Culture Shock Of Studying Abroad Cultural Studies Essay

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In the globalising world, more and more people go to abroad for work and study. Culture shock has been widely present in intercultural communication. Where there is cultural communication, there is culture shock. It can be illustrated by a simple case.

A Chinese girl, who is a college student, experienced long-term acculturation when she came here at first. One day, she went to the bank to ask for the statement. When she arrived there, the officer told her that the statement must be posted, and she could not get it right away. She explained that it was urgently needed for visa, but the officer still insisted on his decision, which made her upset and frustrated. As opposed to it, in China, one can get a bank statement at any time.

People will experience the impact of cultural differences in varying degrees from an ethnic region to a completely different one, especially to go to work, study and live abroad. The set of symbols, customs, behaviour patterns, social relations will be replaced by another set they are not familiar, which may bring about psychological anxiety, emotional instability, and even depression. In severe cases, it can result in a variety of psychological and physical diseases, worse, even mental problems or suicide. This is culture shock exactly.

Culture shock has been an important source of interpersonal stress and conflict for those who are in a multicultural society. Generally speaking, culture shock is a phenomenon of cultural loss and mental imbalance, and it also can be seen as a process of the evolution of mental state in unfamiliar cultural settings. People experience varying degrees of culture shock. There are many factors affecting culture shock and the individual reactions, including previous experience with other cultures and cross-cultural adaptation, the degree of difference in one's own and the host culture, the degree of preparation, social support networks, and individual psychological characteristics. (Furnham & Bochner, 1986)

Nowadays, international students are playing an increasingly significant role in different countries, especially in western countries. They spend much money and time for higher education. After finishing the study, they usually go back home or stay to get a good job. Only if they overcome cultural shock can they continue learning and have the opportunity to carry out their dream. Otherwise, it will be a giant waste of time and money.

Doubtlessly, these students have become vital for the study of culture shock. This essay is to address the definition, characteristics, phases, and causes of culture shock, and explore how it can affect foreign students through a collection of relevant examples.

Literature Review

In recent years, there is a growing literature in the area of culture shock, and many contributions to the mental health issues aroused by culture shock faced by foreign students (Thomas & Althen, 1989). A number of scholars have discussed the definition of culture shock. Oberg (1960) popularised it to refer to the 'anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.' Adler (1975) suggested that 'culture shock is primarily a set of emotional reactions to the loss of perceptual reinforcements from one's own culture, to the new cultural stimuli which have little or no meaning, and to the misunderstanding of new and diverse experience.' Barna (1976) extended the concept to include physiological aspects. Bennett (1977) viewed it as a subcategory of transition experiences. Regarding the symptoms of culture shock, although individual reactions differ from case to case, various scholars (e.g., Oberg, 1960; Adler, 1975) suggested some common symptoms, such as: feelings of impotence and withdrawal; fear of being cheated or injured; excessive concern on health; being homesick; and a state of nervous irritability.

Moreover, Taft (1977) summarised a range of definitions and argued that culture shock is a feeling of impotence from the inability to cope with the environment, because of being unfamiliar with cognitive aspects and role-playing skills. He identified six different aspects of culture shock:

1. Tension due to the ongoing necessary psychological adjustment.

2. A sense of loss of friends, status, occupation and property.

3. Being not accepted by and/or accepting members of the new culture.

4. Confusion in role, role expectations, values, feelings and self-identity.

5. Surprise, anxiety, even disgust and anger after perceiving cultural differences.

6. Feeling of helplessness due to not being able to deal with the new circumstance.

In terms of mental health issues, the widespread use of the two major concerns, namely, depression (e.g., David, 1971; Hojat, 1982) and anxiety (e.g., Lin Masuda, & Tazuma, 1982) has been documented. Some studies have paid attention to helplessness (Arredondo-Dowd, 1981), social withdrawal, loneliness, and homesickness (Church, 1982; Cort & King, 1979).

Causes of Culture Shock

When one enters an unfamiliar environment, why will he encounter culture shock? There are various explanations in the psychological studies. A traditional one is to link it to grief of the loss of friends or relatives, ascribing culture shock to the loss of certain things. People feel grieved due to the loss of close friends and family, while those in a different cultural context may be subjected to culture shock for losing a familiar frame of reference in an intercultural encounter, such as status, values, friends, and customs. (Bennett, 1977) A number of new theories have been proposed which elaborate it from different aspects.

Different Values

Value is a kind of social consciousness, and it can identify what kind of behavior, survival patterns and interaction guidelines will be adopted by individuals, groups or societies. There is neither any kind of values superior than others, nor that inferior. Any of them is unique. For example, comparing the Chinese and American cultures, it clearly can be seen that the American value individualism while the Chinese emphasise collectivism. American people emphasise individual rights, whereas Chinese people value their obligations to society. In intercultural communication, one from a different culture must respect values of the host culture to ensure the smoothness of communications. If people act as the opposite, culture shock will occur inevitably. Take some Muslim students for example. When living in America, there are many students from Muslim countries, especially females, who usually continue to wear traditional clothing; therefore they are actively resisting participating in the American popular culture. This has been in the way of acculturation, which may isolate them from the environment and bring about anxiety or frustration.


People tend to criticise the practices of another culture from the perspective of their own cultural values and beliefs. Ethnocentrism, constituted by 'ethno' and 'centrism', refers to 'a cultural bias that leads people to judge another culture's habits and practices as right or wrong, good or bad' (Samover & Porter, 2000). This tendency will result in vanity of one's own culture's superiority, and contempt of outsiders, thereby influencing the adaption process. To illustrate, several cases will be presented. Chinese regard western food such as sandwich and hamburger as junk food. Americans are shocked that Chinese eat nearly all kinds of animals. Chinese think Hindus bathing in the river Ganges is unsanitary. Islamic counties are criticised for supposedly subordinating women. Western countries think Chinese forced-feeding education has no benefit for students.

Ethnocentrism sometimes can produce positive social effects, including a very strong social status, which may enhance individual self-esteem, sense of loyalty and group survival consciousness, but also reduce internal contradictions. However, ethnocentric attitudes will cause negative social effects, which prevents people from learning new knowledge from other cultures and broaden new vision. In addition, to safeguard the status of national superiority, competition, fear, anger and hatred may increase, which leads to a variety of destructive conflicts. Ethnocentrism and culture is symbiotic, and each of us grows up in a certain culture, thus it is impossible to completely get rid of ethnocentrism. When students enter an unfamiliar cultural context, it is easy to judge the target culture as good or bad, right or wrong from the standpoint of their own cultural values. With the bias judgment, one cannot break the barriers to achieve intercultural understanding; therefore, culture shock occurs, which causes psychological and physiological stress and tension in communication contact.

Preconceptions and Stereotypes

The presence of preconceptions and stereotypes is a stumbling block to cultural contact. For instance, U.S. students try to keep distance to a noisy group from Middle East since the stereotype that the Arabs are 'inflammable'. If one has regarded Japanese as 'inscrutable' before his or her Japanese guests' coming, he or she will probably see their behaviors (e.g., the constant smile) as much (Barna, 1994).

Stereotypes help to reduce the threat of the unknown by making the world predictable (Becker, 1962). Stereotypes lead to overgeneralisation, and affect intercultural communication directly, because the predictions to the behaviours of the other party are based on their fixed views rather than whether they are accurate or fit the circumstances. Stereotypes are psychologically necessary to release our helplessness so as to interact with people in different situations.

Stereotypes make people pay attention to what fit their initial impressions, and ignore the left. It prevents people from communicating with those from the distinct cultural backgrounds. As a psychological reason for culture shock, stereotypes are detrimental to the process of communication and have been an obstacle to intercultural interactions.

Language Differences

Language difference is a stumbling block in the adaption process. 'Vocabulary, syntax, idioms, slang, dialects, and so on all cause difficulty, but the person struggling with a different language is at least aware of being in trouble.' (Barna, 1994) A big language problem is that users cling to one meaning of a word in the target language, without considering the specific context. Various meanings are so difficulty that they are often waved aside. Conceit and complacency will stop a search for understanding. 'Yes' and 'no' are classic examples. How to answer the question, 'Don't you know him?' When a foreign student first hears it, he may answer 'yes', which means he does not know him. However, if he wants to express the meaning that he does know him, he has to answer 'no'. There are some other problems, including the different styles of using target language. These differences may lead to wrong interpretations of tone and intent. Language skills are linked with adaptation effectiveness (DeVerthelyi, 1995). Foreign students in the USA who cannot speak English well may be isolated socially, which will affect their academic achievement. For instance, one can order a cup of tea at a café; however, he or she may not discuss academic issues such as linguistics very well. Despite that he or she holds the idea, it cannot be presented by language. As mentioned above, language issue will result in academic and intercultural failures and further lead to high stress and depression which are the exact symptoms of culture shock.

Avoiding Unfamiliar People and Things

When students come to a new environment, they usually would like to assume similarities instead of differences between the host culture and their own culture, which can bring themselves a sense of intimacy and familiarity. Some other students prefer to stay with those from the same country and share experiences within the small circle. They avoid and resist people and things they are not familiar. Due to the avoidance, they cannot understand the new cultural identity, and even mistake their cultural norms as universal ones that everyone can accept. Once they find acts 'strange' (different from them) they expect, confusion, disappointment, and even rejection will be produced. This phenomenon is widely present in communities of Chinese students. These students are together for everyday, and they cook, eat, go shopping, study, travel and chat with each other; moreover, they share joy and sorrow, and intentionally keep away from communicating with people from target culture. Generally, they live in the small world created by themselves, and set up an obstruction in intercultural contact. With time going on, they become less brave to break up the barrier and reach an impasse of cultural contact.

Level of Knowledge

How should I greet when I first meet them, shaking hands or bowing? What should we talk about for initial meetings? Should I be more enthusiastic or control my facial expressions when talking with them? There is a long list of cultural norms needed to be learned by overseas students before or during a sojourn. One's level of cultural knowledge may contribute to the acculturation (Begley, 2000). For example, overseas students studying in Britain should be aware of the different educational system and better ways to succeed in learning. Google claimed to withdraw the investment in China for it did not recognise the complicated realities of the country and finally failed in China. From these examples, we can understand that being aware of little general and specific cultural knowledge can cause communicative problems that may lead to culture shock.