Spending a period of time immersed in another culture can be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences one can have. It is important to understand that our culture provides the foundation that guides all aspects of the ways in which we live and interact. It is hard to understand the depth and dimension of our relationship with our own culture until we have removed ourselves from it, and forced ourselves to relearn through the experience of another culture.
Did you ever hear of the expression “the tip of the iceberg”? The small bit of the iceberg above the water is the part that we see. The part of the cultural iceberg we may have experienced may include the food, clothing or music. Frequently, these most accessible parts of culture are easily transmitted, because they challenge us in manageable ways.
As you may be aware, most of the iceberg is submerged underwater, where it cannot be seen. These aspects of culture frequently include those precepts that govern acceptable ways in which people interact, including religious beliefs and practices, relationships among men, women and children, legal and political institutions, and rules of public and private behavior. Those parts of the culture that are not immediately available to us are frequently learned through by actively participating in daily culture itself, and making mistakes can evoke strong emotional responses.
Negotiating all aspects of acculturation is a fundamental component of the study abroad experience. When you find yourself faced with psychological and emotional challenges, it is important to take the time to learn from them. Step back from judging from your own perspective, and intellectually understand what is happening. You are providing yourself with a tremendous learning opportunity and you are encouraged to make the most of it!
Are there ways to prepare for this before you go? You bet! First recognize culture shock for what it is – a natural part of your experience. Second, learn everything that you can about your host country culture, and dig deeply. Talk with people from that culture, or people from your culture who have experience in your destination. Make sure that there is room in your study abroad program for authentic cultural experiences, and be sure to make the most of them! Finally, make sure that you make the time to participate in all pre-departure activities availed to you. These are organized by people who have your best interest at heart, and want to do everything they can for you to create the maximum potential for success in your study abroad program.