When I decided to study abroad in India, my home school advisors offered me some words of caution: I was sure to experience culture shock at some point. I was unsure of exactly what culture shock was, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster defines ‘culture shock’ as, “A sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” I would argue, though, that even with all the preparation material one has access to, culture shock for places like India is almost unavoidable.
My program advisor at IFSA-Butler did an amazing job of helping me understand culture shock. Feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness, homesickness, or frustration are just some of the symptoms. Students may also withdraw physically, emotionally, spend an excessive amount of time on social media, become irritable, or become hostile towards their host country.
Four phases of culture shock:
- Fascination – This usually occurs at the beginning of one’s study abroad adventure, and can be viewed as the “Honeymoon” stage. When everything is new and intriguing, there are few problems, and you’re just happy to be in your host country. This phase, unfortunately, is usually short-lived.
- Friendship – This is the phase in which you begin to bond with the people around you in order to make your situation more comfortable. While it may be easy to bond with your fellow American students, reach out to local people your age in order to avoid adapting a “we-them” mentality or secluding yourself from your host culture.
- Frustration – Adapting to a new culture might make you feel overwhelmed, sad, or frustrated. When the new and exciting things about your host country become more familiar, adjusting to differences of living in a new country can seem difficult and disheartening.
- Fulfillment – Though the previous stage may be difficult, it can eventually lead to growth and self-awareness, generating a sense of fulfillment. This can happen when you accept that the culture you are in will not change, and if you want your experience to be satisfying, you must adapt to the new environment by learning to adjust to it. This requires compromise, but will eventually be a very rewarding experience.
Remember the length of these four phases vary for each individual.
I experienced this cycle exactly as it is listed. After arriving in India, I was fascinated with the culture that surrounded me, and quickly began to bond with those around me, especially my fellow American peers. My resident director introduced me to a local student my age. Having the opportunity to talk about my experiences with someone who knew the local culture was very helpful. The first month of my time in India went by so smoothly, it was almost easy to believe the warnings about culture shock had been wrong.
My bliss lasted until about a month and a half into my semester. Then the frustration phase began. It started with little things, like not being able to effectively communicate with shop owners or rickshaw drivers. It was also hard getting used to the dusty city and the cold bucket showers. The little annoyances began to turn into a longing to be home –where I could take a hot bath and feel clean, and get to my destination effortlessly. It wasn’t long before I noticed my homesickness was causing me to stay inside my homestay rather than experience my host culture.
I knew I needed to make more of an effort to interact with others during cultural activities, even when it made me feel uncomfortable. After making this effort, it was easier to truly learn from my host culture. I felt more engaged and content after participating in these activities. When I did experience frustrations, I overcame them by being more accepting of differences and learning from them.
My classmates told me of similar experiences. Laney, a double major in Bio-Chemistry and Anthropology from the University of Denver, said that she too experienced the honeymoon phase. When she did reach the frustration phase, not only did she feel the symptoms of exhaustion and sadness typical of culture shock, she felt as though she was the only person who did. She compared her feelings to her friends by viewing their social media, and observing her fellow classmates. It seemed they were all dealing easily with the transition. Not only did Laney feel alone in how she felt, she was missing the support system of her friends and family back home. She said that while she still is experiencing culture shock, it has been important to learn how to step back and try to see the country through a new lens and not just as an American. This helps her to better understand and adapt to her host culture.
Traveling and studying abroad in India, while an amazing experience, can at times be stressful and overwhelming, and is almost sure to bring about culture shock at some point in your adventure. In my experience, the best way to react to culture shock in India is to accept that you cannot change the situation and to choose to learn from it, rather than wish that you can change it. Choosing to go out of your comfort zone by making friends with locals and participating in the culture can help you to have a better experience, as well. Overall, I think the most important way to prepare for the shock of India is to be aware and make the best of it by being open-minded and willing to cultivate knowledge and personal growth.
Grace Carson is a Journalism and Political Science major at the University of Denver and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler’s program ‘The City, The River, The Sacred’ in Varanasi in India in Fall 2017. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.