Culture Shock

Culture Shock & Adjustment

When moving to a new culture, you will eventually experience a period of ups and downs as part of the adjustment process. The onset of symptoms can occur almost immediately or sometimes it can take up to a year before the individual in the new culture feels the effects of culture shock. Moreover, the severity of the symptoms can vary from person to person. A newcomer may go from elation to depression in a short period of time, or may simply feel a general sense of discomfort, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical. The feeling of being like a fish out of water, occasionally confused or disoriented — is to be expected.

Some students and even visiting lecturers and scholars, in their struggles with the new language and culture, have expressed the feeling of being like a child. In some of the more difficult moments of the cultural adjustment period, an individual may have unusually strong emotional reactions to what in the native country would be everyday, normal frustrations. A person may go through periods of extreme loneliness. Sometimes students will have physical reactions and may cry, or feel like crying, or there may be other symptoms such as stress, fatigue, headaches, stomach problems, or difficulty with sleeping. The important thing to remember is that even though everyone experiences culture shock in some way, it will be different for each person. Some people find it more difficult to adjust than others.

Culture shock is to be expected. It is a normal part of the adjustment process, and with time, the symptoms will settle as you begin to integrate into your new culture. However, should you feel that you are having difficulty coping, or experiencing severe symptoms of culture shock, you should seek counselling immediately. In our culture where individuals often live apart from the social support network of family and friends, it is normal to seek counselling services in times of emotional distress. All campuses offer some form of support, often via counsellors, teachers, lecturers, health centre staff, chaplains, who have experience and understanding in cross cultural adjustment, if you start talking to them, they will assist you to work through where you are at with your adjustment.

Six Stages of Culture Shock

Culture shock can be described as having six stages. After arrival in a new country, everyone normally experiences two low periods (stages 3 and 5) before finally reaching the final level of adjustment. It is possible for some people to skip some of the stages or move through them rather quickly. It will depend greatly on the individual’s personality and previous experience. Change is more difficult for some than others. It is important to be patient and with time everyone reaches the final stage of adjustment and integration into the new culture.

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Stage 1 – Anxiety about leaving home and what you will find in the new country.

Stage 2 – Sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” stage. Everything is so exciting and fascinating. You may feel elation in this period. Everything is new and different. You can’t believe you are really here. Wow!

Stage 3 – The first low symptoms of culture shock. The individual realizes that everything is quite different in the new culture. There are so many things to cope with: language, setting up house, shopping, transportation, classes, homework, lab work, and more. You may feel lonely, or you could feel exhausted from constant struggle to understand a new language and culture.

Stage 4 – Initial adjustment period. You begin to feel better as you learn to cope with everyday routines and problems. Language may or may not still be a problem, but you can now handle basic interactions, and have no problems conducting daily business such as shopping, banking or going to the post office. You should feel initial satisfaction and a sense of overcoming problems.

Stage 5 – This second low stage is normally the most severe stage of culture shock. The individual typically experiences a loss of self-esteem. The language is not as easy as you thought, and you may feel like a child. Your sense of loneliness and isolation has deepened as you have been away from family and friends for a long time now. There is often the feeling of being an outsider, and everything may be viewed in a negative light. You don’t like the new culture. People are unfriendly. You are not what you were before, and you may feel angry and resentful.

Stage 6 – Your sense of well-being and humor begins to return as you establish comfortable routines and learn to understand the habits, customs, foods and characteristics of the people in the new culture. You have made some friends, and are beginning to enjoy things about your new life. You realize that the problems and negative aspects of the new country are not reserved for foreigners, but that even natives find certain things difficult. Your perspective becomes more balanced as you have now begun to see that there are good things and bad things about your new life. Some things you may never like, but you accept it as part of life, the same as we accept both the positive and negative aspects in any relationship.

Adjustment & Coping

Here are twelve suggestions for adjustment and coping in your new life in Australia.

1. Gather information. You might begin by observing the new culture as much as possible. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is a common saying in English. Watch how the locals do or don’t do things.

2. Get to know the community. Learn about your environment through exploration. Get a map and find out what’s beyond the campus. Take a walk in the park. Do some window shopping. Try a local restaurant. Go to the movies. Sit in a local coffee shop and people watch.

3. Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to try. To experience a new culture and learn from it, it’s important to be open to new experiences, try new things, and be curious about the way things are done. If you are confused by something, ask how it is done in Australia.  Most people will be pleased to teach you about their country and customs.

4. Find a balance. Cross-cultural adjustment and integration means adapting to the new culture while retaining your own identity. Extremes of completely giving up one’s own culture or refusing to accept anything about the new culture and clinging fearfully to old ways are unhealthy. Learn to recognize cultural differences and modify the behaviors that are necessary to live comfortably in the new culture.

5. Find people to interact with. Don’t live in isolation from others. Give them a smile or a small gift. Invite them to have coffee or take a walk outside. By taking an interest in other people, you shift the focus from yourself to the outside world.

6. Put your situation in perspective. Many international students and scholars have come to Australia and not only survived, but have learned to be quite happy here. With time you will adjust too.

7. Talk with experienced members of the international community. They have been where you are and can offer advice and support. Ask them what has helped them the most, and what they have found to be most difficult. Some campuses run host programs and will connect you to community members who are happy to talk with you.

8. Establish a routine. There is comfort in the familiar. Eat and sleep normal hours. Have regular mealtimes. Join a sports club or a discussion group or do at least one activity you look forward to on a regular basis at the same time each week.

9. Get physical exercise. A healthy body promotes a healthy mind.

10. Take it easy. Slow down and make your daily tasks as simple as possible. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many details. Get used to all the newness. Take things one day at a time.

11. Work on improving your English and Australian knowledge. Go to the International Office, and find out if there are English conversation groups with fellow Australian students.  If there are not any groups, find out how you can start one.  Here you will have the opportunity to make friends with people from other cultures and build your own confidence.

12. Do visit the your campus International Student Office, here you are welcome and this is the centre where all international communications come from. They are there to help you and answer your questions or just to say hello.