Traveling and living in an unfamiliar culture can be incredibly exciting, but it can also present significant challenges. Some of the differences you identify in the host culture will be obvious: language, climate, clothing, food, etc. Other differences, however, will not be obvious, and you may not notice them at first. These differences can cause feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration, as you feel cut off from the cultural cues and patterns with which you are familiar.
Remember that experiencing these stresses is a normal part of the cultural adjustment process. The best defense is educating yourself about the host culture prior to departure, recognizing the symptoms, and developing healthy strategies.
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The Cultural Adjustment Cycle
Your adjustment process will vary with the length of your program and the level of immersion, but many people describe the cultural adjustment process as a series of ups and downs.
This is the stage that occurs when you first arrive and everything is exciting and new. You may have a heightened sense of enthusiasm. You might focus on the similarities between your home and host countries.
Culture Shock occurs when you realize that you are in a different environment than what you are accustomed to. You might feel impatient, irritable, or disenchanted with life in your host country. You may rely on familiar activities and friends and start to question your own values and those of the host country.
You are beginning to adjust to the language and culture and realize that things are not as bad as you thought when you were coping with culture shock.
At this point, you realize that there are just some things about the culture that you will never like or get used to. You may become quite homesick, discouraged, or disoriented and feel hostility towards local people and customs.
Acceptance and Comfort
You begin to reconcile who you are within the local culture, and to recognize changes in yourself. You experience a renewed interest in the host culture and have a more constructive attitude. You feel adapted to the host country and may not want to return home.
You may feel anxiety as you discover the rules and habits of your new environment. Through it all, keep in mind that you left the United States to learn and to adapt. If you are really unhappy, don't hesitate to ask for help. Find a few people who are supportive and understanding.
You can minimize culture shock by studying your host country's language, culture, and history, and by retaining a sense of humor and positive outlook. Keeping in touch with friends and family at home is very important, but try not to use loved ones as an escape from the host country. This may cause you to completely miss out on the host country.
Identify a "Cultural Informant"
Find a trusted host country national willing to explain the culture to you from an insider perspective. Your informant could be an on-site staff member, host family member, or peer with whom you feel comfortable. Ask all of your embarrassing (and potentially offensive) questions, and you will likely be more accepting of cultural differences, rather than simply frustrated by them.
Find Your Stress Relievers
Try dealing with cross-cultural issues through creativity, exercise, and your other favorite (safe and culturally-appropriate) stress relievers. Keeping a journal may help you to keep a sense of perspective throughout your time abroad, and offer an opportunity to vent some of those feelings that you might not necessarily want to vocalize.
Resist the Temptation to Withdraw
Don't sleep too many hours or spend too much time alone in your room. The sooner you involve yourself in activities and establish a new routine, the more comfortable you will feel.
Remind Yourself of the Goals You Set
Don't forget your goals, and, if they were unrealistic, admit it. Reassess and reevaluate your plans. If you are not too hard on yourself for making mistakes and are willing to look silly upon occasion, you will learn more.
Keep in mind that you will never completely escape your heritage and become a "native" of the host culture. This is not a failure. It is simply a fact. Living in a foreign culture is enriching, rewarding, and is a tremendous opportunity to bring back with you an appreciation of cultural difference in your home country.
A note to women:
Women might not have the same status or role in the host country that they enjoy at home. Consequently, they could find themselves in situations where they experience powerlessness and anger. Many host country nationals have a distorted and stereotyped image of American women (often acquired through TV and movies).
A note to minority students:
Students who are members of visible and non-visible minority groups might face particular challenges in the study abroad setting. For example, African-American students in St. Petersburg and white students in the Dominican Republic could experience similar feelings of discomfort. In addition, GLBT students who could be open about their sexuality on the home campus may feel pressure to modify their behavior in a culture where homosexuality is either not accepted or is even against the law. Read more about "Diversity and Inclusion Abroad."