But, even though all exchange students participated in a one-day preparatory meeting, no kind of preparation could have avoided the inevitable culture shock I was experiencing - and I am glad it didn’t! Many people confuse the term culture shock with the phase of feeling discomfort, confusion, frustration and homesickness before adjusting to a foreign culture. However, culture shock is so much more!
It also includes those first weeks or months of the so-called “honeymoon phase” where you are super happy to be in that other culture and everything you experience, from cultural aspects such as ways of living and interacting with others to clothes, music, and food, seems exotic, new and exciting. You are, so-to-speak, wearing your pink-coloured culture glasses and cozily float on a cultural cloud nine!
However, as I was going to experience soon enough this feeling didn’t last forever. After about two months, things started to feel odd. Differences became more apparent. I started missing my friends and family more and more. Frustrating thoughts increasingly populated my head: “Nobody really understand me, my English is not good enough. I wish people would just be able to speak German for one day! Why is it so impossible to find proper bread (‘proper’ in my opinion referring to bread from Germany)? I wish public transportation would work the same way as at home! And so on.
These thoughts were of course highly unproductive and unhelpful. However, these are part of the process and herald the “negotiation phase”. Feelings of anxiety would creep up on me from nowhere! Homesickness would dominate most evenings. Of course it was not like this all the time. Initial ‘honeymoon’ feelings of excitement and exhilaration would take turns with feelings of disorientation and frustration. Phases are not clearly marked because each phase overlaps with the next one and sometimes you feel like you take two steps forward and one back.
Over the next few months, though, feelings of adjustment and belonging more and more superseded those feelings of displacement and homesickness. I developed my own little routine, learned to adapt to stress through various techniques, and made many new friends. I had slowly and unknowingly entered the “adjustment phase”. I had learned what to expect in most situations, had adapted my own behavior and learned to appreciate new ways of thinking and attitudes. My English had improved dramatically - not only my vocabulary had expanded significantly but I also thought and dreamt exclusively in English! During those months I had developed a very interesting sleeping pattern where I would sleep approx. 14 hours a day straight. My mind needed time to recover after experiencing so many challenges throughout the day - speaking English, dressing differently, attending class at High School, making new friends, observing and processing differences, adjusting my own behavior, analyzing the meaning of what people say and translating it into something I could understand and appropriately respond to etc.
Things started to make sense and I understood Australian culture better and better (or at least the culture lived at my host family and High School in Sydney)! That was a major breakthrough for me personally. Every day I felt more and more comfortable with my new home. I adopted many new traits while also keeping earlier ones from my home country. I would often refer to myself as ‘having a second nationality’. This process which occurred over my last few months abroad is called the “mastery phase”. My happiest moment was when my dear friend one day remarked during a conversation: ‘You are Australian now, Jude! You sound just like us!’ She knew what she was talking about, had she not seen me transform from a silent timid German who could hardly follow a conversation to an almost accent-free bicultural Australian/German?
I want to point out that the effects of culture shock are different for everyone and can result in different behaviors and feelings. The timing of the different phases also varies a lot from person to person. One thing’s for sure though: Culture shock is inevitable and acceptance is the first step towards adjusting better to a foreign culture.
Here is my 5 cents on what has helped me deal better with culture shock: Try to really put yourself out there and make friends! Talk, even when you make mistakes! Develop a routine! Think about how you dealt with stress at home and apply it in the new culture: Yoga, sports, going for a walk, talking to a dear friend? Try to be positive and see the good aspect in everything. Negative thinking is a vicious circle and can quickly pull you down. Also, laugh about yourself or whatever is frustrating you - humour helps us make light of a situation. Always remember - what can I learn from this? Don’t try to negate the positive aspects of the other culture. Often there is a valid reason behind why things are done that way. Realizing that doesn’t mean you have to give up all you are and believe in! It merely widens your horizon and helps you negotiate between different cultures. And I believe that if you manage to acquire those intercultural skills during a culture shock, the previous feelings of disconnection and anxiety are well worth it. Maybe if we all did an exchange of some sort we would live in a more understanding, peaceful world.
The best thing for me personally is that I am still in touch with my host family that I stayed with now ten years ago! I visited them again with my Mum, and they visited me in in Europe and will come again soon to visit me in Buenos Aires where I currently live! I am very grateful for their friendship and hospitality while I went through culture shock - it certainly can’t have been easy! Their own unlimited generousness has been a great role model to me and has convinced me to host my own exchange student when I am older.
Judith Enders grew up in Germany and studied International Business at Maastricht University. Having studied and worked in seven countries on three continents, Judith is currently residing in Buenos Aires working at NGOs and giving intercultural training. Before that she worked for two years at Google, Ireland and traveled for 5 months through 14 African countries.
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