Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How to Adapt to a New Culture

Although studying and living abroad can be one of the most fantastic experiences of your life, the beginning of that journey can start out a little bumpy, as most students--including me--experience some sort of culture shock.  If it is your first time abroad, culture shock may not be altogether avoidable.  I believe, however, that it can be minimized.

The first time I moved abroad (to Spain), I had the most horrible culture shock and homesick experience I could have possibly imagined.  Although the first 3-4 weeks were a battle, they taught me a lot about myself and about how to cope.  The next time I moved abroad (to Finland) I knew what to expect and how to approach adaptation.

If it's your first time abroad, if you are going abroad soon, or if you are considering going abroad, here are some of my personal recommendations for settling more smoothly.

Establish routines early, especially ones similar to the routines you keep in your home country.  Find a jogging trail, a favorite restaurant, or neighborhood grocery store.  The more places you establish as "yours" and to which you regularly visit, the more it will seem that you are building a life and not just living temporarily.  A home has to be established.  It doesn't just happen.  It takes effort. Creating a normal routine is key to building your home and not feeling like an alien in a strange place.

Cultivate relationships with other exchange students/foreigners and with natives.  You need to create a support network.  These people will be there to pick you up when you are feeling homesick or help you brainstorm solutions to problems.  Exchange students and other foreigners will be able to relate to your "alien in a strange place" feeling, while natives will be able to help you better navigate the new culture.  After all, you need friends with which you can go out and enjoy all the host country has to offer.  Isolating yourself will only leave you feeling alone and homesick and will increase the risk that you will give up and return early.

Do as the natives do.  Observation has been one skill at which I have become quite adept while living abroad.  I watch others on the bus or in the grocery store.  I observe how others interact with each other so I can act as they do.  No one wants to truly stand out as a foreigner.  I learn things as simple as how to order a ticket on the train or how to weigh my own produce in the grocery store.

Do not complain; problem-solve.  Complaining only fuels the negative fire and makes adjusting so much more difficult.  Instead of complaining to your parents or friends when you skype, describe your problems to them and ask them to help you find a solution.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes.  If you are learning another language, use it! Do not be afraid to make mistakes.  Trying to communicate with help people open up to you and improve your language skills. The more you practice, the more confident you become and the less helpless you will feel.

Studying, working, or living abroad is delightfully rewarding.  You learn so much about yourself that you never would in your home country. When I left Spain, I felt that I could accomplish more than I ever thought possible. My abroad experience had given me a new sense of self-awareness, strength, and courage.

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