about cultural trends abroad and ways in which institutions provide cultural support to international students.

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Sarthak Tandon

Sarthak is one of our international education experts at IDP Lucknow and carries with him an experience of three years in the industry, specialising in education in Canada. Being an international student himself (he’s a postgraduate in International Business Management from George Brown College, Canada), Sarthak connects with students well and understands the challenges they may face during the process.

He uses his firsthand experience 
to guide students who aspire to study in Canada and has successfully conducted multiple student-oriented webinars to benefit them. 

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