Cultural Adjustment During Study Abroad

Written for & published by (Nov 2012) Wellness Wednesday column

Link to original article:

By Melissa Doman, M.A.

Salutations study abroaders!

Now that all of you have hopefully done your pre-departure research on your destination host countries and study abroad programs – let’s talk about the wonders of cultural adjustment. Rest assured, although it may be a little bit of a roller coaster, get prepared for one of the best rides of your life!

The key theme in your study abroad process is change.

It’s normal to view change as a bit scary, as it’s unknown and unfamiliar. Here’s a novel thought though – I challenge you during your international process to view change as exciting and positive. Believe me, it does a collegiate mind and body good. Changes involved during cultural adjustment and broadening your worldview is not only incredibly unique, but it’s also very character building. Before we get to the silver lining of your worldview of international human diversity being broadened, let’s talk about nitty gritty of cultural adjustment during the famous “honeymoon stage” that all of you will be likely to experience.

When you first arrive in your host country, I often like to dub the beginnings of the “honeymoon stage” as the “shiny new things make me super excited!” phase. You're hearing a new language, seeing new sites, witnessing cultural interactions different from anything you’ve ever seen, and may be eating foods you cannot pronounce. It’s perfectly ok to be excited about these things, they are in fact some of the primary reasons you chose to go overseas. What I want to prepare you for is the potential subsequent rough patches that may occur – which are perfectly normal and only temporary.

Please understand that cultural adjustment, while it may be uncomfortable, will not feel that way forever. Remember that when you may be rubbed the wrong way by stark cultural differences, are feeling out of place, homesick, or feel irritated from not understanding the locals –these feelings are temporary.

These are normal expat growing pains – and everyone pays their dues kids.

When I lived in South Korea teaching English, you better believe it was overwhelming to not understand the language, not be able to read any signs posted, and be thousands of miles from home. I stand here today thankful for that experience. You will be too.

Two character traits that will be your best friend during cultural adjustment are resiliency and adaptation. By developing these skills when you’re overseas out of your comfort zone, not only will they benefit you during your cultural adaptation process, but they will also serve you well when you encounter hard times back home in your country of origin.

Here's 5 reasons, echoed by mental/medical health professionals via CNN Living, why working on these skills will benefit you when the going gets tough:

1.     Be a survivor! Avoid worse case scenario thinking – usually these events won’t occur and odds are you’ll be just fine.

2.     View setbacks as temporary. Try to see difficulties as challenges and as opportunities for growth.

3.     Don’t get frozen by the ‘what if’s’. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in these situations, but as my fellow traveling sister/go-getter woman extraordinaire reminds me, “don’t get paralysis by analysis.”

4.     Take care of yourself! Self-care is an integral thing during cultural adjustment. Whether it’s exercising, journaling, making new friends, or picking up a new hobby – do something that’ll give you feel-good sensations to get you through.

5.     Don’t embark on the journey alone. By having friends to go through this process with, and people at home, they will remind you of the amazing thing you are doing and how much you are growing from it (and odds are the people at home are wishing they could go through it with you too!).

Per the usual, I’d like to leave you with inspirational words of an adventurous traveler. As philosopher Martin Buber said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Cheers everyone!