There is a very predictable pattern in the lives of all first-year and transfer students domestic or international. When you first hit your new campus, everything is so new, exciting, charming, and fun. There are orientation activities, mixers, parties, events, and activities meant to get students out, meeting each other, and getting to know the campus. We call this the “honeymoon stage” of culture shock. You feel very much like the tourist, enjoying all your new environs have to offer. But then one day you wake up with a mind shift.
The “Fight or Flight” Stage
Suddenly everything and everybody seems so materialistic, shallow, ethnocentric, bigoted, and the list goes on and on. You may find yourself being extremely judgmental and critical of your host country, the culture, and the people around you. You may think your domestic peers eat too much of all the wrong foods, are too loud, or are too nosey. You are missing your home, your country, your culture, your friends and family, and your lifestyle in general. This is the crisis stage of culture shock. You are feeling overwhelmed by all the changes you have to deal with and your minority status may be making you feel marginalized.
Common reactions to this crisis stage are what give it the nickname of the “Fight or Flight” stage. This is when students resist adjustment and want to return to their home country and old friends. Many students begin to feel they have made a mistake and start thinking about leaving or transferring. You may become angry and start mocking your host country culture, something which can be very dangerous. You may become terribly unhappy – even depressed – and as a result, you just want to escape and withdraw from it all. You may end up self-isolating, avoiding others, or refusing invitations, all of which can lead to loneliness and despair.
Other signs and symptoms of culture shock can include paranoia, anxiety, fatigue, feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, boredom, or confusion. It is not uncommon to have frequent complaints of physical ailments or sleep disturbances. Sometimes the student health services will take notice of frequent visits for health complaints and suggest students make an appointment with the student mental health services or a counsellor to talk about culture shock and adjustment issues. Don’t be afraid to make use of these services.
“I really miss home”
Homesickness is best described as a longing or an aching for the familiar things from home. It doesn’t necessarily mean missing your parents, friends or other tangible things, but instead, you associate home with feelings such as love, affirmation, and security.
Homesickness is tough to avoid – not just for international students but all students. Many domestic students are also far away from home, maybe for the first time. Homesickness is an expression of grief. You are grieving over all the things you have left behind – losses. Domestic students share many of the same losses that you do – home, family, friends, routines, and way of life. Not everyone will necessarily experience homesickness, but for those who do, it will manifest itself in different ways for different people. For some, it will be preoccupying thoughts of home. For others, it may be frequent phone calls home or feelings of anxiety or discomfort. For most people, it is manifested in a good cry and generally feeling blue.
How to beat homesickness
- Plan a time when you don’t have to be anywhere for a while.
- Put your favourite music on.
- Look at your pictures from home, scrapbooks, or school yearbooks.
- Have a good cry.
Once you’ve done that, perhaps get on the internet and chat with your old friends and see what they are up to, or call home and have a nice, long talk with your family…then go cry again. It’s okay to give in to homesickness and do it right rather than trying to beat it back and be on the losing end of things. By allowing yourself to openly grieve you are validating all the joy and good things from home; they are worth being sad over. Then take a deep breath and move on.
Overwhelming homesickness may come back a few more times and you can give in to it again, but if it hangs around without letting go despite your efforts to deal with it, then think about talking with someone who can help, whether it is an upper-class student, an advisor, a friend, a coach, a professor, or a counsellor. You are not alone and people are happy to be helpful to students at this difficult stage.
How to shake the blues
- Engage in activities that bring you joy.
- Look for volunteer opportunities such as community service projects.
- Get your mind off things by going to a comedy film or out with new friends.
- Push yourself to go out and socialize even if you don’t feel like it. It usually turns out to be a better time than you thought.
- Do something nice for someone else.
- Try identifying all the good that has come from this change in your life.
Along with the losses of what you have left behind is a realm of gains. What are some of the positive things that have come out of this experience? You may be missing your old friends, but you are making new ones, seeing new places, and having some exciting new experiences. Don’t give up. You will get through it.
Eventually, and this can be weeks or months depending on the individual student, negativities begin to melt away and you begin to see the value in both your new home and the place where you have come from. There may still be much you don’t care for in this new place, but you can now sort out things you were not so fond of at home either. Your perspective is changing. You are balancing your experiences. You begin to relax and develop some routines that help bring structure and propel you forward.
The good news is that research by the Interchange Institute has shown that people who have received training before making an international relocation have easier adjustments. So just knowing that this list of chaotic emotions is not only normal, but it is expected and temporary will help you remember you are not going crazy, you are simply going through culture shock.
Special thanks to Tina L. Quick for providing us with this article. Tina is the author of two extraordinary books dedicated to international students going to study in America: Survive and Thrive: The International Student’s Guide to Succeeding in the U.S. and The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition.