With the introduction to a new culture come the peaks and lows of culture shock. This past fall 2014, I decided to take on the world for the first time, starting with Europe. I applied through the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) and made the best decision of my life to spend 4 and a half months living in the beautifully different city of Reggio Emilia, Italy for Spring 2015 (I am currently in the program). I had never experienced anything divergent from my life in the United States, so I was in for a surprise when I realized that everything I knew to be “normal” would change. From the way you open doors, to the way that you walk down the street, every little thing I came into contact with would take adjustment. Through my experiences in new countries so far, I would like to share some ways to overcome culture shock from the perspective of a current study abroad student.
Initial Interaction with a New Culture
When first stepping off the plane, it feels a bit awkward. Everyone rushes you through the normal landing procedures at the airport, only this time it is a million miles a minute and in a different language. Not to mention, more often than not, the people around you will most likely be staring and laughing at you because you seem different to them. Different look, different language, different everything… it would be hard not to stare. But fear not, the best thing about being a part of a study abroad program is you are given amazing advisors in the foreign country that help you along every step of the way. Take advantage of their knowledge about the city and surrounding area. With their help, diving into a new culture will be the experience of a lifetime.
Adjusting (Absorb like a Sponge)
As you hit the streets of your new city, the stares and different way of life will continue to surprise you. It may seem embarrassing at first not understanding the things that are so normal to the locals of the city, but everything takes time and practice. Absorb everything like a sponge because this is the new life you will be living in and its time to adjust!
Personally, I love being immersed in new cultures and taking on their way of life, however, the strangest little things will present themselves as new challenges. For example, in Italy, during lunch (about a 4 hour span of time) everything closes. All independent shops, restaurants, and fruit stands lock up their doors so that the workers can enjoy some time to relax. I completely support this life style, although, I was a little thrown off at first. It took me a few weeks to realize that this did not include major grocery stores and chain shops. It also took me a few weeks to get used to the fact that everything closes all day Sunday. Plus, Italians don’t eat dinner until around 8 or 9pm creating a new issue of restaurants not opening until that time. Oh, and bikers and drivers don’t stop for any pedestrian so I had to learn to be light on my feet to avoid being run over.
Little differences like these unexpectedly allowed for my stress to kick in. Why was everything so different? I missed my comfort zone in Mountain View, CA and my life at my home University. However, I quickly snapped out of this when I realized that I was accomplishing my dream. This adjustment was just part of the experience.
Homesickness and feeling sadness are natural, but just remember and appreciate where you are and that this experience will go by faster than you think. Remember that, for the most part, everything in your hometown is going at the same pace that you left it, but not you! You get to see that there is so much in the world to explore.
Peaks and Lows
The best advice that I can give about culture shock is that it is a roller coaster of peaks and lows but the peaks make up for the lows every time. Frustration and anxiety are paired hand in hand when adapting to a new environment. Change is hard but it allows us to grow and experience life to its fullest. When you end your experience taking with you amazing memories, culture shock will be the most insignificant one. Embrace it and remember that culture shock is something that everyone goes through.
Written by Amanda Bradrick, Reggio Emilia Program.
USAC – Your Gateway to the World