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“I really did not expect the greyness and dampness during the winter months, and it was totally different from the dry and sunny winter in my home country. I also didn’t consider myself a picky eater, but eating foreign food was an issue for me. I still miss my mom’s cooking,” recalls Subin Kim, a senior electrical engineering student from Korea who came to Canada as an exchange student.

Every year, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students come to Canada with a passion for learning. Most people who move to a different country and a new culture go through a process called “culture shock”. Culture shock is a normal reaction to a new environment and you are not the only one experiencing these feelings. The culture shock process, however, is highly individual. A range of intrapersonal factors such as age, previous travel, language skills, resourcefulness, independence, fortitude, and physical condition will make a difference, as will a support network.

The Honeymoon Stage
This stage is where the newly arrived individuals have a very positive attitude, feel excited and are curious about cultural differences. “I was impressed by the clean air, beautiful environment, slow-paced life style in Victoria. When crossing roads, drivers stop for pedestrians. Drivers in Canada are generally more careful,” says Leat Ahrony, who came from Taiwan in 2011 to study for her Bachelors of Business at the University of Victoria.

The Crisis or Cultural Shock Stage
This stage is marked by individuals becoming aware that the new culture is confusing or the systems are frustrating. Alice Chen recalls when she first came to Canada in 2011 for pursuing a Master’s degree in Business and Management at University of British Columbia: “I experienced the most difficult time ever. Many schools in China focus very much on the academic performance, such as class attendance, test scores, assignments, and the grade of final exams. If you can do well on those aspects, you are a good student. However, in the Business School in Canada, I had to deal with not only all the heavy study load, but also all kinds of extracurricular activities, such as after-school volunteering, parties, group discussions, and peer connections. I had to socialize with people. If I did not do it, I would be left behind. English, as my second language, was not my advantage at that time. I was totally scared that I dared not to speak a single word in front of a native speaker. I was so exhausted,” Alice says. Subin Kim also says, “the most challenging task is expressing my thoughts in the classes. There always is a pause moment because my brain is not trained to interpret my thoughts in English in a real situation. It is quite frustrating.”

“However, in the Business School in Canada, I had to deal with not only all the heavy study load, but also all kinds of extracurricular activities, such as after-school volunteering, parties, group discussions, and peer connections. I had to socialize with people. If I did not do it, I would be left behind. English, as my second language, was not my advantage at that time. I was totally scared that I dared not to speak a single word in front of a native speaker. I was so exhausted.”  —Alice Chen

Many international students find they have little opportunity to make friends and feel isolated. Some 58 per cent of international students in Canada report having very few or no Canadian friends, according to a survey of 1,509 such students in Canada, to be published by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Leat, who moved past her honeymoon stage, says “Every student has his or her own class schedule. It’s not like high school where you spend most of your day in classes with the same classmates. You have to make more of an effort to meet new friends in university.” International students may experience feeling depressed, homesickness, loneliness, feeling less competent than in their home country, and feeling angry for being in this situation. They may sleep a lot and feel tired easily. They may have various body pains and aches. In many cultures, it is not uncommon to somatize psychological distress and to express distress in the form of physical symptoms.

The Adjustment or Recovery Stage
In this stage, individuals accept an objective view of their experience. They choose to become an ‘explorer’ in the new culture. They have an increased ability and a balanced perspective to see the bad and good elements in both the previous home and the new host cultures. Subin says, “Finally, I had to admit that I need to reevaluate my high expectation and that it was going to take more time than I anticipated. I also continually found ways to motivate myself and to participate in Canadian social life.’ I decided to spend more time hanging out with friends and volunteering at VIRCS and City Green Solution. It helped my spontaneous English speaking skills as well as building new friendships.”

Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973), best known for applying the term "culture shock", identified 4 stages of culture shock.

“Finally, I had to admit that I needed to reevaluate my high expectations and that it was going to take more time than I anticipated. I also continually found ways to motivate myself and to participate in Canadian social life.” —Subin Kim

The Adaptation Stage
As they become more confident in their ability to function in two different cultures, individuals develop a sense of belonging and feel part of the community. “I think it is important for international students to explore their options, and it can be hard to adjust to a new environment, but you won’t lose anything by asking people, and building relationships with domestic students. University is overwhelming at times for everyone, so make sure you have a supportive social network,” Leat says.

Reverse Culture Shock
Many individuals do not expect to have many of the same problems associated with culture shock when they return home. Gullahorn & Gullahorn (1963) explained that individuals can again experience a negative emotional dip (sometimes associated with physical problems) during the re-entry process, but regain a positive outlook as time passes.

Culture shock is not necessarily negative. It may be a positive and creative force with an educational impact to motivate, and may enhance the individual’s self-awareness and personal growth. You can make the cultural transition easier if you ask for help when you need it. Asking for help shows your competence and strength. It is not a sign of weakness. You have a number of sources of help.

“I think it is important for international students to explore their options, and it can be hard to adjust to a new environment, but you won’t lose anything by asking people, and building relationships with domestic students. University is overwhelming at times for everyone, so make sure you have a supportive social network”  —Leat Ahrony

Dr. Honore France, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Victoria, suggests some resources for international students who experience difficulty: “There are counselling services at all of the colleges and universities, Community counselling services such as the Citizens Counselling centre, the Salvation Army, immigrant and refugee organizations, and other organizations that offer counselling. Also, there are community groups for a variety of cultural associations. Some churches also offer services in languages other than English. At the colleges and universities there are groups for specific cultural groups, where you can talk with other international students who have been here for awhile. Those are wonderful resources in helping people cope with loneliness and other challenges.”

Crisis Centre B.C also offers a new online chat service for youth: youthinbc.com and adults: crisiscentrechat.ca

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