Surviving Culture Shock While Studying Abroad Off the Beaten Path

by Published

Study abroaders dread the infamous and inevitable question from every family member, relative, friend, acquaintance, and Facebook stalker: “So, how was your study abroad experience?”, “How was your time in (insert country here)?”, “How was traveling in (insert country here)?”, etc. In most cases, the automatic response is, “It was good. I had a lot of fun!”, even when you’re trying to hold back the urge to burst into a four-hour-long day-by-day breakdown of your life abroad. While most students will go on to say that they had a “life-changing experience” and “the best time of their life,” other students who went abroad may not have had such an equally revolutionary experience (especially if you ask them about their trip during the first few days or weeks), and may have had difficulty managing cultural differences or never quite figured out how to deal with culture shock

Man with a donkey
Studying abroad in countries off the beaten path may come hand in hand with a type of culture shock you haven’t prepared for.

In general, most former study abroad students who traveled to countries like France, Germany, the U.K., and Australia (or any western, developed country) didn’t necessarily struggle as much with culture shock. The most difficult part about dealing with culture shock for them may be learning the language, figuring out how to use the local transportation system, or figuring out how to communicate to the waiter/waitress that no, you don’t want sparkling water or the “complimentary” bread that actually ends up costing an extra three Euro. On the other hand, those who chose to study abroad in countries where the standard of living or culture was markedly different from what they’re used to may have a more challenging time moving through each culture shock stage.

For example, Russia, as you could imagine, is a very different country from the United States or other Western countries. While it (like so many countries) is breaking onto the global stage – for better or worse – it still offers a more unfamiliar experience than your standard program in Western Europe. If you decide to study abroad in a country “off-the-beaten path,” be sure you mentally prepare yourself by listening to the following words of advice on how to cope with culture shock

Foreign street signs
Learning a bit of the native language before and and while you’re abroad will help you adjust to the culture tremendously.

Learn the language as best as you can BEFORE studying abroad.

Learning the native language is a simple, yet incredibly effective way to adjust faster to any culture — say goodbye to playing bad charades with locals! Two of the most efficient ways to learn a country’s native language fast is by taking a foreign language class while abroad or by staying with a local family in a homestay. 

If you weren’t planning on taking a foreign language class, hop online and change your schedule ASAP. Just do it, a language class will be more immediately useful than that Econometrics class you signed up for. Plus, most universities will accept a language class as an elective credit, so you’ll be earning credits for college and showing the stages of culture shock who’s boss. 

Live in a homestay.

It might seem counterintuitive to combat culture shock by putting yourself right in the thick of it, but hear us out. Not only will you have a “Mom away from Mom” and delicious home cooked meals (authentic channa masala, anyone?), but you’ll be given a safe space to carefully peel back the layers of this foreign, exciting, confusing, awesome culture.

Family eating dinner at home
Staying with a local family in a homestay will help you engage and learn about the country’s culture better than if you stayed in an apartment or house by yourself. 

What’s more, living in a homestay will not only enhance your chances of learning the language more quickly, but it’ll also expose you further to the culture in ways that couldn’t be grasped otherwise, helping you make the most of your time abroad. Learning about your study abroad destination’s culture from the locals themselves is the best way to learn — and make lifelong friendships! 

Your host family would most likely speak to you in their native tongue which forces you (in the best way possible) to verbally practice the language and deepen your understandings of their way of living. Don’t worry, they’ll only wholeheartedly make fun of your accent in the beginning.

Mentally prepare yourself for challenges. 

Avoid thinking, “In (home country), this would never happen…” One thing that is common to many developing countries is something that feels like inefficiency. A few examples of this is a faulty ATM machine eating your bank card, a taxi driver refusing to give you service for some unknown reason, or a restaurant where you don’t necessarily experience the level of customer service you were hoping for. Even though all of these aspects may seem like a complete nightmare to you, each country has their own standard of living and way of doing things – they’re neither better nor worse, just different.

Girl reading a book in a field
Reading up about the culture of the country you’re traveling to will help mentally prepare you for culture shock.

It’s easy to take an experience like this and conclude that your host country is backward. It’s easy to be faced with a challenge and subsequently be emotionally crushed by it. But realize from the get-go that you’ll have to face these challenges, and they don’t necessarily only occur in your host country. Dwelling on the fact that your home is so much more efficient will only lead to frustration.

Confront your challenges, start managing cultural differences, make the best of them, and perhaps you’ll have a laugh about them later.

Don’t let a bad experience with a native person alter your perception of the entire country.

Just like facing a challenge with the ATM eating your credit card, you’ll face challenges with locals. These challenges will be vastly different than a conflict with a friend (like that time Becky didn’t respond to your text, but had read receipts turned on), mostly because of miscommunication. The language barrier will be the highest wall that separates you and locals from easy understanding. 

It is easy to misinterpret one bad experience, and assume that the entire country is a certain stigma or stereotype. Remember, it’s important to always keep an open mind, have patience, and even when conflicts arise, try to solve them as best as you can without having negative thoughts cloud your actions and mindset. Another easy solution to solving an insignificant conflict is to simply walk away — most of the times a petty argument or minor bad experience isn’t worth dampening your entire day, week, or year abroad. 

Old man in India sitting on concrete
Don’t let culture shock prevent you from studying abroad in countries off the beaten path. There’s always a multitude of ways to overcome this shock and have the travel experience of a lifetime.

Read novels and books on history and culture of your host country.

Even if you’re nearly fluent in the language spoken in your host country, remember that there’s more to language when it comes to learning the culture. Before departing, immerse yourself in novels, history books, and anything about your host country that you can get your hands on. Or you could even use your Netflix bingeing for good by finding some foreign documentaries to watch; you could also buy your first ever Lonely Planet and dive deep into its pages. It will give a deeper appreciation that can help guide your interactions in your new country and know what to expect when managing cultural differences abroad. 

Remember the bigger picture.

Studying abroad is a phase of your life – one that has a start and an end. Think back to the many years you were living comfortably with all of your favorite amenities. Air conditioning, cold drinking water, hot showers, a bug-free bed. You were pretty spoiled, huh? You’re eventually going to go back to those things (if you choose); take a moment for gratitude that it is a choice. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking disparagingly about the new culture you’re experiencing. Wake up every morning with a renewed sense of vigor to tackle the day. Find moments of calm to lessen the sting of homesickness. Lean on friends. Remember the bigger picture – and that someday you’ll long for those meals eaten on the floor or shrug off the insanely packed subway trains as “not that bad.”

Surviving Culture Shock While Studying Abroad Off the Beaten Path

Although it’s a cliché, studying abroad really does have the potential to be life changing. Whether or not you study abroad in Italy or Zimbabwe, you’ll experience some discomfort here and there, and it’s important to know how to deal with culture shock. Even though the culture shock that comes with studying in off the beaten path locales is more challenging to adjust to, it’s definitely possible to overcome with the right mindset and motivation. If you approach your study abroad experience with a completely open mind, it will, at the very least, offer you a different perspective, one that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.

Good Luck! It’s time to find a study abroad program