A guide to understanding and combating culture shock

culture shock

Living in a new country that seems so different from your own might be overwhelming sometimes. In the beginning, you’re amazed and excited about your new home. But over time, the difference in clothes, food, language, and everything else might start to cause you stress, as nothing seems “normal” anymore.

Take a deep breathe and don’t worry. These symptoms are standard and only temporary. We hope that once you start to understand what culture shock is and can identify the signs, you can find ways to adjust and live comfortably in your new surroundings.

The Stages of Culture Shock

By definition, culture shock is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” For most people, culture shock comes in four stages. What triggers these stages will probably be different for you than for other non-native people. The feelings associated with each stage often come in gradually, depending on how well you adjust. You could even skip stages or barely notice them at all.

First Stage: Your Arrival

When you first arrive, everything is new and exciting. You can’t wait to try new things. You’re ready for a fresh start, and the future looks bright.

Second Stage: Culture Shock

A feeling of anxiety starts to set in, and all the changes become almost too much to bear. You begin to see the cultural differences as being “wrong” and feel disillusioned by your new situation. You start to wish things could go back to the way they were and you begin to question why you are here.

Some symptoms of this stage could include an increased frustration over the language gap, increased irritability and frustration over simple matters, a feeling of loneliness, and trouble sleeping.

Third Stage: Adjustment

At this stage, you begin to come to terms with why you are in the United States. You become more comfortable with your decision and start to see again the benefits of building your life here.

This is the stage where you start to develop new strategies for coping with the differences, and you learn to adapt to your new surroundings. Making friends in your new country can help tremendously at this point of your transition.

Fourth Stage: Integration

This is where things finally come together. You no longer feel like a stranger in your new environment and have begun to embrace the cultural differences. Acceptance seeps in where the feelings of confusion and depression have left.

At this stage, you may realize that it’s ok not to understand it all. You may not completely understand your new culture, but you don’t feel as lost anymore. Finally, your new country will start to feel like a home.

Ways You Can Fight Culture Shock

It’s to be expected that you may hit some bumps along the road while you’re immersing yourself in an entirely new environment. Once you can identify that the frustration you feel is normal and temporary, you can focus on what you need to do to pull yourself out.  

You are here for a reason, but it’s easy to lose sight of that when all you want is your old life back, or to be with your family again. Whatever the situation was that brought you here, you came for a chance at a better life.

Here are some tips to help you keep fighting and find your happy ending.

Join a local club or group.

Oklahoma City has many clubs and groups with people who love to do the same things that you do. The easiest way to find a group of like-minded people is to check out Meetup. In our article, Discover Ways to Make Friends and New Memories with Meetup, we talk about just some of the great groups available right here in the city.

Whether you join a church group or a cooking club, meeting new people is one of the best ways to help you understand the cultural differences and start to embrace them. Push yourself to find new friends, get involved with your community, and, most importantly, keep yourself busy!

Conquer the language.

A language barrier makes it so much easier to get stuck in the hardest stages of culture shock. Learning English is a big hurdle, but it’s so important in your ability to integrate into your new home. There are many resources online and in the community that can help you become more fluent in English.

Here are some resources to help:

ESL Oklahoma City

ESL Learning at Rose State College

Online English Conversation Courses


Establish a routine.

Trying so many new things at once is very exciting, but to help you over the hump of cultural shock, attempt to establish a routine, at least for a little bit. That way, you’ll start to become more comfortable in your setting. Take the same route to work so it becomes familiar to you. Shop at the same stores so you can take notice of how monetary exchanges are handled, the social setting, and appropriate etiquette. Go to the same restaurant a few times so you can become more confident in how you order and the foods available, and begin to familiarize yourself with American social customs when dining out.

This can also work the other way around if you already have an established routine and you feel overwhelmed. Try something different, or try new routines that may be more aligned with your comfort level.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Americans will appreciate your efforts to fit in and understand their culture. Ask them what’s acceptable and what’s not. If you begin to understand why things are done the way they are, then your new home will start to make more sense to you. You will no longer see the cultural differences as “wrong” but as just another way of doing something.

Find something familiar that you can do in the United States.

If you had a favorite movie or a favorite food in your home country, try to find it here. A little sense of comfort can go a long way.

We have great ethnic restaurants in Oklahoma City that have been established by immigrants from all across the world. Check them out—hopefully you’ll find one that will remind you of your family’s home cooking. If you’d rather make something yourself, Oklahoma City also has a great selection of ethnic grocery stores. You can read more about them in our article, The Seven Best Ethnic Grocery Stores in Oklahoma City.

Learn about the history.

Visit local museums or read about local and national history to help develop a better appreciation and respect for your new home. You may find some similarities with your own country’s history and traditions that will help you relate better to an American’s way of thinking.

There are many great museums in Oklahoma City and the surrounding area that offer unique perspectives on the stories of Oklahoma and its people:

The Chickasaw National Cultural Center

Oklahoma City National Memorial

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Center

Oklahoma History Center

Embrace technology.

If you have family back in your home country, apps like Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp can make you feel connected. Even social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can help you feel a part of their lives.

Keep in mind that there is a careful balance of feeling connected and feeling like you are missing out. Too much contact could slow your adjustment to your new country. However, technology can help soothe your homesick heart when you need it the most.

Make a list.

When you’re deep into the second stage of cultural shock, it may be hard to remember what you love about living in the United States. Having a list ready with the reasons can help remind you why you made the difficult journey to be here.

Write down all the things that bring you joy when you think of the United States. Depending on your current stage of culture shock, this list could be very long or very short. Nevertheless, this list will come in handy when you’re feeling lonely and rethinking your decision. The stages of cultural shock can come and go, and even repeat themselves, so even when you think you’re in a good place, keep that list handy, just in case you need to refer to it later on.

Share your culture.

You may feel that you have left part of yourself and who you are back in your home country. However, living in the United States doesn’t mean that you have to hide your cultural traditions or values. The United States is filled with cultural diversity, and there is plenty of space for you to share your culture.  

We encourage you to share your culture and traditions with new friends. This can help you create a connection between your old life and your new life. Share a traditional meal with them, and tell them about how you celebrate holidays or special events like birthdays and weddings in your home country. Teach them some of your language. Need some other ideas of how to share? Read our article, Simple Ways You Can Share Your Culture.

In Conclusion

Living in a new country is a huge adjustment, and it will take time to feel fully comfortable. Integrating into a new culture involves a lot of learning, adjusting, and growing. Focus on the fact that your feelings of sadness and isolation are completely normal, and only temporary.

The intensity of your culture shock and how quickly you learn to adjust can vary depending on how much you interact with your new home. If you stay in a bubble of your family and friends from your home country, you may never fully adjust to your new American life. Get out there, make new friends, and enjoy living in the United States, and you’ll find culture shock much easier to overcome.

Once you can stop comparing your new life with your old life, you can start adjusting to your new environment. You’ll learn how to embrace what is different and what makes us all unique. You are on an incredible journey, and it’s to be expected that it will be hard sometimes, but keep pushing through. In the end, you’ll see that it was all worth it.

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