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What is culture shock and how do I overcome it?

By Kristina Spencer• Last updated: Jun 26, 2023
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Moving to a different country is equal parts exciting and terrifying. You are about to start a new adventure, but there is an added stress of going somewhere you are not familiar with, without your support bubble and the comfort of the place you know and love. As someone who has lived in four different countries and moved five times over the past 12 years, I can relate to that experience. So what can you do to overcome the fear and really enjoy the new chapter?

My first move was to Canada when I was 15. I visited once before going, spending two weeks in an English language school in winter-time. It wasn’t a completely new experience; I’ve been going to camps for five years at that point. But it certainly wasn’t enough to be completely at ease when I finally arrived in Toronto with a big suitcase. With a bit of hindsight, here is my first tip: if you can, try and spend some time in a place you are about to start calling home, during bad and good seasons (read, do not just come to Canada in August, when the sun is shining and Osheaga is taking place in Montreal). 

My transition into the new system was smooth, thanks to both my family and my school. Most institutions offer help to incoming international students, understanding that on top of starting a degree you have a lot of admin to do - and you are probably completely lost doing it. 

Tip number two — seek out the available help. Your schools will be able to guide you while you are getting a bank account, setting up a phone bill or sorting out the classes you want to take. Go to activities created for international students, ask a billion of ‘silly’ questions that are never that silly, and be friendly. Always be friendly to everyone. You never know who is sitting next to you in a huge lecture hall or waiting in line for a coffee.

Being friendly also means existing without prejudice. If you have stereotypes formed in your head, disperse them as soon as you possibly can. Canadians, lovely as they are, will eventually get tired of your ‘aboot’ jokes (seriously, nobody I know says that, but ‘eh’ is a very important slang word to learn), just as a Brit would find it tiring if you constantly ask them over for afternoon tea. Rather than believing these cliches, try and see what the country you are moving to is really all about. Watch movies, read books, listen to the music. Find out more about politics and national sports. Before I moved to North America, the O.C. was a hugely popular show. It made me want to move to California, which, spoiler alert, never happened; it also made me pick up on various bits of pop culture that proved to be of great value further down the line. Degrassi will give you a great talking point with your new classmates in Toronto, just like the Americans would appreciate you knowing that the Superbowl is a bit not just a name for Beyonce’s show. (I do strongly believe that the Superbowl’s half-time show is the best part of it, but a very large number of people tends to disagree.) 

Be thoughtful of the culture and traditions of your new home. The country you are choosing to live with is taking you in, and being respectful to your new surroundings is one of the most vital things you can do. 

Lastly, remember that you are not the only one feeling a bit homesick and lost. I came to university after a safety cushion of three years at a Canadian high school, but I still felt out of place for the first month or so - as did everyone else, no matter if they were from Shanghai, Milan, or Vancouver. 

Sure, some people come to universities with friendships under their belt, but most don’t, and this is why living in residence halls in your first year is so valuable. The friendships you make are the ones that last a lifetime. The memories you form are incredible. And even when the night is dark and stormy, and all you want to do is hop on the first plane home for the familiar smell of your mum’s cooking, remember that there are many of us who have gone through it — and came out on the other side. 

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Guest Author | Study Abroad Expert

Based in London, UK, Kristina Spencer is a versatile freelance writer, editor, and producer, boasting a portfolio that i...Read More

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