All students, regardless of maturity, disposition, previous experience abroad, or knowledge of the country in which they will be living, experience some degree of culture shock. Culture shock is a 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 picture a more negative situation than actually exists.
Not everyone will experience culture shock. However if your student does, it is helpful to be able to recognize when it occurs so you will understand what is really happening. The following breakdown of the four stages of cultural adaptation will help you recognize the process as it happens.
Adjustment to a new culture tends to occur in stages. Initially, there is a honeymoon phase. Your student is in a new country, and everything is exhilarating and exciting. Perhaps they are involved in a flurry of orientation and getting settled, getting hosted around the town or city. The sights, sounds and tastes are all a new adventure. And, 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 America's 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.
Irritability and Hostility
After the first couple of weeks, the initial excitement might pass and your student may begin to confront the deeper differences in their new location. Maybe he or she will be tired of the food or struggling with the language. Maybe the university seems incomprehensible and bureaucratic. Maybe 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. The initial enthusiasm has drifted away and the student has entered the stage of irritability and hostility. Worse, the student may just feel like he or she doesn't really belong.
Suggestions for support: During the first few weeks, 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 in the program, 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 the initial adjustment period.
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.
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 other people.