How to Survive (and Thrive) When Culture Shock Strikes

by Kayla Weier

You’ve been in your new city for a few days, maybe even a couple of weeks. Initially you were awed by your home for the next few months; everything was exciting, novel, and pretty. But the luster has started to fade. Not one grocery store has normal looking peanut butter, you feel like a toddler in your communication skills in your host country’s language–and why does everyone here walk so slow when you have places to be? Those cobblestone streets you found so charming before are hurting your feet and destroying your shoes, and you’ve gone from feeling like a daring traveler to an outsider. You’re frustrated, you’re irritable, you’d kill for a glass of water with actual, bonafide ice in it. Maybe you’re annoyed, snapping at anyone who comes too close. Maybe you’re just exhausted, you miss home, and you want to curl up in bed with an entire season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And worst of all: you feel bad for feeling bad. Congratulations, you’re experiencing culture shock!\

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt funny gay kimmy schmidt uks

This stage of cultural adjustment is referred to as a myriad of very reassuring names such as the frustration phase, irritability phase, and hostility phase. And full disclosure: Culture shock sucks. But I have good news too: It’ll end. One day you’ll wake up and find yourself comfortable, at ease, and happy to go about your typical day in your new country as you move through the different phases of cultural adjustment, (which, if that’s what you’re interested in, you can read more about here and here). In the meantime, though, there are a few ways you can break out of the culture shock slump.

1. Accept it.

So you’re not having the best time right now. Best thing you can do is not beat yourself up over it, because it won’t help and you’ll only feel worse. This phase of cultural adjustment is normal, expected, and most of all, it’s okay. Everyone on your program is going through it in their own way. You’re experiencing a major life change, and it’s nothing you (or your host country, even if you feel this way) has done wrong. Acknowledging that you’re feeling moody, sad, and irritated and not ignoring it is half the battle. You’ve probably worked up this image of yourself abroad in the leadup to departure, expected a non-stop adventure and good time for the next weeks, semester, or maybe even a whole year. Trust me, there will be good times, adventures, and personal growth, but not every day will be a good one, just like at home. Bad days and bad moods happen abroad too. Embrace it, and go from there.

2. Let go.

“Try to not live in Italy like an American. Try to live in Italy like an Italian.” My professor gave us this advice on our first day of class in Perugia, Italy. And, going through culture shock myself, I brushed it off, and I remember thinking something to the effect of, “you’ll pry my American habits from my cold, dead hands.” It’s very, very tempting to cling to your American comforts while you’re abroad. I spent the first two months dreaming longingly of a Starbucks grande non-fat vanilla latte.

italy-perugia-by-amanda-moore-city-view-2014
City View by Amanda Moore

However, no matter how different or weird your host culture may seem, people live just as happily this way as you do in the states. This is your opportunity to fully immerse yourself in a new lifestyle. While you’re going through culture shock, you’ll probably feel negatively about your host country and its customs, but try to shift towards the mentality of “different” not “wrong.” The sooner you allow yourself to open up to local culture, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable in it. Do your best to live as a local, and keep an open mind, even when it’s hard. And if you have a really, really bad day, now and then, you can always indulge in an all-American grilled cheese sandwich.

3. Take care.

Eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep. Pretty standard advice, I know, but you’ll be in a much better place for dealing with culture shock if you do it. You won’t be doing yourself any favors if you’re sleep deprived or subsisting entirely on the to-go chips place around the corner– and believe me, I tried. Moreover, exercising can be a good way to establish some continuity and comfort from your life back in the states. Keep up exercise habits if you can like running, swimming, yoga, etc. Look into the possibility of gym memberships locally, you might even be able to get semester passes if you live in a college student heavy location.

Take care of yourself emotionally, too. Stay connected with loved ones back home, and open up to making friends on your program to create a local support network as well. Do the time zone math and set up Skype times with your best friend, your parents, or whoever is important to your well-being back home. Having a conversation to look forward to at the end (or beginning!) of the day can ease some of the homesickness. On the home front, talk to your classmates, your roommates, your program-mates. Sometimes even simple, polite conversations about things like your homework or your weekend or your pets can help with the feelings of isolation that can accompany culture shock. Find an outlet, like exercise, drawing, or journaling.  If you’re feeling really down, or just need someone to talk to, most sites have a psychologist or therapist there to listen and help.

4. Establish routine.

Find your daily flow, and try to involve your host culture and new peers with it. Get up fifteen minutes earlier to go grab a coffee or breakfast somewhere on the way to school. Class will add structure to your day and give you something to focus on. Classes are also the easiest, most accessible ticket to adjustment and immersion, and one of the first opportunities you’ll have to dig into your host culture every day, especially if you have any classmates that are locals. Make dinner dates with new friends at a different restaurant every Thursday night. Prioritize meals with your host family (if you have one). Find a slot in your day for some down time, particularly in those first few weeks when you’re still settling in and everything feels hectic. Keeping yourself busy and consistent will help ease stress by creating familiarity, and taking time for yourself will help with feeling overwhelmed by your host culture. If you make a conscious effort, you’ll find your own comfortable routine just as you do at school in the states.

5. Connect.

While I was abroad in Italy, I went to the same bar every morning for a one euro cappuccino. I chatted with the people working in (very broken) Italian. After a few weeks, they knew me, had my coffee ready every morning when I came in, and I was greeted with a smile.

italy-perugia-by-kelsey-chabolla-stairway-to-heaven-2014
Stairway to Heaven by Kelsey Chabolla

I went to a different cafe by my apartment often with friends, and they knew us all by name by the end. I even ended up befriending the pastry chef (and getting discounted cupcakes out of it). This ties into creating familiarity for yourself, and a sense of belonging in your new home. It doesn’t have to be a cafe, either. It can be a park, a spot around your school, maybe a street you like to walk up and down and take in the sights. It’ll get you out of your house/apartment/dorm, connect you to the community, and create a space for yourself that feels a little more like a home. The more you engage with your host culture,
the more familiar it will feel.

6. Be outgoing.

Have you ever seen the movie Yes Man? I haven’t, but I know the premise– Jim Carrey decides to say yes to anything and everything for a year, getting him into hilarious hijinks, or something along those lines. I tried to adopt a similar mentality while abroad, albeit somewhat more subject to the principles of common sense. Do you want to go to lunch with us? Yes! Do you want to go on this day trip? Yes! Do you want to try this new food? Yes!

This keeps you busy, and you start to experience everything to the fullest during your time abroad from early on. It may be tempting to hole up in your room instead when you’re going through culture shock, but it’s really best to get up, go somewhere, socialize. Talk to different people, allow yourself a change of atmosphere, try something new. You may not have your usual enthusiasm for it, but there’s some real weight to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Getting yourself up and out the door is the hardest part. Chances are, once you’re out, you’ll be glad you went.

7. Explore.

Your time abroad is once in a lifetime. There’s so much new to see, explore, and experience. Take full advantage of it. Those first weeks of study abroad can feel like an uphill battle, I know. I felt frustratingly incapable of the simplest tasks, and I felt blindsided by the fact that every detail of daily life was suddenly different. My mantra those first weeks (and I learned later, everyone else’s) became, “I have no idea what I’m doing here, or why I decided to do this.” I can’t iterate enough that this feeling is normal. There was absolutely no way for you to anticipate exactly how life would be abroad, and you’ll probably often find yourself comparing those expectations with reality.

In the moments where that feeling gets too overwhelming, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you knew this wouldn’t be easy. List out the were reasons you wanted to go abroad. “Curl up in a blanket burrito” was probably not on the abroad to-do list, right? Take another deep breath, for good measure, then get yourself out there. Go for a walk to nowhere in particular. Go people watching. Go on an ongoing hunt for the best snacks, the most interesting building, the cutest local dog (the cutest one in my city was named Pippi, bless her). Plan weekend trips. Plan day trips. Plan Spring or Fall Break. Look up your host city on Trip Advisor, pick one of the top things to do and go do it. Having something to look forward to in the short term can help lift your spirits as you adjust to a new culture. This whole experience is an adventure, get excited about it.

italy-perugia-by-sarah-grimsdale-walking-path-2011
Walking Path in Perugia by Sarah Grimsdale

I’m going to say this one last time: Culture shock is normal. Culture shock is expected. And you are certainly not alone with what you are experiencing. You are neither the first nor last person who will go through this, and you too will come out the other side. My first few weeks abroad, I was riddled with anxiety, isolation, and frustration. But the sun kept coming up, and I kept pushing through, and eventually, things didn’t feel so difficult. Nothing about Perugia had changed, and certainly, neither had the culture. But suddenly, I didn’t mind the uphill walk to school. I didn’t mind I had to hang my clothes outside my window. I didn’t stress out when I stumbled my way through a conversation with the cashier at the supermarket about needing a busta for my groceries. I wasn’t even that devastated anymore that my cappuccino was so small.

Study abroad is the experience of the lifetime, and cultural adjustment is all part of it. This phase is difficult, but you’re not alone and there are plenty of things you can do to help show culture shock out the door a little faster. So take a deep breath, and remember: The first step is the hardest one, and you already took it in deciding to study abroad. You’ve got this.

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