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Life in a Foreign Culture: Tips for cultural adjustment while abroad

Four common stages of cultural adjustment

The honeymoon -- Initial euphoria and excitement

In this stage, you will feel able to handle anything; your experience may be characterized by:

  • Excitement about new sights and surroundings.
  • Superficial, tourist-like involvement in the host culture.
  • Intrigue with both similarities and differences between the new culture and your home culture.
  • Lots of interest in learning, very motivated and open-minded.

Culture shock -- Irritation and hostility

The novelty of the new culture has worn off. Your feelings in this stage may include:

  • A focus on the differences between your new culture and your home culture. Stereotypes and prejudices surface.
  • Small issues feel like major catastrophes; you become overly stressed out by small problems and feel helpless and frustrated.
  • Homesickness and missing your family and friends from home.

Gradual adjustment -- Finding humor and perspective

In this stage, you decide to make the most of your experience. You may also have the following reactions:

  • Increased familiarity with the new culture, its logic and values.
  • Periodic highs and lows as adjustment gradually takes place.
  • The return of your sense of humor and recognition that you like some parts of the new culture better than that of the U.S.
  • Deeper learning about life abroad and a questioning of your earlier assumptions about the world.

"Feeling at Home"-- Adaptation and biculturalism

You now appreciate certain aspects of foreign culture and critique others. Other reactions at this stage include:

  • Feeling at home in the "foreign" country.
  • No longer negatively affected by differences between the host and home cultures.
  • Living and working to your full potential.

Expectations gone awry

When living in another culture, everyday occurrences often throw students off.

  • Your flight has been delayed, your baggage has been lost, or you cannot find the program representatives who is supposed to meet you at the airport.
  • Your housing does not feel up to par: the room seems a bit dirty, the bed is too hard, there are no top sheets, and the commute to classes is too long.
  • You are anxious to explore, but your program requires you to attend a tedious orientation, much of which seems to repeat some of the things you learned about at Northwestern.
  • You've studied the host language for many years, but when you try to speak, no one seems to understand you, and sometimes the locals just give up and talk to you in English.
  • Your classes seem completely unstructured and easy: there is no required reading list, but there is a "recommended" reading list of 200 books.
  • Host nationals don't seem to have any interest in making friends with you. You've already been on the program for one month, and you haven't made any close friends with host nationals, or even friends to hang out with.

If you encounter any of these issues, think of them as learning experiences. Try not to panic, ask a lot of questions, and address only the issue at hand rather than generalizing about an entire country or group of people.

Physical and psychological symptoms of cultural stress

  • Exhaustion, fatigue or changes to your appetite. 
  • Major concern over small health problems.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Craving things from home (food, amenities, etc.) and homesickness.
  • Strong desire to interact only with students on your program or non-locals.
  • Fits of anger and frustration or depression alternating with elation.
  • Superior attitude toward host nationals. You find yourself complaining about and criticizing everything.
  • Feelings of rejection, isolation, and loneliness.
  • Feeling like a child.

Strategies for dealing with cultural stress

Most people who live in a foreign country for an extended period of time experience cultural stress. It is normal to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. This is all part of the cultural learning process!

Make plans for keeping in touch

While abroad, you’ll want to be in touch with the people back home to share your experiences. However, study abroad is also a time for personal and cultural exploration. Past students have suggested arranging a schedule with family and friends to determine when they will be in touch and to manage expectations for how frequently you’ll be contacting them.

Use the following stress buffers:

Internal supports 

  • Understand the stages of cultural adjustment 
  • Analyze your situations and reactions 
  • Identify what helps you manage stress 
  • Identify new ways of thinking positively 

Social support 

  • Identify your various sources of support (program staff, other participants, friends and family at home) and the type of support that each can best offer
  • Make plans for keeping in touch with people back home 
  • Seek out friends and groups who share your interests and encourage you to participate in social circles 

Physical support 

  • Eat healthily and get plenty of rest
  • Identify any weaknesses (e.g. alcohol abuse, binge eating) and make plans to manage them
  • Bring a sufficient supply of necessary medications
  • Take any "can't live without" toiletries with you