Is it possible to adjust to a new culture; adapt to new behaviors, expectations and mindset while retaining your cultural identity?
Changes will happen as we mature and take up new life roles regardless of living at home or moving abroad. Moving abroad heightens this experience because everyone around us is foreign and behave in ways we don't understand or expect and the problems that we encounter and how we have to solve them take on new meanings.
One reason we travel and live abroad is to experience different ways of life; open our mind to new possibilities. This exciting process of being thrust into a new life can leave us with mixed emotions as we adapt and learn to remain true to ourselves. As we learn new things; we wonder if the 'old ways' or our 'true selves' are being compromised in the process. Is it possible to adapt to new culture and ways of life while retaining one's identity?
I explore that very question in this article, Give and Take of Cultural Adjustments, which was published in Careers 360 a national magazine published in India.
Give and Take of Cultural Adjustments
"Life is about making compromises to achieve your goals and dreams."
This was expressed to me by Sajitha, an international student from India in the U.S. who had been struggling for months trying to balance her cultural identity with Americanizing herself.
After interacting with, mentoring and coaching many overseas students in the U.S., I would like to share some of their insights that may also help you overcome the culture shock and confusion with adjusting to the American culture.
Realities of Life Away From Home
When we live away from home, and specifically when we move abroad we are confronted daily with new things that challenge everything that we have already been socialized to believe is true. A way of approaching professors in India suddenly doesn’t have the same outcome when done abroad. The approach to studying and getting good grades in India could result in failing grades abroad. Finding ways to spend time, have hobbies, create friendships that felt like second nature in India will take on a new meaning abroad.
Of course, change is one reason people want to study abroad. It’s exciting to experience another culture and country. Family and friends; some of which have lived in those countries have so many awesome stories that fill us with wonder, inspiration and excitement. We are eager to experience the same. We hear about all the good things and the exciting things – but we often don’t hear about the challenges. One of the biggest challenges faced in moving abroad for studies is the sudden realization of being different. We won’t be ‘like everyone else’ anymore. We will be different. We will be considered foreigners and outsiders. Yet, as any human being we want to fit in, be accepted, understand how to be successful and get good grades, have fun and graduate so that we can enjoy our life and careers.
Finding Balance Through Self-Discovery
So, how do we balance our enthusiasm for fitting in, adjusting to a new culture and being successful in a new environment with retaining our cultural identity?
To do this is not easy. There is no one-size-fits-all solution as lifestyle and cultural adjustment whether at home or abroad is a continuous and overlapping process. First and foremost, rather than clinging to stereotypes and ideals of an identity – you as the student must take the time to define your own identity, and ideas you have of identity in the country they will be going to. Where does your identity overlap or conflict with the identity abroad? What stereotypes do you have of the country? What kinds of stereotypes do you think locals in the country have of your country or culture?
What we should know with clarity and honesty is our self and cultural identity. What we are guessing about is the identity of the culture we are going to. We must be open to exploring ourselves and other’s identity more when we are abroad to dispel myths and stereotypes. After all being ‘a foreigner’ studying abroad in another country we do not like others interacting with us based on stereotypes- we prefer to be appreciated for the unique individuals we are. After meeting and talking with locals we may realize the truth in our stereotypes or the falsehood of our stereotypes. We may also come to know where our values, behaviors and mindset overlap, differ or converge with the locals. In this process, we will come to know what we want or need to adjust to be successful in the new culture – without compromising our identity.
Balancing Cultural Assimilation and Cultural Identity
It's easy to take cultural adjustment out of context because it’s adjusting to another language, mindset, mannerisms, dressing style, sense of humor and the many other characteristics that create a culture. In this adjustment, we must always remember to be true to ourselves, stay grounded and retain our cultural identity and values.
Simple Ways to Stay In Touch With Your Identity
A talk with any person away from their country will provide a typical list of ways people stay in touch with their native cultural identity. Some of these methods are: stay in touch with family and friends back home, find people to speak your native language with, find ways to cook your favorite foods (even if it’s with local ingredients), watch TV or listen to radio in your language (online), attend spiritual gatherings affiliated with your spiritual path, observe your cultural holidays, dress in your ethnic clothes or country’s fashions from time to time (even if it is only inside your own home), play games or continue hobbies you had from your hometown. Whether or not you can find others from your country in your home away from home, try to teach others in your local area about your culture through answering questions, teaching classes, or just being yourself!
Making the Most out of the Opportunity
Studying abroad offers you opportunities as an international student you would not have if you stayed in your hometown or country. Get involved in your college's international student affairs or global clubs on campus. These opportunities can open doors to meeting other interesting international students and influential members of the campus community that ordinary local students never get the chance to meet such as deans, principals, and CEOs among others. Seize the opportunity – make your best impression by showcasing your understanding of local ways while being true to who you are!
Jennifer Kumar, cross-cultural coach, wrote this article based on her experience coaching and advising international students in the U.S. from the subcontinent (India).
Thank you for reading.
Listen to this podcast with Jennifer Kumar on this topic.