Cultural Transition and Adaptation

Adjusting to a new culture and environment is a normal process and can generate a wide variety of reactions and feelings. Some stages in the adjustment process have been identified and are described below. Even though the adjustment process is described as a number of successive stages, not all people go though each stage and not necessarily in the order mentioned. Also, the stages, when experienced, can last different lengths of time for different people, and sometimes people cycle through these stages more than once.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation

The Honeymoon Stage

This is usually the first stage experienced after arrival to a new culture. In this stage everything seems exciting and new. The focus is on the sense of success in being in the new culture; curiosity and interest in the novelty of the new surroundings; and an appreciation and anticipation of the opportunities to be found in the new culture. Most people feel energetic and enthusiastic during this stage.

The Culture Shock Stage

In this stage, the primary focus is on the differences between one’s home culture and the new culture and the conflicts that arise due to these differences, including:
having to use a foreign language

  • not being sure how to interact with people in authority
  • not having a clear idea of how to make friends with people from different cultures
  • not having a clear idea of how to date people from different cultures
  • not being understood when you express yourself in your usual way
  • finding that food and eating customs are different
  • finding that religious practices are different
  • finding large differences in the educational system
  • finding that some people in the new culture are impatient when you don’t understand things right away
  • finding that some people are prejudiced against others from different cultures

The conflicts may be with other people or internal – in terms of one’s own values, habits and preferences when contrasted with the norms and expectations of those from the new culture. Feelings that accompany the culture shock stage may include: confusion, anxiety, homesickness, anger and the following:

  • feeling anxious
  • feeling homesick
  • feeling angry
  • feeling lonely
  • feeling helpless
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling fearful for your safety
  • feeling unsure of yourself
  • feeling less competent
  • feeling you don’t belong
  • feeling fearful of the unknown and unfamiliar
  • feeling confused about which values you wish to live by
  • feeling unsure about whether to stay in the U.S.A. or go back to your country of origin and how to raise and relate to your children in the new culture

The Recovery Stage

After having spent some time in the new culture, people begin to resolve some of the conflicts they may have experienced and also begin to regain a sense of appreciation that they might have experienced in the first stage. They have learned more about the new culture and are able to have a better understanding of external and internal resources that help in managing demands and conflicts that might arise. Feelings typical of this stage are a mixture of the first two stages.

The Adaptation Stage

This stage consists of people developing a realistic understanding of the similarities and differences between their home cultures and the new culture, so that they have clearer ideas about what they like and dislike in each. Many people move in the direction of becoming “bicultural” i.e. being able to value and appreciate the aspects of both cultures that they wish retain or include in their lives. This stage may be characterized by a sense of confidence, maturity, flexibility and tolerance.

Reverse Culture Shock

This is an often unexpected part of the cultural adaptation process. Based on the above stages, people eventually become relatively comfortable with the new culture, and are able to learn and incorporate new attitudes and behavior that allows them to function better in the new culture. However, when this person returns to their home culture (especially if they have not been back for a while), they may sometimes find that the changes in themselves as well as in the home culture while they were away may create the need for an entirely new adjustment process which can be similar to the process described above. This can be especially confusing if the person is expecting to fit in effortlessly into their home culture and neither the person nor members of the home culture are sensitive to the possibility of reverse culture shock.

Tips for Successful Cultural Adaptation

Academic Skills

  • Becoming familiar with expectations of the US academic system and culture can be very helpful in enhancing success as an international student.
  • Discuss the educational norms with other students, teaching assistants and professors
  • Get help in improving your reading and study skills if necessary
  • Look over old exams and papers to see what is expected
  • Keep in close contact with Teaching Assistants and Professors and let them know what your needs are. Ask them for suggestions, ideas and assistance

Social Skills

  • Learning about and becoming familiar with the US culture and understanding the social customs here can help with smoother interactions with peers and teachers. This can be immensely helpful in the adaptation process
  • Spend time listening and talking to fellow students and other people from the US
  • Watch TV and read newspapers to obtain information about the local and national US culture
  • Check with others if you are unsure about appropriate behavior, language use etc.
  • Find someone who you feel comfortable with, who can help you understand the US culture better (e.g. a friend who is from the US, a senior international student who is further along in the adaptation process, various mentoring programs provided by academic departments and campus organizations.

Emotional Support

  • Sometimes the lack of familiar support systems – family and friends – can result in feelings of stress and loneliness that can make the entire adaptation process feel burdensome. It is therefore a good idea to:
  • Find people with whom you can share your feelings and experiences
  • Develop a support network of people who understand your experiences
  • Stay in contact with friends and family back home
  • Balance work and recreation in your everyday life
  • Seek professional support if needed – especially since the familiar support systems from home may not be available here