The opportunity to live and study in another country has its adventures, its benefits, and even, its challenges. Learning to navigate another culture's values, beliefs, and thought processes can take a lifetime. However, most students only have a semester or two, so an research prior to departure can assist students to better understand the intricacies of cultural transition and gain more significant meaning from the experience while it occurs.
What is "Culture"?
If you were to ask several different people what they thought culture meant, you might get a list like the one below, taken from Survival Kit for Overseas Living (L. Robert Kohls, 1984):
Components of Culture
As you can see, culture is a total way of life of any group of people. Culture will impact the way you interact with everyone in your new environment including your home stay family, the bus driver and the professor. It will be an integral part of your study abroad experience, so take some time to understand what culture is and how it will affect you abroad.
How will the host culture affect me?
Some people adapt to a new culture more easily than others. Understanding yourself, your goals, your way of thinking, behaving, and going about everyday tasks will make it easier to adjust to a new environment. While there is no set formula to insure that you will have an effortless transition process, there are certain skills and or traits you have (or with minimal effort, can develop) that can make your adjustment process easier. Below is a list of skills that are important in adapting to a new culture:
- Tolerance for Ambiguity
- Low/Goal Task Orientation
- Being Nonjudgmental
- Flexibility: adaptability
- Sense of Humor
- Warmth in Human Relationships
- Strong Sense of Self
- Tolerance for Differences
- Ability to Fail
Understanding as much as you can about your host country can greatly reduce the severity of your culture shock. It is a good idea to familiarizing yourself with the culture, history, politics, and every day life of your host country and city.
Travel guidebooks can be a great resource, but it is also a good idea to create a personal folder of resources and information. You can include personal information, practical resources, and the research you collect about your host country.
Here are some suggestions on what you should include:
- Name, address, phone number, and email of the host family or residence where you will be staying while abroad.
- Your study abroad office contacts both abroad, and at home. Procedures for studying abroad with your school that would be useful to have while abroad.
- The phone, fax, and email address for your academic advisor.
- An emergency contact name, phone number, address, and email.
- A copy of your passport. Your flight information. Your travel itinerary.
- The address, directions, and phone number to the nearest American Embassy in your host country.
- Addresses, phone numbers, and emails to all the friends and family you will want to write from abroad.
- Landmarks and places of interest. Although store-bought travel guides may provide this condensed information, it is all available online, and the research you will do looking for it can be very educational. Tourist type websites usually list historical information, admissions costs, opening times, directions, and special events for places of interest.
- Historical, political, and current event information about your host country. Understanding the host culture and its past will make your trip more fulfilling. Information on politics and current event swill provide you with conversation topics as well as understanding of the culture.
- Information about the culture of your host country. Find a site about cultural etiquette. Research sports, music, authors, food, and pop culture.
- Special events that will occur while you are abroad. You can find festivals, concert schedules,and other event information online.
For more information about culture I recommend checking out the University of the Pacific's, "What's Up With Culture?" website. It's a great resource!
Also-from a student's perspective: Glimpse Abroad