Adjusting to Life in the United States
By electing to study abroad, you have asserted a desire to immerse
yourself in a different culture for the purpose of learning. This
adventurous and courageous act sets you apart from other students
who may never explore the world around them and the energy and enthusiasm
required to get you this far are qualities that will help you be
a successful student. The initial thrill of international study,
however, may wane if unfamiliar cultural systems, customs, and languages
begin to overwhelm you. This phenomenon is colloquially referred
to as culture shock. The best defense against culture
shock is an understanding of the circumstances that create it and
a cursory understanding of the new cultural environment you are
about to enter.
Cultures are made up of various spoken and unspoken rules. A student
who wishes to learn about another cultural system can read about the
history of a country, study its political structure, or become acquainted
with the national religious practices. These aspects of culture are
often clearly stated and accessible to visitors. Other aspects of
culture are less clearly articulated.
When we are home, there are many different cultural cues that
we unconsciously experience and respond to. For example, when you
are in your home country, you seldom consider how to greet a friend
or how to behave in a classroom. These are all things that a person
does easily while at home. Cultural cues govern these simple acts.
People assimilate their cultural cues throughout their lives until
certain behavior becomes automatic. When familiar cultural
cues no longer apply and unfamiliar ones begin to threaten security
and confidence, culture shock may result.
Culture shock is the feeling of being out of place in an unfamiliar
environment. The initial excitement of moving to a new country often
subsides when different cultural expectations challenge you to attend
to daily responses and behaviors previously taken for granted. The
potential stress of dealing with these persistent challenges can
result in feelings of hostility and frustration with your host country
as well as a profound longing for home. If you are a person who
has already exhibited the courage and sense of adventure required
of embracing international study, overcoming culture shock can be
a cultural and personal educational opportunity particularly suited
to your sense of adventure.
Americans value individualism. European immigrants who rejected
the religion, politics, and economics of their home cultures established
a new American culture in the early 1600s. As a result, early
American culture evolved out of a commitment to individual desire
and rebellion against authority. This commitment to individual
religious and political beliefs was so powerful that it resulted
in the colonization of a continent that was already inhabited
by Native Americans. American colonizers who believed they were
culturally superior to their home countries and to Native American
culture felt justified in leaving home and country and colonizing
the New World.
|Individualism and the American Family
America’s early history established a commitment to individualism, aggressive capitalist development, and rebellion against authority and remnants of this cultural philosophy remain today. Americans’ commitment to individualism results in less family cohesiveness than you may be accustomed to in your own life. Many American households only include the “nuclear family,” the parents and children. When children become adults, the cultural expectation is that they will move out and establish their own nuclear family.
In America, elderly parents seldom live with their grown children and often live in senior citizen communities or, if they require medical attention, in nursing homes. This cultural difference can seem quite strange to international students whose cultures assert the importance of caring for elderly family members. Regardless of this fractured family structure, many Americans are devoted to their nuclear and extended families even though they may not reside together.
Many American families are “blended families” with stepparents and stepsiblings and so a cultural tradition has evolved of welcoming family and non-family members equally, especially around American holidays. Most Americans families who live separate daily lives regard holidays as important family gatherings. For this reason, you will find that your American friends will probably become concerned if they discover you have no plans to “go home” for the holidays and will likely extend invitations for you to join their family celebrations. Holiday celebrations often have lots of food and celebrating so take advantage of the invitations!
|Individualism and the American College Environment
Dedicated American students tend to be competitive and driven.
American students, especially at Trinity, tend to take on a lot
of work and tend to be involved with many different academic,
extra-curricular, and social activities. You may find this frenetic
pace a bit overwhelming (so do many Americans!). The focus on
individual achievement results in the culturally conditioned drive
to achieve as much as possible in as many areas as possible with
the hope of enhancing personal growth and occupational prospects.
The drive to earn money is powerful, and as a result you will
see that many students do what they can to make themselves more
marketable in the American workforce.
American students strong sense of individualism is also
apparent in the classroom. Students assert their opinions and
question professors easily and vigorously. This is the result
of both the American commitment to the sovereignty of individual
opinion and a tradition of challenging authority. International
students may find this behavior aggressive and disrespectful,
which at times it may be, but it is important to understand the
underlying cultural drive to be heard. Questioning authority and
trusting individual perceptions of reality are particular points
of pride in American society and when employed wisely enhance
the classroom environment with the free and respectful exchange
Another aspect of the classroom that some international students
may find jarring is informality. Students and professors alike
tend to dress and behave casually with one another. In classrooms,
it is not unusual for people to speak without raising their hands,
to address the professor by his or her first name, to debate with
classmates or the professor, or to eat and drink in class. Professors
tend to make it clear by example or by explicit statement, the
level of formality they expect in a classroom. If you are uncertain,
ask your professor what classroom behavior he or she expects.
Meeting new people can be exciting and at times stressful, particularly in a new environment where many others already have established friendships. Of course the best way to start a friendship is to say “hello” to a stranger. In America, people tend to greet each other by saying “Hi,” “Hello,” or “How are you?” “How are you?” is an expression used as a greeting and not usually used as a question. If someone keeps moving past you as they say “How are you?”, they mean it as “Hello.” If an acquaintance stops walking to chat with you and then asks “How are you?”, they usually expect a short, positive answer. The typical response is, “Fine.” This may seem impersonal, but it has become a part of the American cultural greeting practice between strangers and acquaintances.
American men usually shake hands when they meet someone for the first time. Some American women will also shake hands with men or women they first meet, but as this is a fairly new cultural convention in America, Americans tend to wait for the woman to offer her hand first. Unlike many countries, it is uncommon for Americans, especially American men, to hug or kiss each other when they greet one another. You may notice, however, that men who are particularly close friends may greet each other with vigorous, backslapping hugs from time to time.
When Americans speak to each other, they tend to maintain a conversational distance of about three feet from one another. Americans often feel uncomfortable with someone who stands too close to them, even if the person is a close friend. Despite this seemingly distant behavior, you may find that Americans you have just met will ask you intimate questions. The questions Americans may ask of you usually come out of a genuine curiosity about you and your culture, with which they may be totally unfamiliar. Trust your instincts about whether a person is being curious or intrusive and remember you can politely refuse to answer anything that makes you uncomfortable without compromising a new friendship.
|Tips for Adjusting to a New Cultural Environment
1. Be open-minded.
2. Have a sense of humor.
3. Communicate your feelings and thoughts with others.
4. Be curious about your new environment.
5. Be tolerant of other cultural beliefs.
6. Be positive.
7. Maintain a strong sense of self.
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