Dealing With Culture Shock As an International Student
One of our wonderful Oxford Scholastica content interns wrote this article about their experience with culture shock when they started at Oxford University as an international student. We hope you find it useful!
All students starting university can sometimes feel like they’ve entered a completely new and unfamiliar environment, but this can be even more pronounced for international students. Although a new environment sounds exciting (and it is!), you might feel confused and disorientated at times.
This feeling of disorientation when visiting an unfamiliar country is known as culture shock. It is completely normal. If you enter a brand new culture as a young adult, you don’t have the many years of gradual socialisation to your surroundings that locals have had.
That said, if you know something about the place you’re heading to before you arrive, you may be able to deal with culture shock more easily.
In this blog, I’ll take you through the most common stages of culture shock, some major things that can cause it, and ways that might help you to deal with it. Remember that we’re all different, so some of these things might not be as helpful to you as the others.
The most important thing to know is that there are lots of other people feeling the same way as you, and you’ll get through it together!
The stages of culture shock
Although different people have different experiences, a general model can be used to explain the different phases of culture shock. Here are the five stages.
- The honeymoon – When you first arrive in another country, you might find everything is new and different. You may feel excited and curious.
- Distress – After a while, you may start to feel confused or unsettled about differences in culture. You may feel isolated and lacking support.
- Reintegration – You may start to feel frustrated with the new culture and become aware of how much you dislike it. Don’t worry! It’s a normal and healthy reaction. You are starting to become aware of the differences and reconnecting with what you value from your home culture.
- Autonomy – You begin to accept and value both the differences and similarities. You also get more familiar with the new life and culture as your experience grows. You begin to feel more confident and relaxed.
- Independence – You are now confident in almost every situation and most situations become enjoyable. You start to value both differences and similarities and can make choices according to your values.
Possible causes for culture shock
So, what factors can cause culture shock? They don’t have to be as complicated as ideological differences in values and mindsets. They can be trivial everyday experiences. Since I’m an international student from China, I can describe my own experience to illustrate some of the possible causes.
The weather in the UK is quite famous for being wet and changeable. I come from Shanghai and I was used to having more sunny days than rainy days. Sometimes I become frustrated when it rains day after day in Oxford in winter. To make matters worse, the days in winter are much shorter compared to Shanghai, with the sun setting as early as 3:30 pm. Sometimes I just feel I don’t see enough sunlight, which makes my mood low.
Food and dining
I was very surprised by how many potatoes I have eaten in the dining hall so far. I feel I’ve had more potatoes since coming to Oxford than ever before. Back home, they don’t play such a heavy part in the diet. Although I don’t mind eating potatoes, I was a little tired of their frequent appearance for a while.
Also, as you may already know, people dine with knives and forks in the UK while Chinese people usually use chopsticks and spoons. Although I occasionally used knives and forks while eating at western restaurants back home, using them every day for every meal was a bit frustrating at first. I felt so clumsy while cutting meat!
Language is probably the most common challenge faced by international students, even when your English ability is good enough for university studies. When I arrived, I had a bit of difficulty with the variety of UK accents that I just hadn’t been exposed to before.
Also, because I spent a couple of years in the US while in secondary school, my word choice sometimes differs from native UK speakers. For example, I said sweaters instead of jumpers. These differences between American and UK style sometimes make communication a bit more challenging.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Oxford is the British politeness. People literally say sorry for almost anything, even if it isn’t anyone’s fault! After a few days, I felt like I had said sorry more than ever! Also, people hold doors open for anyone coming behind them, even if they have to wait a while for that person to catch up.
A lot of socialisation takes place in the pub. Pubs are popular places for students to spend an evening. Students back home don’t go to pubs that often and pubs are not a major part of social life.
Everyday living experience
These seem to be trivial things, but they may also take a while to get used to. For example, I live in college accommodation and the building is a bit old. The taps for hot water and cold water are separate. The water in the hot tap can be really hot and water in the cold tap is not warm at all! Since I used to wash my hands and face with warm water, it took me a while to get used to the separation.
What’s more, you may be aware that people drive on the left in the UK while in many parts of the world people drive on the right. Sometimes when I cross the street I automatically look the wrong way first. These small things crop up everyday, which means you’ll notice them a lot at first, but it also means you’re likely to get used to them more quickly.
How to deal with culture shock
Now that you’re aware of the possible causes of culture shock, you may be wondering how to alleviate it. Here are my suggestions!
Be prepared before you arrive
The first thing you can do is to be prepared before you leave your home country. You can use the internet to do some research, or read some books and watch some TV shows set in your destination. Having some knowledge about the culture and society you’ll be enteringreduces the surprise when you arrive and can also reduce your anxiety levels.
Remember, culture shock is normal.
Culture shock is a normal experience when you suddenly arrive in a new environment, especially for international students coming from far away. Everyone will experience it at some point and even the native-born UK students can experience culture shock if they leave their hometown and face cultural differences at university. So please don’t think there’s anything wrong if you experience it – accepting it is the first step towards integration!
Maintain connection with home
When you are in a foreign country alone, it’s normal to feel insecure in your new environment. You can try to create a sense of safety and comfort by bringing some familiar items with you, such as photos of your family, to offer you a connection with life at home. It’s also very helpful to keep in touch with your friends and family with regular phone calls, so they can offer emotional support and comfort when you need it.
Attend orientation programs
Most UK universities offer orientation programs to new students to help them get familiar with the campus, and host some fun events to help you meet new people. You can get a much better understanding of your environment and potentially make friends with other new students attending the programs.
Join activities and socialise
I believe the most important aspect when dealing with culture shock is to connect with the new culture. Many local students are curious about international students and keen to learn about your culture, so don’t be afraid!
Taking part in activities is a good way to meet local students. At universities, there are numerous student societies to participate in. Joining one or more gives you a way to relax by doing what you enjoy, as well as offering the chance to communicate with locals and feel part of a community. The more you communicate, the more you’ll learn about the local culture. Also, active communication with native students helps you to improve your language skills, which can greatly increase your self-confidence.
The number one thing to take away from all this is that culture shock is normal, and it won’t last forever!
You might feel disorientated or confused when you first arrive in a new country while studying abroad, but you can help to limit these feelings by doing some research about your destination before you leave, maintaining contact with your home and building new native connections. All of these things can help to alleviate your culture shock and make the most of your time as an international student.
- Take a look at this blog, written by another international student at Oxford University, who shares her experience of studying abroad in 2021
- Interested in learning about culture shock in more detail? Check out this page on the UKCISA website
- Explore our Oxford-based summer schools to give studying abroad a go before applying to university
Title image created from photos by Quote Catalog on Unsplash.
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