Tips for Coping With Culture Shock While Living Abroad

Photo of Andrew Dunkle
Andrew Dunkle

After graduating with a degree in Art History, Andrew decided to teach English in Taiwan. He grew up in Australia and has studied abroad in Italy.

South Korea

When I decided to teach English in South Korea as a public school teacher, I expected my first few months to be difficult as I settled in and experienced some degree of culture shock. What I went through, however, ended up being far from what I expected.

I have learned during my time abroad that there are three main stages to culture shock, and I will outline them here briefly:

  1. During the initial ‘Honeymoon phase’ you are likely to be in awe of your surroundings and everything you see. Comparisons are often favorable at this point and differences are viewed with a sense of novelty.
  2. During the ‘negotiation phase' you will start to feel less optimistic about your new environment and may now feel resentment toward the cultural differences you once found fascinating. Homesickness can kick in.
  3. During the final ‘adjustment phase' you've now come full circle and feel less negative toward the host country and capable of deal with everyday situations. It's easier to accept the differences and the new culture suddenly no longer feels so new.

While most people will experience varied forms of these three stages of culture shock, it's important to add that these are only basic outlines and each person’s experience when moving abroad will be unique. During my time in Korea I have met a number of people who have experienced extremely varied forms of culture shock.

Some people experienced these stages of culture shock, in particular, the adjustment phase, for long periods of time, whereas others did not experience this phase at all. Often comparing your own situation and feelings with other people can make you feel worse, while other times it can be helpful. It's important to remember that you are your own person and you will have your own unique experience.

There are a number of things that, though they cannot make your culture shock or homesickness completely disappear, will help you on the way to feeling happier in your new life.

Make New Friends Abroad!

One of the most important things you can do is to make lots of friends. Friends who speak your native language or from the same cultural background, as well as friends from the new country you are living in. Sometimes it can be tempting to avoid the day to day challenges that you may face, and sooner or later you may find yourself isolated and extremely lonely.

Friends can help you unload the things that are bothering you and it can be a great comfort to hear that someone else is going through similar feelings as you. It's good to vent every now and then, but don't spend all your time ranting about the things that bother you. I've noticed expats love to do this, and although sometimes it can make you feel a bit better, more often it does nothing to help you deal with the problems you are facing. Making friends who are actually from the country you are staying in can provide a good way of balancing things out.

Take time to enjoy things that are familiar to you, such as, listening to music in your native language, watching films, and eating familiar food.

For me, making Korean friends helps me to realize that although there are many differences between our cultures and lifestyles, there are also many similarities. They can help you to learn the native language which in turn will help you overcome the social barriers you might face when communicating with locals. Though it is important to face new challenges, also take time to enjoy things that are familiar to you, such as, listening to music in your native language, watching films, and eating familiar food.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

There are many things that still annoy me about Korean culture, but also an equal number of things that I value and appreciate. These include: excellent service in shops and restaurants, trains always being on time, (which is a rare occurrence in the U.K.), and a speedy internet connection. Sometimes the little things make a huge difference and often, when feeling homesick, it is easy to forget about the things that you would really miss if you were back in your home country.

Living abroad is one of the hardest challenges a person might face. Adapting to a new culture brings with it so many different aspects that it can be hard to deal with them all at once. But you have a choice. You can choose to let the little things bring you down all the time and insist on having a negative attitude towards your host country, or you can focus on the bigger picture. Let the little things slide and remember your reasons for deciding to teach abroad in the first place.

What was it that you wanted to achieve and experience from this adventure? Look at this experience as an opportunity of self-confrontation and personal growth, and you may find that you learn new things about yourself that you may have otherwise never realized had you not taken that brave step. It is a journey of great highs and great lows, but I have always found my happiest moments to be undeniably worth it. It's okay to feel blue at times, but take comfort in the fact that one way or another, that feeling will pass.

Look for teaching jobs in South Korea.

Photo Credit: Martha Landry