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Surviving culture shock when studying abroad

I am an Englishman living in London. Sometimes I meet students who have recently arrived in the UK and ask them how they are feeling. Often they complain about the things they don't like: for example, they might say that it's expensive, or the food is bad, or the people are unfriendly. A few months later I meet these same students. I expect to hear that they are looking forward to taking the first possible flight home. Instead, most of them say they want to stay longer or come back again soon. What has happened?

A big part of the reason for this change is an effect called "culture shock". You may experience this yourself if you go to live for a while in a foreign country. I asked a Japanese student called Mami about her own experiences. Mami spent 10 months in the UK last year, studying English at a language school.

If you travel abroad for study, you will probably feel good shortly after arriving. It feels like a holiday: everything is new and interesting, and you can easily ignore any small problems. Mami really enjoyed her first two weeks in the UK: "I had a job in Japan before I came. Now I didn't have to work any more and felt relaxed. It was a nice season (September) and everything was exciting".

But after a while you may experience a period of time when you feel a bit depressed. Why? Well, you start to miss things from your country which made you feel comfortable - perhaps your friends and family, or your favourite foods. Perhaps you find the course you are taking harder than you expected, are frustrated about your English ability, find it hard to make friends, or get annoyed about local people's behaviour.

Mami says: "After a few weeks I started to cry a lot. I felt I couldn't always express what I wanted to say. I recognised that my English wasn't improving fast enough and was wondering how I should study. I thought the weather was dark and too changeable, and that affected my mood as well. At about this time there were the events of September 11th - that made me feel more homesick, and made me realise that I was far away from my family".

A few days of grey skies made Mami depressed at first …

To comfort yourself you may surround yourself with familiar things and people from your own country, maybe spending many hours on the internet chatting with your friends back home. Mami says: "I contacted my Japanese friends, including one who had lived in London. She could understand my feelings, and I could express myself properly to her in Japanese. Talking to friends helped me to get through this period".

Please don't despair if you feel low at this time. It is a common and natural thing, and can happen anywhere. Things usually get better, although it may require a lot of effort from you. What did Mami do which helped her to get over her depression? "I spent a couple of weeks in the countryside (in Kent) - that was the most exciting and wonderful time for me and helped me to relax again. In my language school there were many Japanese - usually about 5 in my class of 15 - and we always spoke in Japanese after our classes. So I agreed with my Japanese friend that we would speak to each other in English. I decided to take a Cambridge First Certificate exam course: that gave me a target to aim for. Also, I went to a social club for British people who are interested in Japan and started to make some friends there."

Be patient and your dark mood should clear

You will feel better once you have discovered how to adapt to your new environment. I mentioned earlier that Mami found it difficult to get used to the changeable weather in the UK. How have British people learnt to accept this? When it is sunny we know it may not last a long time, so we go outside to enjoy it. If it is cold, we wrap up warmly and look forward to going inside to sit by a fire, drink a cup of tea and eat a hot bun. We don't know when it will rain, so we often carry an umbrella. What do British people say if it is raining? Often we are happy - we think it will be good for our gardens!

When you have learnt to adjust to local conditions you may also start to lose some of your early negative thoughts. A few months after arriving Mami noticed that she started offering advice to other people who joined her school after her. Spring arrived and she started travelling more in the UK, and also made trips to Belgium and Portugal. "I love the way you can easily go to Europe and experience different cultures". She took a short course in calligraphy. "It is a good idea to take an adult education course, which gives you an opportunity to mix with local people".

Blue skies return
(Big Ben, Houses of Parliament)

However, you may start feeling sad as the time to return approaches, and once you are back in your own country you may experience "reverse culture shock". Mami says: "I had lots of things to think about to organise my life, and I started working again. I missed the friends I had made in England. My way of thinking had changed: I had become more flexible and positive. Sometimes I was annoyed by the views of people in my country - for example about the value of money and time, or the way people always want branded goods. I thought people around me lived in such a small world." Mami noticed some changes in her behaviour: "I kept the British habit of always carrying an umbrella with me, even on a fine day - my friends thought I was crazy!"

Mami gets involved and has fun
(tossing a pancake on Pancake Day)

What is Mami's impression of the UK now? "I love it. I have just come back here again for a few weeks because I wanted to see my friends and to take another course to brush up my English. I wish that I had done more things when I was here the first time - I thought about it, but I wasn't sure how".

I have met many people like Mami who have experienced culture shock. The problems and ways of overcoming these are never exactly the same, but the pattern is usually similar. To help people who want to study abroad in Britain, I have collected useful information and published it on a free website called UK Student Life. You can use this to plan your trip, to make the most of your life in the UK, and to study British English. I hope you find it helpful!

Mark Chandler
UK Student Life:

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Culture Shock! Britain
Author: Terry Tan
Publisher: Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company
Date: May 2002

Britain (Culture Smart!)
Author: Paul Norbury
Publisher: Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company
Date: November 2003


Articles about studying abroad in the UK: Ideas/Articles
Diaries written by people who have visited the UK: Ideas/Diary

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