Culture Shock: International Students Share Their Experiences & How They Overcame the Challenges

The world consists of an ocean of different groups, different rites, and different cultures. Over the years, individuals manage to know people who are different from them, not only physically, but also socially, to recognise a culture and the behaviours those people manifest in different situations, to know the traditions, the way of life, and countries as a whole.

Culture Shock – One of the Main Challenges Faced by International Students 

When people move to an environment which is different from the one they used to live back home, or in a few words when they become part of an unfamiliar culture, they can experience “culture shock”.  Culture shock can affect everyone. It includes different social behaviours, different practices and different ways of living.

International students are among the ones who can experience culture shock the most, from the way other people eat, how they dress, what they consider rude or many other behaviours.

They may even feel anxious, stressed or confused at first while being in an unfamiliar environment, often not knowing how to react to certain situations in which they find themselves for the first time. However, it does not mean that culture shock should prevent students from having one of the best experiences as a student, being an international student.

International Students in the Netherlands, China, & Finland Share Their Experiences

Several international students interviewed by Erudera College News have shortly shared their experiences as international students in different countries of the world, highlighting also the culture shock they experienced.

Natacha Bruna from Mozambique, a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, Netherlands describes her experience as an international student as the best of her life, advising students worldwide to do it if they have the opportunity.

According to her, despite the fact that it could be quite challenging in the beginning, the study abroad experience helps students to grow academically, professionally and mentally.

“It is challenging to be in a new place, where you don’t have any friends and away from your family and from your comfort zone. But it is actually an opportunity to discover and explore yourself. By studying abroad, I found how resilient and strong I can be. I found out that it is easy to make new friends and new family for life,” she told Erudera College News.  

Student Natacha Bruna during the Opening the DD16 PhD Conference, at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Speaking about culture shocks, Natacha said she felt a huge difference in the way people interact with each other, claiming that building relationships is quite different in her homeland, Mozambique.

“I had some cultural shocks being an African student in Europe and especially in the Netherlands. In Mozambique, people are “warmer” so I felt alone sometimes. But being in an international institute helped a lot as I had the opportunity to meet a lot of other students that were struggling with the same issues.”

Whereas, for Usman Ashraf from Pakistan, a Phd candidate in development studies, also an international student who has studied in a few countries of the world, such as the Netherlands, China and Finland, the culture shock was also inevitable.

Similar to Natacha, making friendships was also a challenge for Usman. Different from his country of origin Pakistan, he said it was not only hard to make friendships, but also to maintain them.

“In our culture, if you meet somebody, let’s say 2 or 3 times, and you had a good time you start developing friendship. However, it was not the case in NL or China or even Finland where people remain much more reserved and treated you as acquaintances rather than a friend”, he said, adding that the way Pakistanis treat their friends is also very different from what he used to see in countries where he pursued studies.

“For example, for us, being friends means you share and if your friend does not have the money you pay for him/her. You invite them to home, etc.”

Student Usman Ashraf at the China Agriculture University, Beijing, during a lecture on Marx’s Capital

In addition to building relationships, Usman said that another particular thing he noticed regarding the differences in culture was about countries’ traditional events.

“In Asian societies, you find different events which are traditional and have some relevance with culture. Like in Indo-Pak we have a big festivity that happens with the harvest of wheat. Similarly, In China, there is an event in which almost all city dwellers go back to villages to attend their elders’ graves. I did not find many events that have traditional or cultural roots. Maybe one of such event in NL was Zwarte Piet”

Tomoka Adachi, a graduate in Development Studies at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands said that being exposed to different values and norms in the host country made her feel an amazing experience as a study abroad student. According to her, being an international student was a self-discovery journey which has constantly been changing.

 “There were many ups and downs along the path. “Honestly, I enjoyed the process of being open-minded, understanding and making sense of things and eventually integrating to share similar values. Personally, I have changed in a positive way and realised there is no right or wrong in the world we are living in. These are all matters of perspective,” she said.

Netherlands-based Japanese student Tomoka Adachi during a visit in Barcelona, Spain

As per culture shock, Tomoka said she has experienced culture shock and reverse culture shock when she first studied and lived abroad. However, as years passed, she got used to different cultures. 

“Since then, whenever I move to a new environment, the cultural shock appears less and less as I tend to understand and adapt to the local culture faster and easier.”

In a blog post published by Education World, Amy C. Johnson, PhD / Associate Professor at Ashford University said that differences are what make people interesting and by highlighting differences among different cultures, people admit they are not all the same.

“Encourage your students to bring in common items from their culture. Japanese utensils look very different than American utensils. A hacky sack in Cambodia looks nothing that it looks like in the U.S. A pair of shoes from a Chinese ancestor who practiced feet binding would surely fascinate the children,” she said.

Top Tips for International Students to Overcome “Culture Shock”

Culture shock could also be a positive experience, as students can learn many new things. However, it is good to know a few things you can do to overcome or minimise the impact that culture shock can have on you.

  • Keep the familiar things with you, such as photographs
  • Eat food that you used to eat back home
  • Make new friendships; learn about others cultures
  • Exercise or search for a job

According to UNESCO, there were over 5 million international students pursuing higher education worldwide in 2017, a figure that increased from 2 million in 2000. 

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