“Oh, isn’t that somewhere near Pakistan? Say something in Indian. Did you live in a grass hut?”
That was what my first few days at college in the United States sounded like. After a few days I was tired of talking.
“How could anyone be so dumb?” I wondered to myself. I was shocked that people going to college could be so naïve. I began comparing my Indian culture to the American culture and seeing only bad things in America. The advanced technology that I saw did not impress me very much. Life seemed to fast and confusing. I missed the simpler and slower pace of life back home. This was my first experience with culture shock.
Anthropologists have several definitions for the term “culture shock.” To me, it simply means the feelings of disorientation and repulsion a person experiences when exposed to a new culture. And if such feelings persist, they can make that person miserable and cynical.
My initial reaction was to withdraw from the foreign society and everything I associated with it. Instead of laughing good-humoredly at others mistakes, I took them personally. It seemed as if every time I decided to do something, someone was sure to ask, “Is that the way they do it in India?” Or if I decided to cook something different in the dorm, I had to answer the inevitable question, “Is that Indian food?”
I wanted to scream, “Just because you haven’t seen things done this way doesn’t mean it’s done that way in India. That’s my way of doing things. I may be from India but that doesn’t mean everyone in India is like me…”
Desperately I tried to establish my own identity apart from the Indian culture. At the same time, I did not want to become Americanized. I became more confused than ever. Within a few days I was unable to communicate effectively with anyone. For the first time in my life, I stuttered and stammered. I couldn’t concentrate in classes and lost all desire to study or socialize. As I look back at those freshman days, I can see why I had such a miserable time. I just didn’t know how to absorb culture shock. Consequently, I was overwhelmed with the problem of coping with a new culture. (I was fortunate not to have language problems.)
How does one absorb culture shock?
The first step is preparation ahead of time. Since an experience with a new culture usually involves going to a different country, read as much as you can about the country. Study maps and photographs, if possible. Talk to someone who has been there before. Once you immerse yourself in the new culture, strange names of people and places will begin to sound normal.
Having arrived in the new country, accept the culture as it is. A person with a good sense of humor can overcome racial and cultural prejudices. Even the most embarrassing situations can be funny. I can still remember my first day at the coffee shop. After going through the list of unfamiliar names (hamburgers and BLTs are virtually unknown in India), I finally saw something I thought I recognized. It was a beef patty.
In India a patty is a crisp, moist pastry filled with spiced vegetables or meat. Chicken patties were my favorite but I thought a beef patty would do. So I ordered a beef patty.
“With or without the bun?” the girl over the counter asked.
“Without,” I replied, wondering why someone would want to east pastry with bread. The girl gave me a surprised look. I began to wonder if something was wrong.
The round, flat, greasy piece of meat sitting on the counter did not look very appetizing. I walked by it disdainfully.
“That’s your patty,” the girl said, shoving the plate under my nose.
“Figures,” I thought as I paid for the patty and sat down to eat it. People stared at me oddly. “If only they knew what a real patty tastes like,” I thought.
It was not very funny at the time, although it sounds ridiculous now.
After you accept the culture, give yourself to it. Find out its good points. Cultural differences can be beneficial sometimes. At home, my mother always had insisted that we girls help the hostess in the kitchen whenever we went to someone’s house for a meal. I soon found out, to my relief, that an American hostess usually prefers to work alone. So, unless someone needed help, which rarely happened, I learned to relax and stay out of the kitchen.
Picking up everyday expressions is more important than learning the correct form of speech. For one thing, everyone is able to understand you and therefore feels more relaxed. I regained confidence when I caught on to some of the colloquial terms. However, most people did not appreciate my “weird sense of humor” for a while. Polite smiles were all I received when I told jokes from home. This particular problem disappeared after some practice.
Understanding a new culture can be a trying experience. Patience and perseverance are more valuable than verbal or intellectual abilities. A few faithful Christian friends can make all the difference. I am grateful for the friends who stuck with me and showed me that they cared about me. Through their patient friendship, I began to lose my misconceptions of America. And they saw that their stereotyped image of India with its tigers, jungles, and grass huts was inaccurate. Many were surprised to know that college kids in India wear blue jeans and T-shirts and watch American movies.
When these friends invited me to their homes, they destroyed my image of the “cold American.” Some were brave enough to try spicy Indian curries my sister cooked. I was glad my older sister Puii was with me, especially since she loves to cook and I love to sample her dishes. And of course, they wanted to know what kind of American foods I liked the most. I was used to cakes and cookies but not pizza. So I tried it out, and concluded that I preferred deep-dish pizza (with lots of cheese) to thin-and-crispy pizza. I was also introduced to a variety of other foods ranging from Swedish lutefisk to McDonald’s Big Macs.
Adapting to a new culture means learning to cope with new currencies as well as rules and regulations. As a foreign student, I do not have the same privileges as everyone else. I learned to respect my host country’s laws. Immigration rules are often strict and I have to fill out legal forms one or twice a year. I am fortunate to have friends who give me legal advice. Shopping in a foreign country can be a harrowing experience. Finding “good buys” and the right size clothes is a lesson in itself. You need to know what kinds of clothes are suitable for the climate. Housing and transportation can be a source of grief to a foreigner. Unless you know how the system works, you can be stranded in a strange city without a roof over your head. Most countries have organizations geared to help internationals in these areas. Otherwise, you can call the embassy as a last resort. But the best hosts you will ever find are personal friends, especially someone who has lived in your country.
Try to meet with other foreigners and discuss your problems. A person who has been in the country longer than you have can give very useful tips. It is also possible to meet a bitter person who has not learned to absorb culture shock. Such a person could dampen your spirits if you listen to his complaints. Personal contacts with people your age, especially Christians, will be one of your best aids. As you make new friends, you will realize that smiles and frowns mean the same thing everywhere. And with Christians, you’ll find that despite the cultural differences, you will sense a special bond between you and them.
So to North American students I say, when you meet a foreign student on campus be sure to give him or her a smile and any help you can. And, even after some rough moments, I say to other foreign students in North America, relax and enjoy your exciting new life!