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Your 3-Step Plan to Deal with Culture Shock While Living Abroad


Hello! My name is Rachel, and I’ve just started working for Bridge after studying English in college. As I’m sure many of you reading can relate, I was afflicted by “wanderlust” at a young age – I had a burning desire to discover new cultures and go everywhere, from the places I learned about in history books to places I didn’t even know existed!

I made this dream reality by studying abroad in a couple smaller European towns: Amboise, France in 2011 and Granada, Spain in 2014. Both were unforgettable experiences, but they weren’t easy by any means. I’ll be honest – leaving your home to live in another country is hard! It’s also one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do, and you’ll learn so many lessons about yourself that you’ll wonder if you even knew who you were beforehand.

While I definitely suffered from “culture shock” when I first got to Spain, I worked hard to overcome it and ultimately had an amazing experience. It’s impossible to be completely prepared for culture shock, and living abroad in general, but here are some things that I learned abroad that you should keep in mind before you start your own adventure!

1. Be Prepared for Challenges

First off, you won’t be the same person you were when you return from living abroad, and that’s partly because of the challenges you will face. Stores will be closed in the middle of the day, right when you desperately need something, you’ll lose things, and important information will frequently get lost in translation. You might break down and wonder why you came abroad at all! However – you’ll soon remember why, because just around the corner are beautiful views, unbelievable historical sights, and amazing, down-to-earth people. The rough, unglamorous moments of living abroad, combined with unbelievably cool experiences make it an amazing experience, even when it’s not always a walk in the park. And you’ll become a stronger person because of it. So when challenges come your way, be ready for them, and remember that things won’t be difficult all the time.

2. Focus on Relationships

You will miss your family, friends, and maybe even a significant other. But the best advice I can give you is to get out there and focus on the relationships around you – you won’t be with these people forever. This doesn’t mean forget the people you love back home; just don’t be dependent upon them. Instead, focus on building a new community – of local residents, international friends, and other students from your own country. For me, it was also helpful to have the safety net of staying with a host family – I lived with Lina, a hilarious older Spanish woman whose kids had already grown. Along with my roommate, Monique, we were essentially a real family for the four months we were there – laughing, joking, and cooking together. If you’re homesick or suffering from culture shock, spend time with your roommates or host family or try playing a group sport. Focusing on the relationships you have abroad will help you miss home a LOT less, and you’ll make lasting friendships while you’re at it!

3. Find Something You Love

I’m not going to lie; I suffered from culture shock while I was living in Spain. The transition was immediately hard for me; the leisurely “siestas” got in the way of errands I needed to do, I had to walk about 4 miles a day to and from school in blistering heat, and I just didn’t understand the slow, drawn-out culture of Andalusia – the southern region of Spain. To help combat the shock, I started trying to find things I loved about Granada (which wasn’t hard). One thing I really loved was the Alhambra, a beautiful hilltop palace built when Granada was part of the Arab world. If I was feeling confused or homesick, a nice walk out, sans internet and phone, to the Mirador de San Nicolas would remind me how lucky I was to actually be there, and the view developed a special place in my heart. My last day in Granada I walked out there and looked at the magical view, reflecting on my experiences, and knew that I could never return to this point in my life again.

Now, two years later, I can still remember living abroad for the experience it was, and I’m grateful that I didn’t waver in fear, but found places and moments that were meaningful to me. You won’t be in this place again, and let’s face it – time flies. Home will be there for you when you’re ready. Just don’t let yourself regret not taking more chances while you’re thousands of miles away!

A little bit of culture shock is inevitable, but with some time, a positive attitude, and the approaches described above, eventually, you’ll be finding your “new normal” living abroad. 

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