Overcoming Culture Shock
20 Dec 2018
Immersion in an unfamiliar culture may be both a beautiful and disturbing experience. At first, we discover exciting things: new people, new places, new food, new ways. However, when the initial euphoria fades and novelty gives way to routine, we start experiencing adaptation challenges. Suddenly, it’s hard to navigate our new environment and overwhelming feelings pervade.
It’s a situation Brazilian Carolina Maleski knows all too well. Carolina is a psychologist who overcame her own initial culture shock as a foreign student before embracing her new life on the Gold Coast. Carolina shared her insights with fellow Brazilian and current Gold Coast student Frankie Barcellos.
How was your acculturation process?
To answer this, it`s impossible not to talk about time. This is a process like any other, with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, for most, is ambiguous. There’s the novelty side of things - excitement, transformation, and hope for a positive future. But there is also fear, which can overwhelm and paralyse us. Overcoming fear is not solely a matter of choice, but also a reflex of one`s internal and external resources.
Our internal resources are basically our ability to deal with what’s going on around us. Two people might experience the same event; however, their interpretations of that event will be different as a result of their own internal resources. What I perceive to be positive may be perceived by you as something negative, for example.
With external resources I’m referring to things like our family network, financial support, and friends. In my case, I had my husband, who played a crucial role in this process. It’s a different scenario when you have someone you can trust by your side. This not only diminishes the feeling of loneliness, but also brings great comfort to know you have someone available to listen and “shelter” you whilst sharing a different perspective on life.
However, I also needed to feel inserted in my new environment as a single, independent individual. I understood that regardless of how great my relationship with my husband was, I needed to feel well in other spheres of my life. I came to realise that for me to feel 100% well, I needed to feel productive by interacting and working with other people.
In the end, we must realise that time is essential for all these things to come together, and for us to feel well. For some, it happens faster, for others it might take longer. I took my own time.
What was the hardest part of this process and what strategy did you use to overcome it?
Definitely, the sudden loss of what`s familiar, the distance from our support network. This can cause anxiety and make us feel lonely and with low self-esteem due to our incapacity to feel inserted in a new culture.
It’s important to take it easy on yourself. The tendency for us is to be harsh on ourselves, constantly demanding fast results. This demand for success becomes dangerous. We must see ourselves as being brave for facing the challenge of moving abroad, instead. As soon as we realise that the acculturation process is long and requires patience, time and emotional investment, the feelings of guilt and fear give way to feelings of achievement and self-satisfaction.
That was my strategy, to empower myself and celebrate each achievement, regardless of how small, which gave me reason to celebrate every day.
What are some of the challenging feelings international students should expect to have and how should they deal with them?
The most common are vulnerability, fear, and anxiety. The fear inherent to change, adaptation to a new environment, and grief for what was left behind, lived simultaneously with the euphoria of a new perspective are sometimes hard to balance internally. I believe the best way to deal with this is to share what`s going on with people around you. When talking to other students about your feelings, you will realise you are not the only one to feel this way. That`s also an important exercise of exchange and empathy.
Look for support within your educational institution. They are familiarised with situations concerning international students and should be able to help. It is also important to know if there are any other institutions near you that can offer support. It’s not rare that places which welcome a great number of students each year offer such services.
What advice would you give to people moving overseas?
Prepare yourself psychologically. We usually prepare ourselves financially and in other practical aspects, but rarely for the difficulties and challenges we may face.
The idea of living abroad is usually solely associated with the good things that are ahead of us, but we must also become more aware of the challenges ahead - though it’s not always easy to deal with the unknown. Talking to others who have had a similar experience before is great. Try and get as much information about what it’s like to live overseas - ask for suggestions, advice and tips. Do some research on the different aspects of your destination like cultural and social aspects. This should help in making things more familiar and even ease that initial shock.
While you’re abroad, try to see the bright side of the new things you experience: the people, habits, ways of living. Seeing the experience as an adventure will open our minds to embrace new forms of seeing and living life. It’s like a re-birth - exploring our new environment and interacting with new people within a new context. In this sense, we learn how to develop ourselves again, and in ways we had never imagined before.
*Frankie Barcellos is a Brazilian student currently studying for his Masters in Communications at Bond University.