So, you’ve been given the opportunity to go study abroad for a short while. Congrats! As with any foreigner-to-be, you’ll probably spend the days leading up to your departure experiencing crippling anxiety and stress over all the many things that you need to prepare for. But not to worry! Your school will most likely host some handy information presentations, all aimed at curing any “fear for the unknown”. You may feel totally ready once you attend these sessions.
But sorry friend, there’s just a few things that will be missed among the talks on “How Much Culture Shock Sucks” and “How to Properly Get Into a Different Country in the Most Legal Way Possible”.
But fear not! This handy guide here, drawn from my own, current experience as a study abroad student at the University of Nottingham in England should hopefully fill in the gaps (or create new ones…I apologize in advance).
1: Your first time grocery shopping will terrify you
You know how it is when you go shopping for groceries at home: All stores have the same general layout and the same general selection of brands; though experience, (i.e. through your mom telling you) you know what brands are “good buys” and, most importantly, which breakfast cereals stay crunchy in milk; and you know what the proper procedure is when it comes to conversing with the cashier (such as the semi-awkward pleasantries common to most stores). Getting food is just routine, nothing to really think about. However, move to a new country, and (spoiler alert) they most likely won’t follow any of the same norms you are used to. Most will have their own…quirks.
My first time shopping for food started as a fun day truly experiencing the “normal English way of living”. That quickly devolved into me standing in the middle of the store, panicking and wondering why I only could find half of the items on my shopping list even though I had gone though every aisle. That comfort of knowing brands and where to find them is completely thrown off. Chances are, you’ll find yourself spending far too long comparing every package with its competitors, partially to make sure it actually is the item you’re looking for and partially to try to get some sort of hint on what the “good” brand is.
My advice: If you’re shopping in one of the big chain stores in your chosen country, go for the no-name, store brands. That way you can get a good idea of the “default” for that certain product.
2: Be prepared to answer questions about being an exchange student…all the time
I’m nearly 93.7% sure that whenever I’ve met someone new (after being introduced as the “Canadian kid”, of course), the conversation has gone like this:
Them: Oh cool you’re from Canada! Where abouts?
Them: Awesome. Why did you choose to come to England?
Me: Oh, well, no language barrier, I really like the culture and the style, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, (etc, depending on what else I can think of at the moment)
Them: Oh okay, I didn’t think we had that much to offer or anything. We’re not nearly as cool as you guys over there!
(Annnnd so on, with them asking more about my experience so far, and me pretty much sounding like a walking advertisement for Canadian tourism)
There’s two sides to this guaranteed-to-happen conversation.
First, it’s awesome because you actually have something to talk about with new people — the conversation doesn’t just stop at the awkward “hello” that happens when meeting a stranger. There are so many avenues this opening discussion can lead to, and most of the people I’ve gotten to know well first met me with this exact conversation. So for someone who’s always worried about not having anything to talk about with strangers, being an exchange student is a great lifesaver.
On the other hand though, these same questions over and over cause you to have the same answers for every conversation. The issue is that you may start to feel like you’re just talking from a script, and you start to worry that you sound incredibly false. It’s a surprisingly hard hurdle to jump over when you recognize it! Thankfully, no one seems to have caught on yet…until now when I’ve just written about it…oops.
My Advice: Embrace it! Even if you feel inauthentic, know that people genuinely want to get to know you. If anything, find ways to change the conversation so that you feel more involved in it besides just the “standard” answers.
3: You will realize that stereotypes of your home country are incredibly true (because you begin to show them yourself)
Since I’ve been here I’ve suddenly found myself being incredibly patriotic at the fact I’m not American, missing maple syrup, and laughing at English people who think 2 degrees is actually “way too cold to live”.
If you were to ask me even less than 3 months ago if I thought of any of the typical “Canadian things” as being “me”…I probably would have scoffed.
It’s difficult to really explain, but being surrounded by a different culture really reveals all the “abnormal” in what you thought was “normal”. Hell, I’ve even been told I say “sorry” too much. And I don’t even know if that’s a “just me” thing or if Canadians really do apologize way too much.
Cultural stereotypes are odd things. I could probably write some sort of academic paper on it (actually…that gives me a great idea for my term paper next semester), given how complicated it can be to distinguish from personality. The thing is, you begin to forget really what is just part of your own personality and what is actually a cultural thing. Whether or not you are just incredibly nice and apologetic, people will assume its part of the “Canadian” identity and not truly you — this causes you to rethink it all as well.
This may or may not cause a spiral of a complete identity crisis. No biggie. Just know that people still like you for being a foreigner, yeah?
My advice: I don’t even know…sorry chap. Maybe just hope your country’s/city’s stereotype is a nice one. If it’s not…maybe it’s time for you to move out of America (ba-zing).
Forget all the touristy travelling stuff. I think that the little experiences like the ones that have spurned these tips are exactly what studying abroad it all about. You can see landmarks anytime. But how often will you go out and experience living a day-to-day life in another place? Embrace these often-confusing moments, since that’s the stuff that’ll make this trip more memorable than a simple vacation.
Got any experiences like these of culture shock or of being a foreigner? Feel free to share below!