Making the most out of your time abroad requires some preparatory work on your part – including some adjustment of expectations. Here are some strategies for cultural adjustment that, based on discussions with returning students, helped them before, during, and after their experience abroad.
After identifying your goals for your experience, it is helpful to do more research about your study abroad destination. While the topics listed might seem obvious, past study abroad students have indicated it is useful to have a basic understanding of local history and politics. Having the chance to participate in local holidays can be a meaningful part of your cultural experience. And, of course, it can be especially helpful when packing to have a good sense of the climate and to know what to expect from the weather during your sojourn abroad. Visit Yale's International Toolkit section, Learning About Your Destination, for suggestions and resources.
Listening to what people have to say, and assuming that there are logical reasons why people do things the way they do, can go a long way towards creating good relationships across cultures. Being willing to concede that your way of operating in the world is just one of many valid ways, can make your encounters with different ideas and people a richer learning experience.
It is true that spending time in a new culture can be uncomfortable and disconcerting. Instead of rushing to the next thing as quickly possible or feeling nostalgia for what’s most familiar, you can take the opportunity to stretch your capacities by simply being in the present moment and approaching the environment around you with curiosity. You might be surprised at what you learn about yourself and others when you give the experience your full attention.
Along with being in the moment is actually being in the moment where you are. The more you are on the internet, the less you are part of the local community, and the more your thoughts are with people and events beyond the local, the less you will understand the nuances of your immediate environment.
There is a wide range of experience among students in terms of adjustment abroad. From the initial thrill of arrival, to feelings of homesickness and potential disorientation, as you develop a routine abroad and manage to accomplish the goals you set out for yourself, see if you recognize yourself in one or more of the phases of cultural adjustment. You might cycle through these phases at different times, not necessarily in linear fashion, or perhaps you notice you have not experienced any of them at all. If you have no feelings of discomfort whatsoever, you might consider whether you are actually making an effort to interact with people in your new environment or trying things beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Adjusting to a new place is not always a “happy” experience and it requires your engagement.
|Common Phases of Adjustment|
|Honeymoon Period||Excitement about being in a new culture.|
|Culture Shock||Feeling a sense of unease or unfamiliarity with how or why things “work” the way they do.|
|Initial Adjustment||Becoming more familiar with daily life in the new culture; if studying language, feeling more confident about your communication skills.|
|Isolation||Feelings of homesickness; experiencing frustration with accomplishing everyday tasks; missing social cues.|
|Acceptance and Adaptation||Greater ability to navigate the new culture; understanding habits, customs, food, and establishing ties within the community.|
Open-mindedness has to be one of the best attitudes for a productive time abroad. One of the characteristics of moving from one culture to another is irritation with what appears to be the absurdities of local practice, from obtaining the proper visa documents and sorting out bus fares, all the way to dress codes and deciphering gender relations. This extends to the absurdities of host families, employers, foreign faculty, banking and all bureaucrats. But of course these are not absurdities, but cultural differences – to be observed, examined, understood, and ultimately even appreciated. Our experience with travel may not prevent an initial sense of annoyance, but it can be happier and more productive we conscientiously and systematically consider how our judgments are, in fact, quite often attached to our own “absurd” cultural values.
Regardless of where you call home, as a Yale student you’ve had the experience of studying in a privileged institution within the U.S. – one with significant financial resources, academic freedoms, civic involvement, and prestige. Traveling abroad, you may encounter communities which appear to have less in the way of these resources, and it can be tempting to equate such differences with cultural “lack” or poverty. However, time abroad can be an opportunity to rethink your own understanding of both poverty and privilege. Even the least-advantaged among us in the U.S. are extraordinarily privileged materially (and politically) by global standards, and an understanding of that is very important to an understanding of attitudes towards Americans abroad.
A principle that has served many students over the years is that of accepting while abroad all (non-sketchy) invitations, of going to improbable events, and of making an effort to become interested in absolutely everything. Street music, local team sports, family visits, religious services, fish markets, political rallies, impromptu dance party invitations, working in a garden – all potentially fascinating experiences but ones you will certainly miss by sitting on the sidelines instead of actively participating in your community abroad.
It often seems that there is a stigma attached in our contemporary society to being alone – that the ideal is always to be the center of a group of peers. While we encourage you to interact with local students, it is also the case that always being in the company of similar others abroad is a kind of insulation that makes it harder to see things. The times you find yourself alone – walking around the city, using public transportation, or sitting quietly in a cafe – these are great times to observe.
Cultivating the habit of observation of the ordinary is surely one of the most useful ways of changing our own behavior when abroad. Apart from anything else, it helps us throw our own assumptions into relief, and understand how many things we take for granted that are a part of our own local and national culture. It can be extremely useful to write down a brief account of interactions or behaviors you find puzzling, and then ask someone local for help in decoding what you’ve seen – this can spark really enlightening conversations. Done in the context of journal writing, it can also form a record that can be very interesting to review a few years into the future when the details of your experience are beginning to blur.
One thing all the research shows is that reflection on experience abroad is one of the most important elements in making that experience worthwhile. It is perfectly possible to spend months abroad without breaking out of a little expatriate community and to avoid having anything remotely significant happen towards the development of intercultural competence. It’s well worth it to reflect on your goals before you go and to spend time each week either writing or talking with a new friend abroad or documenting in creative ways what you’ve been experiencing. No matter the approach, take the time to reflect.