Culture Shock: A crash course in adjusting to life abroad

Authored by:
Emma S.

Emma S.

The term “culture shock” is probably a familiar term for most people who have travelled or lived internationally. It is defined as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes” (Lexicon/Oxford, 2019). These feelings are an entirely normal part of a semester abroad, no matter where you’re studying.

When you first arrive at your destination, you might not realize that you’re experiencing culture shock. Not only will you be combating jet lag from long hours of traveling, but the first few days are an exciting whirlwind, as you take in the new-ness of your surroundings and revel in the richness of a culture that you’re just starting to experience. But soon, that honeymoon phase wares off and frustration might settle in its place.

That frustration is also very normal. Think about it: all of a sudden you’re surrounded with a language that you might not understand or speak well, people in your program that you’ve only just met, and new ways of doing even the most basic day to day task (the biggest adjustments for me as a student when I arrived in Tanzania were brushing my teeth with bottled water and using a squat toilet). It’s easy to get bogged down by all that is different, and it’s no easy task adjusting to a new sense of what is normal.

But have no fear! Here are a few tips to help you embrace culture shock and set yourself up for success:

  1. Write down what you enjoy when you first arrive. Not only are these details often forgotten as time goes on, but they’ll also serve as great reminders of the good things you’ve already experienced when you start to feel frustrated. 
  2. Expect the unexpected. Everything is going to feel new and different for a while, and the easiest way to handle that is to just embrace it all as it comes. Also understand that the preconceived notions you might have about a place, culture, or way of doing things may not necessarily be true to your surroundings. If you can put aside any preconceived notions, it’s easier to appreciate your surroundings just the way they are.
  3. Study and practice the local language. I promise, feeling like you’re able to communicate, even just a little, is a very empowering feeling! For students coming to CIEE Tanzania, our Program Coordinator Paulo starts giving Swahili lessons from Day 1. He starts by teaching our students about Tanzanian introductions (which are very important) and some basic words and questions for ordering food, asking directions, and so on. No matter what language you’re learning, the more you practice words and phrases (both listening for and responding to them), the more comfortable you’ll feel interacting with your new surroundings.
  4. Find something that feels familiar. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit and read a book for a while. Call a friend or family member and chat for a bit (the beauty of modern technology!). Pack a few of your favorite snacks for those moments when you really need a taste of home. There are a lot of ways to bring little comforts like these with you no matter where you go!
  5. Ask questions. The best way to feel comfortable in a place is to learn as much as you can about it, so ask away! Chances are that the rest of the students in your program are also wondering about the exact same things.
  6. Take some deep breaths. When things get overwhelming, take a quiet moment for yourself and remember that it takes time to get used to a new place. Eventually, you’ll wake up one morning and realize, “Hey, this feels pretty normal now.” Remind yourself that that feeling is coming, and that you’ll gradually feel more comfortable one day at a time.


These are all great skills to have to combat culture shock, no matter how old you are or where you’re going. Hopefully these tips will help you start enjoying your time abroad, because before you know it, you’ll be wondering where the time has gone!  

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