Oh, the joys of going on an exchange far away from home. As your new adventure is about to unfold in front of your eyes, the excitement you feel as you step for the first time into a foreign land is unique. All is well until your safe bubble bursts, and you feel the weight of the world come crashing down on you.
The excitement suddenly turns into anxiety. You start to miss your friends, your home, your cat, and you just cannot understand how the postal service works here! If you are experiencing the symptoms above, well, the diagnosis is clear: you are suffering from Culture Shock! Thousands of young people that choose to go on an exchange experience this – one of them was me.
To be clear, the uncertainty, disorientation, and emotional upheaval that comes with immersion in a new culture are called “culture shocks”. Even though they may feel overwhelming initially, these culture shocks can help you grow as a person. My journey in Norway enabled me to understand Cross-Cultural understanding’s relevance, and new experiences helped get me out of my comfort zone. But how do you cope with culture shock, you ask? Let me give you some advice:
1) Remember – this is normal
Culture shock is part of the experience – look on the bright side: it is a means to help you get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Make the best out of any situation and hardship that may arise along. You will be able to look in the mirror and realise how much you’ve grown at the end of your experience.
2) Find a healthy distraction
When you feel that things are becoming too much, find something that sparks joy within you. Relish in it for a while. It could be anything from wandering in an art museum to sipping coffee in a chic café downtown simply feeling the air breeze around you – the possibilities are endless, and nothing compares to that limitless feeling when doing something you genuinely enjoy.
3) Try to see things from the eyes of your host’s culture
The easiest way to do this is to make local friends who are eager to teach you about their culture. Who knows, you may find more similarities between the host’s culture and your own culture than you initially expected. Share your thoughts and feelings with them and develop long-lasting friendships you wouldn’t have thought you could.
4) Detach yourself from the people at home
Sure, it is nice to keep your friends and family updated, but don’t constantly seek their attention. It’s normal to want to speak to those closest to you who make you feel comfortable and safe, but if you feel like talking to them makes you miss home even more than you already do, try putting your phone down for at least 5 hours a day. Think of how many things you could get done in those 5 hours! You could go on a hike, eat at a local restaurant or just go shopping. Embrace the world around you without feeling tied to your home roots!
5) Be open-minded
One of the most important lessons I learned about culture shock is that it is NOT a bad thing. It all depends on how you look at it. Accept, adapt and learn. Constantly think about how you can improve yourself through your experience, and don’t let the bad thoughts get in the way of living your best life.
6) Always remember your “WHY”
Often, when things become overwhelming, you may forget your “WHY” – why are you there in the first place? Is it because you want to develop yourself by bringing an impact on the world? Is it because you want to boost your career with international professional experience? Whichever the reason may be, always remember that you’re there with a purpose, and it’s up to you to discover the value of your experience and the importance it holds to yourself.
To conclude, as George Santayana says in “The Philosophy of Travel”, “ There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour”. Give yourself space, time, and other support you need to adapt, and you will see that, eventually, all’s well that ends well.
My exchange with AIESEC is probably one of the best ways to experience a new culture. The organisation offered me a support system during my exchange that made culture shock more bearable. Once it is safe to travel again, in which country would you love to experience cross-cultural understanding?