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Now that you’re abroad

Two students in front of street lamp  

Two students in front of street lamp, Bordeaux, France, fall 2008




As you prepare to study abroad, you have gone through a number steps: you have made sure you were academically prepared, you secured the necessary finances and funding, you prepared yourself to say good-bye to the comfort of family, friends, and familiar surroundings, and booked travel arrangements, you worked on acquiring language skills, and read materials that you thought would help you make that big step to life in another country.

So, will all this preparation, you think once abroad things should go smoothly, right? Fitting into your new routine in a totally new education and living environment, will be a breeze, right? But know now, that if that actually happens you are among a small group of individuals, indeed!

Most people who move between cultures (for study, work, tourism, or to take up a new permanent residence) experience a period of adjustment as they establish themselves in their new environment. The adjustment period may be accompanied by dramatic manifestations of symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, digestive problems, and sleep disorders, or may bring less severe symptoms such as discomfort and a more volatile temperament. Research shows that most people who sojourn outside their home culture experience cultural adjustment in similar ways which, when charted, have come to be known as The U Curve of Cultural Adaptation. It is called a "U Curve" because people generally start at a high point, then experience a decline, or depression, before a leveling off period, then go through a critical "recovery" stage and end up more or less balanced, where they began. When charted, it looks something like this:

If you should experience any of the difficulties of learning to live in a new culture, it is important to recognize that you are not alone! You are in step with thousands of others who have crossed cultures for whatever purpose.


Cultural Adaptation is a Natural Process

Your worth as a person, your strength, your stamina, and your flexibility are not in question! You are not lessened by the cultural adaptation process; it is simply a natural phase in the overall cross-cultural experience.


Cultural Adaptation is an Individual Process

You may not experience the adjustment process in exactly the same way as your classmates. Each person's experience is shaped by what s/he brings to it. In the same fashion, the rapidity with which you go through the adaptation is highly individual. For some it is a question of weeks, for others, months. And some experience the process more than once during their sojourn! 

Some people find cultural differences interesting and stimulating, and they want more! Others, when experiencing discomfort or confusion, have a tendency to judge or evaluate other people and to reach negative conclusions. Surely the first type of person has the greater possibility to gain the most benefit from his or her stay in a host culture. Perhaps this information will assist you in making your experience an adventure, rather than an ordeal! 

If forewarned is forearmed, then certainly you will be ahead of the game if you THINK about what you are experiencing, and if you have some idea of what to expect. The "U Curve of Cultural Adaptation" may help you understand your transitional stages.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation

The Honeymoon Stage 

Common thoughts during the Honeymoon Stage include:

Isn't this exciting? I can't wait to tell _____ about this. Aren't
they interesting? Everything here is so _____!

Characteristics of the Honeymoon Stage:


  • You are busy taking care of business (registration, housing, bank account, etc.)
  • You are observing the new culture and familiarizing yourself with the new environment
  • You are meeting useful and friendly university staff
  • You are making your first social contacts with members of the host culture
  • You are seeing and doing new things and enjoying a new world


The Conflict Stage

Common thoughts during the Honeymoon Stage include:

We would never do that in my country! Why can't they just
_____? I only have __ months before I go home. These people
are so _____!

Characteristics of the Conflict Stage:

  • You begin to desire more personal relationships with members of the host culture
  • You find you have little time or opportunity to make friends
  • You are feeling isolated, out of place
  • You may feel tired, sick, depressed, angry, or frustrated
  • You have a growing awareness that your home culture's behaviors may not be accepted in the host culture, and you may have to give up, suspend, or modify your own behavior
  • Your high expectations remain unmet
  • You blame the host culture for your problems
  • You spend lots of time with members of your home culture complaining about the host culture
  • You experience problems with the subtleties of the target language

The Critical Stage 

Common thoughts during the Critical Stage include:
Why shouldn't they say/do that? We say/do that too, but

Characteristics of the Critical Stage:

  • You choose to become an "explorer" in the new culture
  • You accept the challenge of self-reflection
  • You assume responsibility for your own cultural adjustment


The Recovery Stage

Common thoughts during the Recovery Stage include:
You don't understand them like I do. I'm beginning to like this.

Characteristics of the Recovery Stage:

  • Your language skills improve noticeably
  • You begin to understand the actions of members of the host culture
  • You have finally made friends and feel part of the community
  • You develop a greater tolerance for what is strange and new
  • You become a mediator between the two cultures
  • You feel proud that you can make yourself understood in the target language and that you can understand native speakers


Hints to Make the Cultural Transition Easier

Ask Questions
Ask questions of the practical nature, such as "Where may I find foodstuffs from my home country?", or "Where is the nearest bank?", but also ask questions about persons' opinions on things, and about their experiences. Ask for their reactions to happenings, newspaper articles, television programs, etc. You may find that some stereotypes you held about your new host culture are crumbling!

Learn and Practice The Local Language
There are regional and local variations to most languages. Learn the version that pertains in your new host culture. Watch television, listen to the radio, read local newspapers, and Talk! Talk! Talk! with persons you encounter everywhere you go during your everyday routine.

Observe Ritual Social Interactions
Notice what people say and how they say it when they greet an acquaintance, when they are introduced to a stranger, when they take leave of a friend or of someone they have just met. Watch for variations with age, sex, and apparent social status.

Take "Field Trips"
A field trip is a visit to a place where you can observe what happens. Yours may be conducted in a visit to someone's home, at the grocery store, riding public transportation, attending a church service, or visiting a public school. You may be amazed by how much you can learn simply by observing. 

Talk with Experienced International Students
One of the benefits of studying at most universities abroad is the presence of other international students from different countries. Their experiences can be an invaluable resource for you, the new sojourner. Don't limit yourself to members of your own culture group: be adventuresome!

Keep a Journal
Journal-keeping is a time-honored method of coping with a new culture. Writing about your experiences forces you to be observant and to reflect on what is happening to you and around you.

An abundance of materials exist about your new national, regional, and local host cultures. Newspapers, magazines, and the university libraries are excellent resources for your quest.

View Yourself as a Teacher
You can use your stay abroad to teach at least a few host country nationals about your home culture. Thinking of yourself as a teacher may give you additional patience and help you avoid becoming irritated when asked questions which may seem just plain stupid to you!

An essential part of the cultural adaptation process is taking time to reflect on what is happening to you and around you. Demands of academics are rigorous and reflection time won't happen unless you purposefully set out to reserve the time for it. As k yourself such questions as "What did I expect from my study abroad experience?"

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