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Moving abroad to study? Coping with culture shock

November 30, 2009 14:19 IST

Moving abroad to continue your studies can be a daunting prospect. Ann Graham, an education journalist and web content manager of topgradschool.com tells you what to expect and how to cope.

"Buy a couple of jackets if you're going to study in the UK," Aarti Kukreja advises. "And take at least three umbrellas too," she says. "It doesn't take much for them to get broken in the wind." Originally from Mumbai, Aarti, a Masters in Marketing Management graduate spent one year studying abroad in the UK. "I thoroughly enjoyed student life, particularly at the University of Kent. It gave me the opportunity to experience student diversity and I was able to share, understand and enjoy various cultures."

Living and studying abroad is an exciting experience that requires preparation, but it's not as easy as packing your bags and hopping on a plane. You also need to be prepared for the shock of landing in a new country, a new culture and unfamiliar surroundings -- in fact, your education starts here. Be prepared to experience culture shock.

Some of you may say "Culture shock? Not for me. Where I'm going is an hour's flight from home". It's true the degree of difference in one's own and the host culture is important, but this is not the only variable. And let's not forget that the concept of culture can also be used for an organisation, institution or a group. As a result, even a simple reorganisation may generate culture shock.

Murugappan Alagappan left India three months ago for the USA. He'll spend the next two years studying for a Masters in Computer Science at The George Washington University in Washington DC and has already experienced a very different culture in the classroom. "One of the main differences is the number of students in a class room and the interactions of the teacher-student relationship. We Indians never call elders or teachers by name, but here the teachers like to be addressed that way."

The four stages of culture shock

So, what is culture shock? Well, it's a mix of emotions -- feelings of loss, confusion, stress, anxiety and impotence that come from both the challenge of new cultural surroundings and from the loss of a familiar cultural environment. It can be divided into four stages:

  • The honeymoon: "Oh, this is wonderful. Let's go there. Amaaazing!" You are obviously excited and have an idealised view of the new culture. Anxiety and stress may be present but your general euphoria overtakes them.
  • The crisis phase: "I am tired. No one understands me. I want to go home!" Could be something you would say just before you kick the closet with your bare foot. Reality is back. This phase occurs anywhere from the first two weeks to several months. Some of the differences you found so "amaaazing" in the first place, start to get on your nerves. You're struggling to make yourself understood by locals, you feel like a child; confused and tired.
  • The adjustment phase: You're still here. Well done. Understanding, acceptance and adaptation are key now. In this phase you will start to face new challenges in a positive way. You will finally understand the new culture is different, you will accept it as it is and start to adapt your values, personality and behaviour to the host culture.
  • The resolution phase: "This is home guys!" You have developed your routine and the efforts you put in place in the previous stage are now imperceptible. You are stable emotionally and you feel comfortable.

Prem Prasad finished his undergraduate education in Bangalore before working for around four years in India. In 2005, he enrolled in the masters programme at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and is currently pursuing his PhD in aerospace engineering. He's experiencing a culture that does things very differently from his own, both inside and outside the classroom.

"It has been a delightful experience in the Netherlands both as a masters student and as a PhD candidate. In the academic environment the most striking and impressive aspect was the flat hierarchy in the faculty. This encourages an open and frank discussion of ideas between students and staff. The Dutch are known to be straight forward in their approach and you will see this when you get here. You don't have to worry about reading between the lines and searching for hidden meanings. They will clearly and openly express their approval or disapproval of your work. It took me a little time to get used to, but then I realised that this approach was more effective and saved a lot of time."

However, in more general aspects, Prem says the food and weather are the two things that present challenges for people coming from abroad, especially from a place like India. "The Dutch like to have a couple of cold sandwiches and cold milk for lunch. This is a big change to most Indians, who are used to eating warm food for all meals. And the Dutch weather is always an excellent topic for conversation. I think there is a saying that all months that have the letter 'r' in it do not have reliable weather. But just like with the food, you slowly get used to it and work around it."

How to deal with culture shock?

Being able to identify culture shock is the first step towards dealing with it. If you feel tired, emotionally sensitive, critical of the culture, or if you want to go home, it's a normal reaction of living and studying in a different environment, so don't give up. Just understand, accept and adapt. And with these top tips to help you cope with culture shock, once you graduate you won't want to leave.

  • Read up: Before you go, read some books about the place where you will be staying. This will help you develop more realistic expectations and will involve you even more in the project.
  • Be safe: Cover your basic needs and ensure your security is met. Choose a safe area to live in, ensure your budget is under control, bring any medication you may need with you, as well as your earplugs if you are sensitive to noise. You can also create safety and reassurance by bringing familiar items with you.
  • Stay in touch: Just because you're on the other side of the world doesn't mean you need to miss out on the gossip at home. Stay in touch via MSN, Facebook, Skype, blogs, telephone and post. It may be difficult sometimes to keep a relationship going only by e-mail, so pick up your phone from time to time, it really makes the difference. Murugappan has just bought an unlimited India Time card which costs around $60, plus $25 a month so he can call home whenever he wants. "I also brought photos with my family so I can look at them whenever I feel homesick," he says.
  • Bring home to you: In times of instability, a feeling for your own culture when abroad is always comforting -- speaking your own language, eating typical food, reading a newspaper from home. But be careful not to overdo these tricks as it could be a way of resisting the change. This was one method Aarti used to keep culture shock at bay. "I appreciated the company of people from different backgrounds with different lifestyles, and how we all came together to achieve our dreams and pursue our careers away from home, with only the support of one another," she recalls.
  • Make friends: Maintain a network of people you love, trust and who will give you confidence when you feel unsettled. If you're a fan of rugby or cinema, join a club. This is generally a good way to meet local people in a relaxed atmosphere. If you're not a fan of anything in particular then try something new.

Now you should be more equipped to face culture shock. Indeed, some people don't feel it at all, others feel it strongly. The intensity of culture shock depends on so many factors that you can't really generalise. But at least you are aware of it. It is a real chance to get to know the outside world.

Make the most of this experience and wherever you are in the world...have fun!

Ann Graham, topgradschool.com