Culture shock might seem like something you only really experience on your first day or so of being in a new country, but in actuality, it tends to be a process.
Edu Canada has detailed the five stages of culture shock international students tend to experience, to varying degrees, across the course of their time away from home.
From the first few days away from home, all the way through to moving back, international students are constantly adapting to their environments.
1. The ‘I love my new country, the world is fantastic, I am fantastic, yay!’ stage
You arrive and the weather is different and the food is amazing and there are so many people to chat to and there’s so much to do!
You’re in the ‘honeymoon phase’, where the world really is your oyster.
What is unfamiliar to you doesn’t seem all that disorientating because the experience is new, you are excited and you are curious.
This stage can last just a short while or anything up to a few months before you move on to…
2. The ‘I miss my mum, cat, friend’s fish, and local corner shop, the world is over’ stage
Suddenly, the bubble pops and it all comes crashing down (or at least it seems to feel that way). Edu Canada calls this the ‘hostility stage’ where you feel touchy, inadequate and perhaps even a little disappointed.
The novelty of your new life begins to wear off and what was once fascinating becomes mundane. You begin to miss home, and start longing for your family and friends, and anything which reminds you of your old life.
But hang in there, because this stage brings with it your new identity. When you start to really notice the differences between your home country and study abroad destination, you are becoming less of a tourist and more of a (not-quite) local.
You might be one to quickly beat these feelings by moving onto Stage 3 pretty much immediately or you might spend a little more time feeling like you are not a part of your host country. If you respond with the latter, you may feel you have failed to integrate properly and avoid cultural differences at all costs.
But have faith, because these challenges will only make you a stronger person, self-assured and ready to face the world. Plus, before long you will reach…
3. The ‘Okay, actually, I got this’ stage
You are now going through the ‘adjustment phase’ where you start to realise you are in control. You find a new sense of independence and learn to cope with the world around you totally alone (along with a solid group of new friends but shh, it’s all you).
Right now, you are transitioning into your fully formed international student identity. You may still make generalisations about the culture or even stereotype occasionally but what is important is you are beginning to really understand your new country not just on the surface, but really understand it. And that takes time.
Now, instead of freaking out at the cultural differences between home and here, you are able to laugh in the face of any problems which arise (okay, probably not literally). When you master this you will enter…
4. The ‘I belong here, maybe it was meant to be, this is my home now’ stage
This is the ‘interdependence stage’ where you now feel accepted in your host country. Your identity is made up of many different parts, some from home and some from your new country.
You feel more settled and comfortable in yourself and the places and people around you and can recognise what impact your actions have on the cultural environment you live in.
Of course, as an international student, you wish to build a multicultural – or at least bicultural – identity and have a well-rounded view and understanding of the world and the many cultures within it. But try to focus on your own personal journey because that is far more important in determining who you really are.
5. The ‘being home is so weird now, what do I do? I miss uni’ stage
One of the strangest things you might not have thought about when studying abroad is experiencing culture shock all over again when you return home. You will have become so used to the way of life in your university country that coming home is likely to feel nearly as bizarre as heading over did in the first place.
This is called the ‘re-entry stage’ as you adapt to a culture change all over again. The reverse culture shock may come as a surprise – you are home, after all – but it is only natural things will feel a little strange for a while as you settle back into your old life as a new person.
Full of stories of your experiences from your time abroad, you will crave someone to share it with, yet may find you are met with blank faces.
You are a different person and it might not strike you just how much you have changed until you are back in your old environment.
Hopefully, soon enough, you will feel just as comfortable in yourself back home as you did at university… And if not, you could always move back?