The reality of culture shock


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When I attended my first study abroad orientation session in December, I was told that my semester in Madrid would be like a rollercoaster. In my mind, this meant a rollercoaster of mostly exciting times, occasionally accompanied by confusion that’s triggered by the language barrier.

A glance at the graph presented to us at orientation, however, showed me that this was not the case. According to the study abroad office, culture shock produces a rollercoaster that is much more complex.

Buckle your seatbelts as you anticipate your departure. As you ascend the first hill of initial anticipation, you’ll plummet into the “arrival confusion” phase. Twisting and turning around bending unfamiliar streets and languages, you’ll suddenly spike upwards to the beloved “honeymoon” phase where every day is a breeze. As you begin to acquaint yourself with the surroundings and acclimate to the cultural differences, it won’t be long before you stop short. Your stomach will drop as you hit a wall and descend into “the plunge” that is the homesickness phase. The ride goes on with plenty more ups and downs.

For me, it was a strange idea to be told exactly how I would feel. Upon arrival to Madrid, our orientation week included similar lectures with even more metaphors describing what would be “normal” to feel. In addition to the rollercoaster, there’s also the safety, learning and panic zones, as well as the portrayal of any country besides the United States as “another planet.”

Though I’ve been in Madrid for less than two weeks, at this point I would say that my own experiences have been fairly high up on the happiness chart, and far less turbulent than any rollercoaster I’ve been on (which, in all honestly, is few — but my point still holds true). I definitely recognize that leaving home and moving outside your comfort zone is stressful. Yet, instead of anticipating the negative feelings you might have while abroad, I’ve found it is more helpful to anticipate the specific cultural differences.

The orientation session that I found most useful was one that gave us the opportunity to speak with an American who had studied abroad in Madrid and ended up staying here. She was able to relate to us about the specific activities or behavior of Spaniards that would have confused us. Experiencing cultural differences is part of the study abroad experience, but it’s beneficial to have some knowledge of the specifics in order to avoid being thrown off guard.

A few of these differences I’ve experienced thus far include the meal schedule (my host mom serves lunch at 3 p.m. and dinner at 9:30 p.m. — slightly different from my sorority kitchen’s dinners being served at 5:30 p.m.), how people greet each other (learn the double-cheek kiss!) and the fact that Spaniards stand very close to you when speaking (prepare to have your personal bubble popped).

As mentioned I’ve only been in Spain for two weeks, so I am by no means a study abroad expert. Nevertheless, the most important lesson I’ve learned so far is to be prepared to be flexible. Be flexible towards cultural differences and how you feel about them. Be flexible about learning the language — don’t get frustrated too quickly. Be flexible about being homesick — it happens. Studying abroad might be a rollercoaster, but you’re still in control of the car.