Culture Shock: Insights & Stages

Everybody thinks if someone has done something enough times, it makes to live abroad easier… It is not necessarily the case, you know. I can say I have gotten used to culture shock effect now. I can recognize my stages of it, but I still go through them. It is a natural psychological process, and no one skips it. Do not worry; awareness is what you need in this case. 
Let’s are going to Moscow. It has been your dream to go to Moscow, your lifelong dream. You have a certain picture of Moscow in your mind. In reality, for one week it is wonderful during the honey moon stage, when everything is exciting and new, because you have never experienced it before.  Second week…hmmm. Third week, you understand that the dream is starting to crumble. You are frustrated or depressed, and it is culture shock. Then what?

At the next stage you feel You want to go home, you do not really want to be there anymore, the things around are too much for you. To create a daily routine is a solution. Continue doing what you do every day. It would be nice bringing items that you use on a daily basis and that are familiar to you, like a pillow or a blanket. It could be just music, a nice "homesickness" playlist. I know this might sound kind of childish, but actually not. When I go and live in a new place, I bring pictures of my friends and put them around my office or on my desk. Also I always try to find my favorite local restaurant, where I go every day and order the same food. It is very helpful because like at home I know the place and the people there know me. Here, in Moscow, I have two such places, which are near my dormitory, and one near the university.

After that you are moving to the adjustment period. We have an expression in English: “You get in the groove of things”. You start to expect all those culture differences that were unknown and frustrating at first. You recalibrate your life. This is a period of time when your new friends are going to be very helpful because they know how everything works. Find a commonality between you and the locals. It is easy to find in sport teams, for example. Football is football everywhere.

I lived in West Africa for a little, and I met some Germans who worked as volunteers there. West Africa is very different from Germany… in all aspects. Germany is super organized in everything, while in West Africa there are no real official procedures. So these German volunteers were having such a hard time. Finally, one day I heard one of them talk about football and how much they missed watching football on TV. Meanwhile, in Ghana football is a famous sport and children play it everywhere! I bought a football for them; during the break time I invited them to play with locals. In 20 minutes I had 15 locals and 3 Germans playing together. They did not need to be frustrated by anything and they could focus on the game. Germans realized that Ghanaians play football just like Germans do. That connection helped them a lot. Germans made friends and the locals took them to the coast, they traveled together. 

I suggest having both local friends and friends from other countries. If you are coming from Russia, for example, find a Spanish person, find a Canadian person, and find a Ghanaian person. What is interesting that they are also new in a host country. You all have different difficulties. You can talk about it and walk through it with these people. Maybe, they notice things about the local culture you did not notice.

In a new place you are searching for support on the administrative level too. Every university has an international students office, and their sole purpose is to deal with and help international students. Usually they all have studied abroad themselves, so they all have international experience and they know what it is like. Sometimes what you just need is to be heard. It is crucial when somebody can say: “I know bureaucracy is hard, but we assist you to deal with it”. Be open about what is going on, if you are having problems, if it is difficult to do essays, for example. Also talk to your professors about it, ask for advice from them.

Orientations are absolutely important and I am going to repeat that again, do not miss orientation weeks. This event is set up specifically for all the questions you are going to have and even if you do not know them yet. It allows you having a great cultural positive experience instead of having 6 months of miserable, depressing and frustrating time. Go to orientation week!

How to adapt yourself to differences in academic issues? Undoubtedly, the student should have done some work and looked how another university is organized before they go abroad. Find the answers to the questions: how you are going to be learning, how you are going to be graded or marked, what the purpose of the certain course is, etc. It is like a job description what is expected of you before you enter the door. I always introduce myself to the professors in the first week. “Hi, I am Kristina! I am from Russia. I am an exchange student. I took your class because it is one of my research interests, and I am looking forward to learning a lot.” Professors appreciate that so much because, first of all, they are humans; they want to know their students. Secondly, if you do have problems with their course, they want to be informed and they will be willing to help you. For example, if there is a part that is most difficult, they can say: “Oh, Kristina, you know this project is a little bit difficult. Maybe, you can try using these resources online or these references”. 

Finally, if you have stayed abroad long enough and you have adapted, you have good adaptation skills, you really integrated yourself into the local environment, and you started to accept the local culture. What is really interesting, this experience has become a part of you. You have to reorganize yourself to be able to survive in a new environment, and living in another culture actually changes who you are on the fundamental level. Once you are experienced, you can never be unexperienced again. This happens to me multiple times. When I come back to the place that I left, I do not see it the same way, maybe, for good, or for bad. You now have kind of host countries’ filters: Spanish filter, French filter, Australian filter, or Japanese filter.  You have the ability to look at things differently, you start to question things in your home routine like: “Is this what I want to do?” It can cause people a whole new set of problems called reverse cultural shock.

How to adopt when you return home? It is the same process of finding routine and finding friends who had lived abroad. When I returned to Vancouver after my life in Taiwan, I found out I had only my local friends. They did not know Asia and did not recognize my experience. Well, I went to Chinatown and met there some Taiwanese, who were born and raised in Taiwan. The guys were foreigners in Vancouver and were passing all stages which I had known already. We shared our expertise and fully understood each other.

Maybe, Chinatown is a drastic measure. Anyway, do not be scared to go abroad and to have fun from it!

Kristina Hopkinson
MA student in Political Analysis & Public Policy, NRU HSE


About the Author: Kristina was born in North America; she has lived and has studied in Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Italy, Canada, and Russia. Now she is on exchange in France. She knows about culture shock firsthand even because as her undergraduate degree she studied cultural anthropology and how humans go through cultural adaptation.