No matter where you’re traveling in the world for whatever length of time, you’ll want to prepare yourself for your host country’s cultural differences. Most people will try to warn you about an “adjustment period,” but I disagree with this misnomer’s connotation. The phrase implies that you’ll go through a brief phase of confusion before you “adjust” to your surroundings. But actual study abroad students know that living in a new place isn’t about “adjusting” for a few days, but instead “adapting” throughout the duration of your trip.
Especially in just a few weeks, there are going to be things about your study abroad destination that will always seem unfamiliar to you. For instance, the fact that having no tub means every shower floods the bathroom floor still throws me off. But there are plenty of things that you can do day-to-day to take these life-style differences in stride. Living abroad isn’t about expecting yourself to accept a new place as home, but simply preparing yourself to see everyday differences not as a stressor or hinderances to your comfort, but as a part of your adventure.
On day one CET faculty here in Beijing warned us students about overcoming culture shock. Apparently, this means that at some point, for a brief period of time, when the feeling of adventure wears off, every little thing about your host country will make you want to scream. I honestly don’t think I ever actually experienced culture shock. Granted, last Saturday I was overly exhausted and for some reason peeved at the wholesome families playing badminton at dawn in the campus’ quad. But I would associate that feelings more with homesick than culture shock, because one phone call with my mom and some sleep put my angst to rest.
With all that said, I believe familiar routines have helped me to avoid any sort of “shock” while living in Beijing. For the last five weeks, I’ve gotten up at 7:00 AM, grabbed a bread-type breakfast from the dining hall, drank a cup of warm coffee, and gone to class. At noon my peers and I flock to the dining hall, then afterwards go to our respective study spots. Usually this means our rooms or designated study rooms.
After completing the day’s homework, we fill the rest of our hours with seeing bits of the city, trying new restaurants, going out to the gym, or relaxing by watching movies or listening to music in bed. I still shower in the evening, arrange my wet hair into braids, and wear my softest t-shirts and shorts to bed.
Weekends are time to unwind on CET-arranged trips or our own self-guided adventures. Personally, during study breaks I also keep up religious habits like listening to sermons online and journaling. Honestly, setting these routines reminded me a lot of my first semester as a transfer student at UT Austin. It’s all about finding a comfortable structure to your day so that your mind and body feel sound even while immersed in new surroundings.
2.Friends & Family
If familiar routines battle culture shock, then people are the key to getting through homesickness. After almost five weeks away from home, this has been the biggest lesson for me. Depending on who you are, calling your mom before bed to rant about a recent test might be an efficient stress reliever while abroad. Time-difference can be a barrier to this, but it’s easy to overcome if you work together to find time that works for both parties. Other people might prefer to rant alongside friends going through similar struggles.
Fellow students in your program are also great companions for preparing weekend trips or simply finding a nearby mall. Roommates can help you navigate local difficulties, like conquering a firewall and poor wifi-connection to stream your favorite TV show. Whoever it is, find at least one person to help you unwind. Even the most introverted people benefit from human interaction to avoid feeling a sense of loneliness while abroad.
This might sound like a joke, but food is a very real struggle while abroad. For many in my own program, trying to order unfamiliar food in a language you barely speak while being unable to read the menus is a daily struggle. Eventually, though, at least in the dining hall you find what you like and stick to it. But what if you have a food allergy? What if you don’t like spicy foods? The second question worried me before coming to Beijing, but it was easier than I had imagined to solve. It doesn’t take much effort to translate the menu, point to a non-red colored food, or simply ask if something is a spicy dish or not. Cooks will respect food restrictions, so finding a meal that agrees with you is completely possible with a little work.
If everyday meals provide a bit of a challenge, snacks definitely provide a sense of comfort. Some snacks like Coca-Cola and Lay’s chips can be a break from trying new things. On the other hand, your host country will have an array of local favorites and flavors. You should have fun experimenting (in a healthy amount) with your roommate’s favorite sweets or occasionally splurging on familiar snacks. Eating in a new country is a huge part of the cultural experience, so be prepared to try new things, but don’t feel ashamed to find comfort in a Snicker’s after a difficult week of classes.
Among food, friends, and routines, self-care underlies them all. Take advantage of friends and everyday pleasures to maintain your mental health. Enough sleep and good food are also both mandatory in keeping up with a demanding course schedule and a new culture. So take care of yourself so that you can make the most out of your time abroad.