Culture Shock: International Student Adjustment

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I remember my first year in the states. I found going to class stressful, as I was not able to express what’s going on in my mind. The conversations that I could hold with American classmates did not go beyond “How are you?” “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” I knew my name, my past and why I was here, but everything seemed foggy. In retrospect, I realize that I was experiencing culture shock. Culture shock is a common experience that describes the feeling of confusion and the stress and disorientation that occur when entering an unfamiliar culture.

Culture shock differs for different people. Some common experiences international students may have are:

  • A sense of loss
  • Cultural identity confusion
  • Social withdrawal/isolation
  • Frustration
  • Loss of confidence
  • Extreme homesickness
  • Difficulty navigating an unfamiliar educational system

Some of you may say that you have never experienced any of these problems and think everything is great! You just get to the states, and everything is so exciting and new. It might be that you are at the Honeymoon stage. I remember the first couple of months in the states I felt like I was in heaven. I was like a free bird getting out of my own culture and was ready to explore the world with a fresh and beginner’s eyes. You may feel excited about being here and the new opportunities that are waiting for you.

Then, after a few months, everything became so hard. I did not have the vocabulary to express myself. The thinking process is different in different languages. I needed to translate English into Chinese, which really slowed down my thoughts. I lost the ability to express myself the way I wanted. Since I couldn’t speak the way I wanted, I couldn’t really show my intelligence and my unique personality.

I also found some little things were so annoying. For example, I didn’t understand why cheese is in all kinds of food; going to restaurants was challenging as I was not familiar with the menu. I didn’t know how to join a conversation — especially when American people were talking about music or sports.

Making friends also became a big problem. I wasn’t sure if Americans were “fake” or just friendly. I realize that the concept of friendship here is very different. In the beginning, I thought I have made so many friends so quickly as they introduced me as their “friends.” But later, I realized they were just being “friendly” and not my friends. I was also so confused about some phrases that Americans use. For example, when someone said to me “Let’s meet up again soon!” I expected I would hear from them sometime soon, but that is not always the case, and I felt so confused. I also became extremely homesick, missing the food, people, and everything in China.

After the honeymoon stage and cultural shock stage, you may reach the Understanding stage. In this stage, you will begin to feel more “at home” and be able to get around, both physically and emotionally. Things are starting to make sense now and you don’t feel as lost by the way things are done here. At this point, you may start regaining a sense of control, and you may even realize some of the misunderstandings that you have had. For example, when your professor says to you, “You might want to consider reading this paper,” you get that your professor actually wants you to read the paper.

As you continue to gain experience living in the states, you may get to the Acceptance stage. You will have a better understanding of your own culture of origin and American culture, and it is neither all good nor all bad. You will have accepted America as your home and have learned to adjust to the differences in culture here.

You may experience these stages at your own pace. Some may experience the culture shock stage longer than others, and you may respond differently based on your personality and methods of coping with new experiences. Also, culture is relative and there are individual differences. For example, the culture you experience in Eugene may be very different from that in the Midwest.

Eugene is a relatively small place. A very common complaint that I hear from students is social isolation and loneliness. You may find that adapting to some surface aspects of culture is easy, such as food and festivals, but class participation and making friends is hard. Some practical suggestions you may consider:

  • Take an active approach and initiate frequent contact with American culture, such as joining on-campus clubs or activities.
  • Reflect on your personal strengths that you bring to your cross-cultural journey.
  • Develop friendships with American students.
  • Maintain contacts with family and friends back home.
  • Try to put things into perspective. Adapting to another culture and sorting out your own cultural identity may be hard, but also it’s very rewarding if you think of this as part of your journey of self-exploration and discovery.


Xiaoxia Song, Ph.D.

Senior Staff Therapist