Definition of culture shock: ‘Culture shock’ is a term used to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves from a familiar culture to an entirely different cultural or social environment. Familiar sights, sounds and smells are no longer around and small things can easily upset a person and can feel out of proportion.
Finances, independence, housing, homesickness and peer pressure are at the top of any future international students list – but what about culture shock? It sounds like no big deal when, in fact, culture shock hits EVERY foreigner in the face at some point or the other, making it a very big deal!
The reasons educational finances and the other worries listed above are at the front of the mind is simply because they’re visible problems that students foresee immediately. Culture shock, however, is not!
The thing about culture shock is that it will sneak up on you, jump out and surprise you when you least expect it. Obviously, some people are used to adapting to different cultures depending on their personality or a having a lifetime full of travels but this is much rarer than it is common.
How you adjust is entirely up to you!
There are different ways that people deal with new environments. Some people begin to pick up on the new accent while others go into hiding to avoid awkward circumstances – but here’s a little piece of advice for you: Prepare yourself!
Preparation is the key to anything; whether it’s studying for exams, saving up money or bracing yourself for a huge change in culture.
In order to minimize the ‘shock’ part of it, you need to prepare yourself mentally and physically. It won’t stop the culture from shocking you entirely but it will allow you to begin to accept the necessary changes much easier and with a better attitude.
The first, most obvious way to begin preparing yourself is to do a bit of research on the vicinity you’re relocating to. Get a feel for the population, different cultures within the location, types of restaurants and stores.
To help you get started, here are some of the biggest and most helpful changes to be aware of BEFORE you arrive at your new, American university:
The best way to think of the U.S. is by looking at the map and drawing three imaginary lines, evenly space, horizontally parallel to each other? Confused? Print out a copy of the United States of America (and no, Canada isn’t a part of America at all) map to your left and just draw three straight lines from the left side of your paper, to the right side, splitting the U.S. into three equal parts.
Now you have a top layer, middle layer and bottom layer. If you’re traveling to a university within the top layer, your new climate will be the coldest of all the states with lots of blizzards, snowstorms and ice. These are the states closest to Canada, which, if you’ve heard, is a pretty cold country.
The middle layer of the U.S has more mild states that typically have the aftermath of the North’s snows during winter and the South’s rain after hurricanes during the summer. It doesn’t get too hot, nor does it get too cold unless there is a freak storm that hits that region.
The bottom layer is the hottest of all the states simply because it’s closer to the equator than the other states. There weather deals mostly with rain, hurricanes and tornadoes but is generally sunny and hot most of the time.
Whichever layer of America you’ll be travelling to, pack your clothes accordingly. A tip for all international students heading east is to always pack a jacket with you. Even the hottest states get cold from time-to-time!
Sticking with the layer system, the North, or top, has a broader ‘O’ and ‘R’ sound. For example, New Yorkers might say New Yawk. The middle layer has a pretty neutral sound American accent with the words pronounced exactly as they’re spelled and the bottom layer has that Southern twang that’s often exaggerated in movies, i.e., y’all, howdy, pardner and so on, so forth.
There are many different accents in the U.S. but the most common part of it is the letter, ‘R’. Americans have a very hard ‘R’ which is said as, ‘are’ and it’s this silly little letter that distinguishes the American accent from any other accent. If you can pronounce a hard ‘R’, then you’ll already have half of the accent down!
This aspect of culture change is often used in parodies because Americans are much less extravagant with their spices than other cultures sometimes are. While the jokes often revolve around that, some people actually believe it to be true without giving American food a chance and sticking to their home diet found in international stores.
What most people don’t understand is that Americans like to bring out the flavor of the dish they’re cooking and enhance its natural flavor with herbs, salts and peppers. This doesn’t mean the food is void of taste; it just means that they have a different flavor than you may be accustomed to.
If you’re in a new country, embrace it and live a little and eat new things! America is known for its diverse culture so there will always be at least one restaurant in which you can find your home food.
As with any continent in the world, how people dress varies on moral beliefs, religious beliefs, popular fads and fashions and personal style. If you’re coming from a conservative background, you may see a little more skin than you’re used to but that’s okay!
If you’re comfortable in your own clothing, then wear it. There may be occasions where western wear is more fitting but you can remain just as conservative as you feel comfortable.
No one expects you to change your beliefs just to fit in. The amazing thing about the U.S. is that there are literally hundreds of different cultures all living together. You’ll have a better chance of finding others with the same background as you instead of sticking out like a sore thumb because of what you wear.
Perhaps the biggest shock of all is the people in your new surroundings. The reason is, with people come opinions, different looks, different hand and facial gestures, different personalities and most difficult, different morals.
Some cultures wave their hellos while others give a kiss on each cheek, often accompanied by a hug. In some countries, alcohol is legal and in others, it’s not. Slang used in certain places that are acceptable is offensive or unacceptable. Different cultures have different versions of trust where one might be satisfied with just a lock of the door with others needing a much stronger enforcement such as guards or dogs.
People are the hardest to prepare yourself for because of all the worries that fill your mind, long before you ever step foot onto the airplane and head off to start college life. You have no idea how others will react to you or your beliefs and the worry that accompanies those fears is completely normal and understood.
Unfortunately, the problem with letting your uncertainties rule you actually sets you up for the biggest feeling culture shock has to throw on you! Accept that culture shock happens to millions of people each year, whether by vacation, immigration or higher education. It’s just a part of life that comes with the opportunity of a lifetime and while you can’t see it now, it will benefit you enormously in ways you can’t even imagine yet.
The bottom line? Although it’s easier said than done, get a grip on your worries and let them work for you through preparation, not against you, scaring you out of a great experience!
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