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Culture Shock: Fact or Fiction?

Cultural Adjustments

First and foremost, please know that culture shock is real and it is normal. You may become very tired four to eight weeks into a semester-long program – physically, from trying to understand language, customs and a myriad of unfamiliar daily tasks, and emotionally, because as hard as you try to reach out and connect, you realize that you will never really be one of the locals. Disappointment can set in. Suddenly you may feel that the food is inadequate, the facilities aren't clean enough, people are abrupt, and the bureaucracy is relentless.

These symptoms are signs that you know enough about the culture to recognize the differences. Now is the time to use some proven techniques to help yourself through the culture shock and into the next stage of full participation and enjoyment:

  • Acknowledge that culture shock is normal and that "this too shall pass";
  • Write about your concerns in your journal and sleep on them before you call home or act on your grievances;
  • Talk with other study abroad participants and staff, and provide support for other students;
  • Keep busy and set some concrete goals;
  • Resist withdrawing into yourself or surrounding yourself with other U.S. citizens;
  • Avoid being judgmental – look on the positive side of diversity and difference;
  • Take care of yourself with enough sleep, etc. and revive your sense of humor.

Above all, get involved in activities you enjoy and don't succumb to the temptation to withdraw—remember, you're a risk taker! Before long, you will find that you're enjoying your new life and that there actually are things that are better abroad (gasp!). Also, don't take yourself too seriously. Laughter is the best medicine. In fact, it will be the most embarrassing moments that will make the best stories when you return home.

Special Concerns

Students with distinct ethnic backgrounds and those of distinct sexual orientation are sometimes more concerned about where they will fit within their new environment. In some cases your background will provide a challenge, in others it will not. In many situations, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, you will find you need to adjust to accommodate your host culture. You can neither expect nor demand that others adjust to yours. This is true for all students and should be kept in the back of your mind when dealing with the challenges of study abroad.

Some Questions to Ask

The following questions will help those students with special concerns think about their upcoming experience. The questions were originally developed for minority and female students. However, all students should read them and consider the answers.

  • What are the minority groups in your host country? Will you be a minority in that country?
  • What are men's, women's and minorities' roles (social, professional, religious, etc.) in your host country?
  • Do men, women and minorities have equal opportunities and protection under law? Equal educational and professional opportunities?
  • Do women and minorities serve in the military?
  • Do women work outside the home?
  • What type of leadership roles do women and minorities hold?
  • How do men treat local women? How do they treat American women?
  • How does the host country population view minorities within the country and elsewhere?
  • Is there a women's rights movement or a civil rights movement?
  • Are there special concerns or issues that women and minorities should be aware of before they study abroad in this country?
  • Where do women and minorities fall within the social hierarchy?

Questions from: The Center for Study Abroad, University of Rochester,
1998 Pre-departure Orientation Materials

Ethnic Background & Study Abroad

Study abroad can have a life-long impact on an individual. As with anything new, study abroad evokes a change in the way you see yourself, the world, and most importantly, your place in the world. Placing yourself in a different context from what is "normal" is an eye opening and enlightening experience.

If you are a student of color studying abroad, this may be one of the first times you have thought of yourself, or have been identified by others, simply as an "American." As a visitor, you most likely will not be seen by your host culture as an ethnic minority. Editor and African American traveler Elaine Lee said after her many travels abroad that "most of us are not fully aware of the stress involved in being an African American until it's absent. Then it feels like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders." Ms. Lee's experience could be true for many people of color and is an important and unique experience that studying abroad allows.

If you are studying abroad in search of your cultural roots, you may find that your expectation of acceptance and understanding from your host culture on the basis of having a shared ethnic background is not met. For example, if you are a Vietnamese American, don't assume that Vietnamese will treat you as "one of their own." Likewise, if you are an African-American studying in Kenya, don't expect your hosts to see you as African. Granted, not all people of color will have the same experience abroad for they are as diverse as the countries they will visit. However, your ethnicity may play a role in defining the expectations you have of your study abroad experience and is something to consider before you leave.

If you are an American of European descent, studying abroad may also be the first time you are labeled as an "American", or the first time you become conscious of having an identity based upon your nationality. This is a unique opportunity for white students in the United States to begin to understand, if even in a small way, the experiences of minority groups in the U.S. It's a chance to walk in another's shoes, and we encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity as much as possible.

Women's Issues Abroad

Unfortunately, thanks to popular films and television shows broadcast around the globe, the stereotype of American women as sexually promiscuous has made its way through much of the world. Because of this misconception, you may unwittingly find yourself the object of unwanted attention abroad, whether it is through whistles and stares or more direct propositions. It is important to be aware that in some countries, behavior that could be defined as sexual harassment in the U.S. may actually be perceived as a compliment by both men and women in your host country. This is especially true in Southern European, Latin American and African countries, where whistles and comments about a woman's looks as she walks by can be considered a sign of admiration rather than a demeaning objectification of women.

If possible, talk to women from the host culture before leaving the U.S. What are their perspectives of women's issues and rights? Depending on the culture, some women may feel more or less comfortable talking about gender issues. Try to respect the situation they are coming from, but don't feel that you have to put aside your beliefs and embrace their cultural values.

Also, be aware of the stereotypes held of American women before you go so you know what to expect and have some understanding of why you are treated a certain way. There is a wealth of books and web sites that have information specifically for the woman traveler. Journeywoman is an on-line magazine for women who love to travel. It is dedicated to giving women a space to share their thoughts, experiences, and advice about world travel. Lonely Planet also has an excellent web page on resources for the woman traveler.

Cultural Concerns For Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Students

While Scandinavian countries are known for their wide acceptance of homosexuality, the intolerance of gays, lesbians or bisexuals may be extreme in other locations around the world. Please understand these cultural views before you leave and consider how you will address this challenge. In some countries, it may be dangerous to be "out". Don't be afraid to discuss your concerns with your program sponsor. They can assist you in learning as much as you can about the resources in your host country that exist for gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

The "Rainbow Special Interest Group" (a.k.a. Rainbow SIG) of NAFSA: Association of International Educators has a wealth of information on their Web site. Specifically, they have resources for students to help prepare them for their study abroad experience.

Additionally, there are several publications with useful information about international travel. Planet Out Travel has a very informative Web site that focuses on international travel for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The site includes information on gay-friendly accommodations, restaurants, bars, events and organizations around the world. They also have a chat line in case you have a specific question or need advice.