In order to make the most out of your study abroad experience, we want to provide you with the right tools to be able to recognize some of the feelings that come with studying in a new environment.
Most people experience some form of culture shock when going abroad and experiencing different food, customs, language and people. Culture shock is triggered by the anxiety resulting from losing familiar environments and social contacts. While some people experience no problem settling in, other people experience significant stress.
Culture shock is not a disease and you can minimize its negative effects by learning in advance what you are likely to experience after your arrival. In the section below, we describe four stages commonly used to understand the process of cultural adjustment.
Cultural Adjustment Process
|Honeymoon Phase||At first you are excited by the new environment and tend to focus on the positive aspects of your experience while downplaying the difficulties, such as occasional negative emotions and cultural differences that may exist.|
As cultural differences become more obvious, what previously seemed exciting is now frustrating. Mental fatigue may result from constantly trying to comprehend the new culture and language. Insignificant difficulties may get blown out of proportion and become major catastrophes. This may result in frustration and a loss of self-confidence. You may feel isolated and become socially withdrawn. You may also seek security in familiar people and food.
|Adjustment Phase||Everyday activities such as housing and shopping are no longer major problems. Although you may not yet be fluent in the new language, basic ideas and feelings in the second language can be expressed and an initial sense of control over the situation emerges. You start to feel more comfortable reasserting yourself.|
By this time, you can successfully express yourself in a variety of social situations. You may have increased language skills and accept many Japanese customs as a different way of being. You feel comfortable with Japanese people and the language. You may even feel a sense of belonging. You are now bi-cultural.
Note: There are individual differences in the cultural adjustment process, so that not everyone will go through the same stages described above.
Common Problems of Cultural Adjustment
It is said that the negative reactions to culture shock most often happen between two to six months of living in a new culture. In reality, however, there will be individual differences in the duration and intensity of culture shock. Here are some of the common problems associated with cultural adjustment:
- Overwhelming stress and anxiety
- Sense of loss and identity crisis
- Interpersonal problems due to cultural differences
Furthermore, problems may materialize as physical symptoms in the form of headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, loss of appetite and digestive irregularities. You may also experience negative emotions such as anger over minor difficulties, confusion about values, loneliness and insecurity. While culture shock can be troublesome, studying abroad can be an enriching and life-changing experience. Here are some suggestions to reduce the strain of culture shock:
- Be aware of your stress level and signs of culture shock. Normalize your struggle: you are neither strange nor alone to experience culture shock. Use your stress management strategies such as participating in physical and social activities, talking to people, etc. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a counselor at the Institute for International Collaboration.
- Get to know people and the environment. The more you feel comfortable with your surroundings, the quicker you adapt.
- Read a local newspaper and become well informed with topical issues. You will be able to hold conversations with Japanese people and feel less like an outsider.
- Do your best to improve your Japanese language skills: you can watch TV, take language courses and join a conversation group like the Language Corner. If you are unsure of your Japanese, remember that most Japanese people do not speak a foreign language, so they will relish in boosting your self-confidence.
- Get involved in social activities and stay connected. As you become socially active, your support network will expand. Take advantage of social events hosted by the Institute for International Collaboration.
- Ask questions about social customs and norms (e.g. dress code). If you are unsure, it is perfectly fine to ask people you feel comfortable asking. Some Japanese people are very interested in learning about other countries, so it might become a mutual exchange.
- Keep in touch with your own culture. Maintaining connections with your family and friends can help you feel more grounded and secure in a new environment. The International Student Support Desk can be a great resource to find out, for instance, where you can buy cooking ingredients imported from your own country.
- Reflect on situations that irritate or confuse you the most. You may be misinterpreting people’s behaviors or intentions because of the cultural difference or language barrier. Placing behavior in the cultural context is often helpful.