Culture shock

All students will experience some degree of culture shock regardless of maturity, disposition, previous experience abroad, or knowledge of the country in which they will be living.

Culture shock is the term used to describe some of these more pronounced reactions to spending an extended period of time in a culture very different from your own.

Culture shock can be characterized by periods of frustration, adjustment, and even depression. The worst homesickness often occurs two to three months after students leave home, frequently arriving just in time for the holidays (for fall or academic-year students). It is common for students to call or write home during moments of low morale, but not when they are busy and things are going well. Consequently, families often imagine a more negative situation than actually exists.

The following breakdown of the four stages of cultural adaptation will help you recognize the process as it happens.

1. Honeymoon phase

Your student is in a new country, and, initially, everything is exhilarating and exciting. Perhaps your student is involved in a flurry of orientation and getting settled and being shown around the area. The sights, sounds and tastes are all a new adventure. At first, your student may even see more of the similarities between the host country and the U.S. than the differences.

Suggestions for support

Listen to the student's exciting stories and appreciate the unique experiences he or she has the opportunity to enjoy. Remember these good experiences to use when times become more challenging. Some cultures are so different from home that it may be difficult for the student to put it into words. Ask your student specific questions about the country, culture, and people in order to make the experience clear to you.

2. Irritability and hostility

When the initial excitement begins to wear off, your student may begin to confront the deeper differences in their new location. Maybe he or she will become tired of the food or struggle with the language. Maybe the university will seem incomprehensible and bureaucratic, or he or she will be tired of long commutes whenever going somewhere. Maybe everything is much more expensive than the student originally anticipated, or perhaps things are less expensive, but not of the quality or variety that is customary at home. After the initial enthusiasm drifts away, the student often enters the stage of irritability and hostility, and may start to feel that he or she doesn't really belong.

Suggestions for support

During this stage, it is not uncommon for students to contact home upset about some aspect of the new culture, people, and program. It is important for parents to remember that students may initially focus on what is going wrong with their experience, rather than right. Find out exactly what is frustrating your student, but avoid judging the cultural differences. Be supportive of your student and encourage him or her to discuss these issues with on-site staff. The on-site staff has dealt with many students in these situations and is well prepared to help your student during these challenging times.

3. Gradual adjustment

Be patient. Almost always, the initial struggles will disappear with time and the student will experience a stage of gradual adjustment. A sense of humor will reappear. Things that seemed strange or just inconvenient will gradually become familiar. The student will be able to function more easily within the culture. When contacting home, the participant will begin sharing the enjoyable experiences with you again.

Suggestions for support

Listen to your student's stories with interest. Congratulate him or her for understanding the social norms, making local friends, and other such successes. Your student is slowly adapting to new surroundings.

4. Adaptation or biculturalism

Lastly, there is the stage of adaptation or biculturalism. Your student has managed to retain his or her own cultural identity but recognizes the right of other cultures to retain theirs. The participant has a better understanding of him or herself and others, and can communicate easily and convey warmth and understanding across the cultural barriers.

There is no one way to experience culture shock. It may be acute or barely noticeable. You may find it returns once after you thought your student had already passed through all the stages. As a parent, you may not even be aware that your student is going through culture shock, or to what extent. Simply be aware that culture shock exists, that it will probably affect your student in one way or another, but that it doesn't last forever. Culture shock can be a very valuable experience, which can leave people with broader perspectives, deeper insight into themselves and a wider tolerance for others.

5. Reverse culture shock

Although it may seem like a long way off, we suggest that you start thinking now about your student's return to the United States after the program ends. Students often go through a phase of "reverse" or "re-entry" culture shock when they come back home, and they often report that this is more challenging than what they went through overseas. They expect to go through adjustments in foreign countries, but do not always realize that life has continued on without them at home and there may be changes for which they were not prepared.

As with culture shock, one way to alleviate the difficulty of re-entry shock is to keep your student aware of what is going on at home through consistent communication. Students often go through periods of mild depression once they return home because of feelings that no one is interested in what they experienced in their time overseas.

Faced with questions such as "How was your time in xxxx?" a student often can only answer "Great?"; before conversation moves on to another subject. Encourage friends and family members to ask more specific questions like "What were the best things about living abroad? The most difficult? What places did you visit? Are people's daily lives the same as in the United States? Do you have any pictures?" and so forth. Have a party where your student can show off food, customs and souvenirs from his or her travels. Not only will such questions and activities remind students they had a worthwhile experience and help them to readjust, it will help others in your community or family learn more about the world around us.

Adapted from Robert L. Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living, chapter on "Culture Shock: Occupational Hazard of Overseas Living."