Adapting a New Culture While Studying Abroad
7 min

Adapting a New Culture While Studying Abroad

7 min
Uploaded on
Jan 6, 2023
Last updated on
Mar 4, 2023
Uploaded on
Jan 6, 2023
Last updated on
Mar 4, 2023
three students sitting on the stairs talking and looking at a laptop
Stay true to your roots!

Adapting to a new culture, and learning the ins and outs of a new place, are just some of the many things you will be exposed to when you pick your life up and move to another part of the world to study abroad (for only a few months or years) - your life would feel like a movie. Bold leaps of faith are what great movies are made of. Every great adventure has an origin story, and there is a chance that yours may not make the director’s cut!

We only see the highlights of studying abroad; the college football games, booze-filled house parties, and studying in aesthetic coffee shops with big friend groups. We are convinced that studying abroad would be filled with only positive experiences and that the life others live abroad is much better than our own. The reality of studying abroad is a far different, far more humbling experience. 

As an international student in a new country, you’ll go through several stages before you find your identity. We hope our story is something you can relate to and a guide to lead you back to your roots while adapting to a new culture. 

Managing Cultural Diversity

Stage 1: Admiration

Life gets stale when you’ve lived in one place your entire life. You build a routine for yourself, you know who your friends are, and there are very few surprises in your life — you’re lulled into a comfort zone, and no motivation can get you out of it. It’s an extension of living in one place, where we lose touch with our culture before ever leaving it. 

Our admiration for other countries and cultures grows as we’re drawn away from our own. We start to watch videos about studying abroad, read about life there, and even research places we’d like to live. Our admiration grows into a rose-coloured outlook that blinds us from anything negative as we start to look forward to new cultural experiences abroad. 

It doesn’t matter if the cost of living was higher or the quality of life would be significantly less — everywhere other than home sounds better at a certain point of time during this phase. Even adapting to a new culture and exploring new cultures abroad become super exciting!

Stage 2: Integration

When you reach your destination, hundreds of emotions will swirl around in your head. All the sounds, tastes, smells, and sights are different from what you’re used to. It may not take long to realize how different you are from the native residents. Even the thought of adapting to a new culture or managing cultural diversity in the classroom or accommodation seem overwhelming. 

Once the initial, somewhat overwhelming surge of stimuli passes, you’re left feeling a little antsy. A sense of urgency kicks in that makes you feel like an intruder in this new country. You start telling yourself when adapting to a new culture, “I need to erase my accent. I have to go to that party I was invited to. I need to be more like the natives of the new country — I need to fit in.” 

It’s tricky to decipher whether this feeling comes from the admiration for the culture or the excitement for new cultural experiences abroad, or the fear of adapting to a new culture; whatever the case, you must immerse yourself in your new environment as best you can. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try — you can never be someone you’re not.

Stage 3: Realization

You realise that being someone you’re not doesn’t fool anyone. As your rose-coloured outlook starts to dim, you begin to see things for how they are when adapting to a new culture. 

For an international student studying abroad, especially in Western Countries, it’s a nice place to live. Adapting to a new culture in culturally diverse nations like this is easy and fun - people are generally easy to get along with, and there are lots of things to do — but at the end of the day, people are people wherever you go. 

What about the international students you used to look up to before moving? How did they keep up with adapting to a new culture? They have struggles you don’t see. And the natives who have lived there their whole lives? They have flaws just the same as the rest of us. 

The pursuit of perfection is a never-ending cycle. We realise that neither our home nor the country we left it for is perfect. We’re all just people trying to find a place to belong. Sometimes that means losing your identity and struggling with adapting to a new culture or managing cultural diversity before you find it.

Stage 4: Confusion

After realizing that your view of your new country isn’t what you expected, the battle for your identity starts. The temptation to return home is strong; after all, you fit in more back home than you do where you are because adapting to a new culture can be quite difficult. 

Returning home after a few months of studying abroad can be a weird feeling. You still can’t put your finger on it, but everything feels different. Is it that everyone else has changed, or is it just me — either way, home may no longer feel like home. 

The friends you hang out with are busy living their own lives, and the places you walked by every day go through the smallest of renovations — life moves on without you, and your big plan was to waste all the effort you put in to move only to go back to where you started? This confusion was the price you pay for giving up your culture and adapting to a new culture. 

Stage 5: Acceptance

Somewhere along the way, you realise that you are not your culture. You are not fully the new culture either, and here is where you truly realise that the expectation vs the reality of living abroad is leaps and bounds apart, and adapting to a new culture is not as easy as it seems. Where you belong is something you have to figure out along the way. Still, who you are that's something for you to decide — you are who you want to be. Your identity is the culmination of your experiences; you can’t be defined by any label people put on you. 

Now you might think that accepting your culture is the step where you finally figure things out, and everything works out. Not exactly. Accepting your culture is the first step to embracing it — it’s your job to live out your newfound commitment through your choices. 

How Can You Embrace Your Own Identity?  

Explore cultural experiences abroad.

Our identity gives us a sense of belonging, which holds doubly true for cultural identity and when adapting to a new culture. Community is an integral part of life, and having your identity rooted in the culture at an early age gives you community as an extension of being born into it. As we get older and move away from home, our culture won’t always follow us — we must actively seek it. 

One of the best ways to embrace your identity while studying abroad is to get in touch with your home culture in your new country. Universities are full of diverse cultures and communities; most are closer than you think. Cultures from all over the world are present in almost every major city abroad. Look around. You’ll find that home isn’t so far after all. 

Some cultures are harder to find abroad. You belong somewhere — what your community looks like might be slightly different than you expected. These are great ways to learn about managing cultural diversity while adapting to a new culture. 

Embrace the new you

The world is full of new cultural experiences to explore, and it’s one of the best ways to make the most of your time when studying abroad. Just as you might have rejected your culture when you first arrived abroad, rejecting the new culture will only make it harder for you to embrace your own identity. Here are some Tips for preparing for studying abroad.

What does adapting to a new culture look like abroad? 

Picking up on slang words

Celebrating local holidays 

Getting used to ‘small talk.’

Share your culture with the world.

As we discussed, multicultural clubs are a great place to meet international students. Many clubs host annual or bi-annual multicultural events. These can be a great opportunity to once again get in touch with your culture and share it with your local communities. You’d be surprised to learn how many people would be interested in learning more about you. Once you become comfortable sharing who you are, what’s there to be afraid of? 

Frequently Asked Questions