Cultural Adjustments

Living in a different culture is often a challenging experience. Besides finding housing, registering for courses, and getting to know a new city, most international students go through “cultural adjustment” or the transition to a new culture. This period is also commonly referred to as “culture shock.”

What is Cultural Adjustment?

“Cultural adjustment” or “culture shock” is the name given to a feeling of disorientation or confusion that often occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to an unfamiliar one. Students coming to Davis from another country will encounter a multitude of new things—buildings, stores and even the trees may look different. Food may not be the same, and people may look, speak and act differently from people at home. Sometimes even the smells can be different. Language can be a challenge, and a student’s English might not serve as well as expected. It can be difficult to convey a full personality and life history in a second language, and students might worry that other people see them as a child. In the midst of all this, the student’s friends and family are all far away. It can be easy to feel confused, unsure and doubtful about the decision to study in another country.


Some people are more affected by cultural adjustment than others. People experiencing culture shock tend to become nervous and unusually tired. They may want to sleep a lot or may have difficulty sleeping. They may write many emails home. They may feel frustrated and hostile toward the local people. They may get excessively angry about minor irritations. It is not unusual to become very dependent on fellow nationals. All these feelings may make it difficult to deal with residents of the host country and to use the host language.

Coping With Cultural Adjustment

Different people react differently to culture adjustment. Some become depressed, or even physically ill. Others are stimulated by the new experiences. Below are some suggestions for coping with culture shock.

  1. Maintain your perspective
    • Try to remember that thousands of people have come to California from other countries and have learned to call this state “home.”
  2. Take some practical steps.
    • Find people to interact with. Ask them questions. As you take an interest in them, your feelings will have a focal point outside of yourself.
    • Surround yourself with familiar things—a favorite jacket, a photo, a favorite song. Make your environment pleasant and reinforcing.
    • Slow down. Simplify your daily tasks. Relax. Let your emotions catch up with the newness all around you.
    • Develop patterns. Follow the same routine daily so that you get a sense of returning to the familiar.
    • Give expression to your feelings. Cry. Laugh. Sing. Pray. Draw a picture.
    • Revise your goals to accommodate detours instead of scolding yourself for failures.
    • Keep working on language skills. Practice the North American idiom, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
    • Confide to friends, and even your host family, that you are sad. Their support will warm you.
    • Make a few small decisions and carry them out. Your resolve in small things will increase your confidence.
  3. Be patient with yourself and with other people.
    • Adjustment is a gradual, day-by-day process. It normally takes some time—a few weeks, a few months, and maybe longer—for people to become comfortable in a new country.
  4. Take care of yourself.
    • It is particularly important in times of stress to eat a balanced diet, get enough rest, and get regular physical exercise. Take breaks for recreation or socializing. Studying or working constantly, without taking care of yourself, may make you sick, and that will make your entire situation worse.
  5. Realize that you may be treated as a stereotype.
    • On many occasions, international students will be responded to as “a foreign student” or “a student from country X.” Whether the stereotype is positive or negative depends on the person’s experience, not on anything about you personally. Try not to let this discourage you. Try to start some interesting conversations about the subject of stereotypes—what peoples’ stereotypes are, where they came from, and so on. And remember that you probably have your own stereotypes about U.S. Americans.
  6. Talk with experienced international students from your country and other countries.
    • Their observations and advice can help you. Ask them what things they have found most bothersome, most interesting, most perplexing. Ask them what sources of information and support have been most helpful.
  7. Learn the local criteria for success.
    • Find out what is considered a good performance in studies, research, social relations and other aspects of your life here. You can get information about this from teachers, native students, secretaries, neighbors and many others.
  8. Realize how the status of your role here compares to the status to which you are accustomed.
    • Different societies attach different importance to roles or positions; for example, in many countries, the role of “university student” or “professor” is accorded more respect or status than it is in the United States. It can be difficult to adjust to having a lower social status than you are accustomed. It helps to recognize that you personally are not being downgraded, but that you happen to be in a society where respect is expressed differently than at home.
  9. Learn from the experience.
    • Moving into a new culture can be the most fascinating and educational experience of your life. It gives you the opportunity to explore an entirely new way of living and compare it to your own. Here are some questions you might try to answer as you encounter the local people:
      • How do they make friends?
      • How do friends treat each other?
      • Who respects whom, and how is respect shown?
      • What attitudes do they have about their families?
      • What is the relationship between males and females?
      • How do people spend their time? Why?
      • How do they deal with conflicts or disagreements?
      • What do they talk about?
      • What kind of evidence do they seek or use when evaluating an idea or trying to win an argument?

You can compare the answers you get to the answers you would get to the same questions in your country, and you can help yourself develop a better understanding of your own society and of the one where you are living now.