Ways to Tackle Culture Shock while Study or Intern abroad

Posted by SE Vietnam - Student Exchange Vietnam

Culture Shock, the unavoidable, indisputable and irreplacable part of a big abroad trip. Culture shock can be, to some extent, unbearable if you don’t have previous experience but it can be absolutely rewarding once you can get over the challenges and start taking control of your life abroad. So I need your full attention prospective international students and interns! here is what you need to know about culture shock and how to get over it.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock occurs because of total immersion in a new culture. Newcomers may be anxious because they do not speak the language, know the customs, or understand people’s behaviors in daily life. You may find out after spending some time living in Vietnam that ‘yes’ may not always mean ‘yes’, that friendliness does not necessarily mean friendship, or that statements that appear to be serious are really intended as jokes. Foreigners may be unsure as to when to shake hands or embrace, when to initiate conversation or how to approach a stranger. The notion of culture shock helps explain feelings of bewilderment and disorientation.

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Culture shock can be as simple as having to use chopsticks for your every meal.

When this happens, sometimes you may want to reject everything about the new environment and may glorify and exaggerate the positive aspects of your own culture. The severity of culture shock depends on visitors’ personalities, language ability, emotional support, and duration of stay.

Culture shock is also influenced by the extent of the differences, either actual or perceived, between the two cultures. There are recognized periods of adjustment, and although the stages in the cycle do not always occur in the same order and some stages may be skipped, the following pattern is common:

  • Honeymoon Period – Initially many people are fascinated and excited by everything new. The visitor is elated to be in a new culture.
  • Culture Shock– The individual runs into some problems: Housing, transportation, shopping, and language. Mental fatigue results from continuously straining to comprehend the foreign language. Complaints are the first symptoms.
  • Initial Adjustment– Everyday activities such as housing and shopping are no longer an issue. Although the visitor may not be fluent in the language spoken, basic ideas and feelings in the second language or new dialect can at least be expressed.
  • Mental Isolation– Individuals have been away from their family and good friends for a long period and may feel lonely. Many still feel they cannot express themselves as well as they can in their native culture. Frustration and sometimes a loss of self-confidence result. Some individuals remain at this stage.
  • Acceptance and Integration– A routine (i.e. work, business or school) has been established. The visitor has accepted the habits, customs, foods, and characteristics of the people in the new culture. The visitor feels comfortable with friends, the classmates, coworkers and culture of the country.


However, culture shock can also occur once the student returns to their home country.

A similar process occurs when a person returns to their native country, although the stages are usually shorter and less intense. It can be hard to express to family/friends about your experience and pictures/ words can only do your trip so much justice.

How to combat stress caused by culture shock?

Before you go:

1. Learn about the country

Learn the expected and prepare for the unexpected. It is very easy nowadays to gain access to information online about a country’s culture, customs and traditions as well as dos and don’ts for foreigners (for example, don’t wear shorts, miniskirts or revealing clothes to temples or pagodas in Vietnam). You can find these types of information at travel forums, magazines, guidebooks or even novels. Do your homework and study as much as you can about the place where you are going to live for the next few months (or even years), and you will find it extremely helpful in your day-to-day life.

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Learning about your host country’s culture can be helpful. For example, Vietnamese families are very close-knitted and usually have meals together.

2. Consult with your onsite coordinator or program alumni

If you are still not sure whether the online travel guides are over-exaggerating or playing down some details of the culture, ask the expert. Your onsite program coordinator is the first one you should contact as they are, first of all, locals and they have extensive experience in advising or even solving problems students have from culture shock. If a coordinator is not yet available, then you can seek advice from someone who has been to the country or did the same program you are about to do. Their experience might be very different from your own, but they can definitely point out what can cause problems as a foreigner living in the country since they too, were foreigners. Certainly, you can also look to your program coordinator to help dealing with stress and anxiety caused by culture shock while you are in the country. Do remember that, there is nothing too strange-sounding or embarassing about culture shock or how you feel, so let the person in charge know right away when you are having trouble and they can give you sufficient advice and even assistance.

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Ask your program coordinator about what you should be aware of regarding culture shock before you come.

When you are in the country:

1. Be Patient

It takes time to acclimate to new cultures and find a new routine so don’t jump to conclusion that your whole program is already a disaster.

2. Carpe Diem

Seize every opportunity to learn the language or local lingo, participate in cultural and social activities, consider joining local clubs, groups or explore your city and the surrounding areas. Go shopping in a local market, or if you feel safer, do it in a big supermarket or convenient store. ‘Do anything’ is the right answer to culture shock, not ‘do nothing’.

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Try your best to form new relationships with locals like your co-workers, house-mates or even neighbors

3. Indulge in a new hobby

Take your mind away from your concerns or annoyance and find worthy distractions, you can learn the language of your host country, you can sign up for a martial arts class or a traditional arts and craft workshop, go for a run around your neighborhood on the weekend or explore the suburbs with your new friends. Try anything that brings you out of your comfort zone and into the exciting new world that is your host country. Eventually, your irritations will be lifted away and replaced with joy and excitement for your life abroad.

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Free yourself from the stress and anxiety by taking up new hobbies and going to places.

4. Write down what you love when you first arrive, and look back later

The honeymoon period, right after you came to the country is a good time to do this, write down all the little observations you have of the new things buzzing on around you, write a blog that captures your journey and show it off to folks back home. Then, when you’re feeling frustrated or annoyed (who knows, by the same thing you used to love), use this list to remind yourself of all the good sides about your host country, what you have learnt and grow instead of looking at the negativity.


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