Whether it’s for a semester abroad, or a short-term vacation, when you step foot in a new country or city for the first time, there is always a deep feeling of unfamiliarity. This is known as “culture shock” and is experienced by anyone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. In the blink of an eye, you are thrown into a new environment where life is lived and viewed a bit differently, which can leave you with so many mixed emotions. These emotions are completely normal and I can tell you how to deal with culture shock while you’re abroad.
Luckily, I studied in London where English is the primary language spoken. A big part of studying abroad is choosing a location that caters to your comfort level. If you feel that it would be best to study somewhere where your native tongue is spoken, then go with your instinct and research locations accordingly! If you’re looking for the additional challenge of studying where you don’t know the language, that’s also a valid element to take into consideration when choosing your destination. Avoiding the language barrier can make your transition easier, but either way, you will find yourself in a culture different than your own, and I’m here to explain how you might feel, since I went through the same thing.
Some people start off in a “honeymoon” phase. Everything around you feels so exciting. You try a local dish that you love, find the best spots for nightlife, use local transportation for the first time and you may even have your first conversation with your host parents or one of the locals, attempting to speak in what you know of the native tongue. To you, every little new thing makes you feel even more excited for what lies ahead.
Eventually, the excitement might die down. The abundance of new things may start to overwhelm you. You may find that learning the language necessary to make a simple food order can be much more difficult than you imagined, or that trying to learn the local transportation may leave you lost in a part of the city you have never been before. I know these things, because they’ve happened to me. (I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was admittedly very frustrating).
Here are some of the most important things you can do when you find yourself frustrated:
- Stop, and take a breath. Stressing out and thinking the worst will only make it harder.
- Look for a map and someone who speaks English. If you are using public transportation, every station should have a center with maps and someone who can guide you.
- Ask a local. Most locals are more than happy to give you directions on which line to take or where to stop and get off a train or bus. It took me a few times getting lost before I learned to keep a map with me or ask a local to help me figure things out.
- Download and use a translation app, such as Google Translate, World Lens (this one’s really cool, be sure to check it out), iTranslate and more. These are available for both iOS and Android and will help you break down the language barrier a bit.
Never be afraid to ask for help. Learning to speak up and ask for help is extremely important. Sooner or later, you will find yourself ordering lunch in a foreign language like a pro or switching train lines like a local. All the things that seemed so hard to you when you first arrived will now seem like second nature. You won’t even have to stop and think about what you need to do. I promise, it will feel so good when you master everything. Being able to do all of those things on your own will give you a lot of confidence. You will start to feel like you can do anything you are faced with.
Unfortunately, by the time you become a pro, it will probably be almost time to leave. You have to say goodbye to all the things you have become accustomed to over the past few months. Really living and immersing yourself in another culture takes a toll. But like all good things in life, your time abroad will end and you must bid it farewell. It was really hard for me to say goodbye to my host parents and to attempt to convey my gratitude for all they had done for me. The hardest part was getting on that plane home and saying goodbye to so many memories.
One thing people don’t tell you about traveling abroad is the reverse culture shock when you come home. Driving through your home city will feel so strange. Sleeping in your old bed will be the oddest feeling ever. It took me a while to get back into the swing of things back home. You go on this amazing adventure for months, and you grow and change as a person. However, when you come home, you realize life there is exactly the same. It feels as though your whole experience was just a dream. It can be very hard adjusting to life back home again. It will take some time to get used to, but you will get used to it, nonetheless. The one thing that I think really helps is keeping the people in your life that you shared those different experiences with. When you all get together it will feel like nothing has changed and as though you’re right back at that local pub in your host neighborhood overseas.
I would suggest trying not to focus too much on the past and the sadness you might feel once you’re back home. Instead, focus on your next goal or adventure. Work hard, save money and go back! Stay in touch with the people you met and make connections. The best way to deal with reverse culture shock is to surround yourself with those who feel it too. Reminisce on all of the good times and plan some more!