From Culture Shock to Culture Shift
Being able to adjust to a new environment and culture is perhaps one of the most important facets of your experience abroad. Not only will your cross-cultural adjustment help your learning and development in the new country, it will make your international life more rewarding and interesting.
The following observations are taken from Paige's Maximizing Study Abroad.
Physical adjustment: This involves getting used to the more obvious differences — a new transportation system, the foods that you don't have at home, the system of education at the host university, etc.
Social adjustment: This involves deeper acknowledgement and acceptance of the host country's values and beliefs and new ways of doing things. It is possible for you to maintain your own belief system while integrating some of theirs.
Internal adjustment: This is where you come to terms with your own intercultural identity and are able to incorporate and integrate both cultures with a minimum of discord.
People tend to avoid difficulties with cultural adjustment and culture shock by either being naturally comfortable with the above and are extremely flexible (these types of travelers do exist, but they are rare) or recreating "home" while abroad. They surround themselves with their native language, foods and peoples. The question facing these individuals is: Why? Why make the effort to leave home only to take it with you?
Our advice: Go get a bit of culture shock and then develop a culture shift. Explore and challenge yourself to really learn about the cultures surrounding you.
Frequently, U.S. students who have studied a foreign language are surprised to find that they have difficulty understanding the language while abroad. This is normal. At first you will notice great progress; then, a leveling-off; later, more progress followed by another period of little progress. This is how you will learn. Out of this chaos you will suddenly find yourself saying things you will not remember having learned formally. Sometimes you will find yourself short on vocabulary or weak in the use of structures that you have studied many times. In this case, the problem is that you really have not digested what you have learned. When you have, you will surprise yourself by saying things in a moment that before took a concentrated effort to construct. The more you speak the foreign language and the less you speak English, the quicker the learning process will be. If meeting native speakers is difficult, try to find another foreigner who does not speak English. At least you will practice your foreign language.
Your stay abroad should be one of the most vital and rewarding times of your life. The people you meet and the situations you experience will be invaluable in the years to come. Like those before you, you will be challenged in a new way, by no single person, by no single event, but rather by a new way of life. You will most likely encounter new and different views about the U.S. and Americans; learn from them and clarify them when you can. Some of the ideas you have formulated to date will be challenged during the year. You are moving into a different world by choice; be prepared to accept the differences cheerfully and open-mindedly rather than attempting to alter the environment around you. Remember that you haven't really been away until you come home. Don't take stock too soon.