Navigating Culture Shock: A Guide for Indian Students Studying Abroad
Studying abroad can be an exciting and rewarding experience for you. It can offer the opportunity to explore new cultures, learn new skills, and make new friends. However, studying abroad comes with challenges, such as adapting to a different education system, coping with language barriers, and dealing with cultural differences. These challenges can sometimes lead to culture shock, confusion, anxiety, or discomfort from unfamiliar environments.
When you arrive at your study abroad destination, it’s normal to feel excited, confused and disoriented as you become accustomed to unfamiliar customs, traditions, and social norms. Remember that this is all part of the study abroad experience to explore new things and different cultures. It may take some time to adjust to this new world. We’ve all experienced culture shock at some point in our lives when we enter a new cultural environment that’s quite different from what we’re used to. We’ve all felt it while travelling or when we moved to a new city for studies or work, and it probably took some time to adapt back then. Now, when you’re about to study abroad, it’s essentially the same experience, just a bit more intense. The culture shock you’ll encounter might be a little bigger than you’ve faced before, but the adjustment process remains similar. In this blog, we’ll discuss the symptoms of culture shock, coping strategies, and effective ways to overcome reverse culture shock.
What is Culture Shock and What are it’s Stages
Cultural shock is a common phenomenon experienced by individuals when they transition to a new cultural environment. It encompasses a range of emotional and psychological reactions as you navigate the unfamiliar terrain of a different culture. To get a better understanding of this phenomenon, let’s dive into its four stages:
- The Honeymoon Stage: During the first phase of cultural shock, often called the “honeymoon stage”, everything may feel novel and exciting. You may experience a sense of curiosity and enthusiasm as you explore the new culture. This is a period of discovery where the differences between your home culture and the new one appears exciting rather than challenging.
- The Frustration Stage: As you enter this stage, you will start to encounter the realities of your new environment, including the difficulties and challenges that come with it. You may experience feelings of homesickness, loneliness, isolation, and a sense of being misunderstood, which may become more pronounced. Negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and anxiety may surface as you grapple with your differences and obstacles.
- The Adjustment Stage represents a critical moment in your cultural adaptation process. In this phase, you will develop effective coping mechanisms and adjust to your new surroundings. You may learn new skills, create routines, and find better ways to communicate and interact with the host culture. Over time, you will gain confidence and feel more comfortable navigating the cultural complexities.
- The Acceptance Stage: During the final stage of cultural adaptation, you feel at ease and self-assured in your host culture. You recognize and value the differences and similarities between your home and host cultures and cultivate a deep admiration for them. As you progress, you may feel a sense of belonging and identity that blends both worlds, enabling you to thrive in this multicultural experience.
Understanding these stages of culture shock is crucial for preparing yourself for the challenges and rewards of studying abroad.
Symptoms of Culture Shock
Symptoms of culture shock can vary from person to person, but a few of the common symptoms include:
2. Anxiety and Disorientation
3. Withdrawal and Isolation
4. Irritability and Frustration
5. Loss of Confidence
6. Difficulty Concentrating
7. Physical Discomfort
8. Fatigue and Sleep Disturbance
9. Idealising Home Culture
10. Desire for Familiarity
Factors Causing Culture Shock
Factors causing culture shock vary depending on the student and study abroad destination. Knowing these underlying contributors can help you understand the challenges you may face when abroad better. Below are some key factors that contribute to culture shock:
1. Cultural Differences
One of the most prominent factors is the contrast between Indian and Western cultures. This includes differences in language, social norms, customs, values, traditions, and even daily routines. Even though we are more familiar with the West now than ever through movies, media and the internet, these cultural elements can still lead to disorientation and discomfort.
2. Communication Barriers
Language barriers can impact the cultural adaptation process. Difficulty understanding and expressing yourself can pause social interactions and create frustration and isolation. Even if you’re going to an English-speaking country like USA, Australia, UK or Ireland, getting used to their accents and slang will take some time. But with time, you will grow accustomed to it.
3. Social Customs and Etiquette
Each country has its own culture and social customs, etiquette and norms. Gestures, body language, greetings and appropriate behaviour in social settings may differ from what you are accustomed to in India. For example, in the UK and Australia, it is frowned upon if you don’t use magic words like ‘please’, ‘thank you’ or ‘no worries’ in every interaction that you do.
4. Education Systems
The education systems of most Western countries differ from the Indian educational system. In India, we are more accustomed to preparing just before exams because they contribute majorly to your grade. Most education systems abroad focus more on continuous assessment and group projects. Engaging with professors, seeking academic support and familiarising yourself with the education system can help ease the transition.
5. Food and Cuisine
Food plays a crucial role in our lives, not just to fulfil our physical needs, but also because it has an emotional connection to us. Some food connects us to feeling at home. But food in your host country could vastly differ from what you are used to. Trying new foods can be exciting but can be a source of discomfort. It is easy in India to find vegetarian or halal food, but that is not the case overseas. Sometimes even Indian food doesn’t taste Indian, but it has been customised for the people of your host country. But slowly you will learn about your new city and find the food you like. Indian grocery stores are not very hard to find, and you can also indulge in some cooking yourself. It is a straightforward 2 step process to cook food like home:
Step 1 – Buy groceries
Step 2 – Call mom and follow the instructions
Voila, your food, just like home, is ready, away from home.
6. Social Relationships and Friendships
Building new connections and friendships can be challenging in a new environment. Cultural differences in socialising, friendship dynamics and forming bonds can impact the ease of building friendships. Getting involved in social activities, joining student clubs or organisations and seeking opportunities to meet new people can help you form meaningful relationships.
7. Homesickness and Distance from Family
Staying away from your family and loved ones does contribute to feelings of homesickness. Missing out on family gatherings, festivals, and celebrations can increase the longing for home. Staying connected with loved ones through technology, having a network of supporting friends and participating in cultural events can minimise homesickness.
8. Stereotypes and Preconceptions
We all have preconceived notions or stereotypes about things and people. You must have some stereotypes about your host country that you might have learned through the media and people. Recognising these preconceived notions and biases can help you be more open-minded towards the new culture.
Coping Strategies for Cultural Shock
1. Self-Care and Emotional Well-being
Adjusting to a new environment can be emotionally draining. Therefore, it’s essential to take care of your emotional well-being. Engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, like hobbies, exercising, or meditation, can help reduce stress and promote emotional well-being. Connecting with other international students going through the same experience will provide a sense of camaraderie and assurance that you’re not alone in this journey.
2. Cultural Understanding and Education
Knowledge about your host country’s history, values and norms is instrumental in fostering cultural understanding. By learning about the cultural context of the host country, you can gain insights into customs, traditions and social norms that shape daily life. Understanding the local culture can lead to better communication, interaction with locals, and appreciation for cultural differences.
3. Exploring Cultural Activities
Engaging in local events and festivities is a beautiful way to immerse yourself in the new culture. Taking part in cultural activities allows you to experience the locals’ unique traditions, art, music and food. Attending cultural events provides opportunities for deeper cultural understanding and offers a chance to meet and interact with locals, contributing to a sense of belonging and connection.
4. Seeking Familiarity
When faced with culture shock, seeking familiarity from home can provide comfort and a sense of security. Connecting with other Indian students or participating in your cultural events can create a home away from home. Engaging in familiar practices, such as celebrating festivals or cooking traditional meals, can help reduce homesickness and provide a sense of continuity with one’s cultural identity.
5. Seeking Professional Help
Culture shock can sometimes become overwhelming, impacting an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. In such cases, seeking professional help, such as counselling services or therapy, can be beneficial. Being from India, we like to sweep things under the mat regarding mental health. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. Most of the Universities and colleges abroad have free counselling services for students.
Overcoming Reverse Culture Shock
Reverse culture shock is a common phenomenon experienced by individuals when they return to their home country after an extended period abroad. The reintegration process can be both exciting and challenging. Here are some strategies to overcome reverse culture shock and make the transition smoother:
- Recognise the Challenges: The first step in overcoming reverse culture shock is acknowledging that it is a normal part of the readjustment process. Disconnection or alienation may arise as you readapt to your familiar surroundings, and that’s okay. Understanding that these emotions are typical can help you approach the experience with patience and self-compassion.
- Share Experiences: Connecting with other returnees or joining support groups can be incredibly beneficial. Sharing experiences and insights with individuals who have undergone similar journeys can create a sense of validation and comfort.
- Maintain International Connections: Staying connected with the friends you made during your study abroad experience is essential in nurturing global friendships. These connections serve as a bridge between your life abroad and back home.
- Reflect on Personal Growth: Embrace the personal growth and newfound perspectives acquired during your time abroad. Reflect on the experiences that have shaped your character and broadened your worldview.
- Embrace the Changes: As you readjust back to India, be open to embracing the changes that have occurred in your absence. Your time abroad may have transformed you in various ways, and that’s something to celebrate. Embrace your multicultural identity and use your experiences to enrich your life and the lives of those around you.
Studying abroad offers a remarkable opportunity for personal growth and intercultural understanding. Embracing a new culture in a foreign country may initially seem intimidating, but with patience and an open mind, it will gradually become a part of you. Remember, the decision to study abroad goes beyond education; it is about broadening your horizons and connecting with people from diverse backgrounds.
Culture is a beautiful creation that unites people, and immersing yourself in a new culture allows you to form deep connections with others. Often, some Indian students make the mistake of retreating into their shells and resisting change. However, studying abroad involves stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing the unfamiliar.
Embracing a new culture doesn’t mean abandoning your own; it’s about accumulating new experiences and perspectives. This process of accumulation is how we, as humans, evolve and grow. So, let go of the fear, embrace the unknown, and cherish the transformative journey that studying abroad offers. By engaging with the local culture, understanding its nuances, and respecting its customs, you’ll thrive academically and leave with unforgettable memories and lasting connections with people from all corners of the world. Embrace the power of cultural exchange and watch yourself flourish in ways you never imagined possible. In closing, remember the wisdom of the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Embark on your new adventure with confidence! Our expert team is here to assist with all your study abroad needs and prepare you for an unforgettable experience. Connect with our counsellors for a free 1-1 counselling session for assistance on your study abroad journey.