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Originally written on January 24, 2014.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation

When preparing to study abroad for four months, they made us read all these informational handouts to make sure we would survive with our mental and physical health more or less intact. I remember reading all this information about culture shock, and how difficult it would be to deal with. I’m glad for it, because I ended up struggling more than I thought I would. Most of the time, advice about the transition is divided into four parts:

  1. arrival- honeymoon and then culture shock
  2. adaptation/assimilation into new culture
  3. return home- reverse culture shock
  4. eventually- reintegration of home culture and new culture together

However, my own experience went a little differently. My four parts were more like:

  1. culture shock
  2. culture fatigue
  3. assimilation
  4. reverse culture shock/fatigue

A graph of which would look something like this:


It’s easy to forget after the fact what going through all these ups and downs was like, so I looked through my old journal. Because this tale is quite long, I’ve chosen to divide it into four parts, the first of which is about culture shock.

What they prepare you for:

The average graph explaining culture shock looks something like this:

While there are some ups and downs, there’s really mostly just a big up for the honeymoon period, then a big down for culture shock, then adjustment until it’s time to think about returning home. It seemed like it would be fairly simple. I also didn’t think I would feel much of a culture shock, as I’ve always been very independent, I usually love traveling and jumping into new situations, and I’ve grown up with a lot of aspects of Japanese culture. It’s safe to say that I was very wrong.


Akihabara, in Tokyo


The Big Shock

It’s hard to define what culture shock is. I felt like I didn’t have much of a honeymoon period, maybe only around a couple of days. Pretty quickly the situation grew grim, and I felt very confused and lost. This is what I wrote in my journal about a year ago:

January 10, 2013: This is the most foreign place I’ve ever been. All the big things, like the airport and train stations, the buildings, and the roads all look the same. But it’s a lot of little things. The custodial uniforms, the toilets… everything seems weirdly shaped.

January 12: It was very difficult trying to get to Kyoto. I had to ask a lot of people for help, no one spoke English, and I didn’t realize just how bad my Japanese was until then. I keep telling myself that if I could get through Tokyo Station alone, then I can get through anything in Japan. But that might not be true.

This is so much. I feel overwhelmed, but I think it will get easier after a week or two…

(after meeting my host family) I can’t really speak to them though, because my Japanese is so bad. It just made me feel worse after that terrible placement interview. I started crying in the bath. Everything is just so strange. I’m in a stranger’s house, in their daughter’s bed. I miss home. Every little thing is difficult. I can’t read labels or directions. And mostly, I feel like every conversation is a test, one that I fail miserably. I keep telling myself that this is one of the hardest things I’ll ever do. And that it will get better. And that other people are probably struggling too. But I still feel very lonely and very sad.

:( Sad.


How I Dealt with It

This first part was hard. It was the lowest point on my happiness graph (see above), but luckily it only lasted about 2 weeks. Eventually I overcame it and started adjusting. One of the most important conclusions I came to was that I was putting too much pressure on myself to feel comfortable when I didn’t, and trying too hard to get some life changing experience out of everything I was doing instead of enjoying the simple things. Here are some things I did that helped me feel less sad/homesick:

  • took a lot of walks. It helped me feel better, and made my neighborhood and town feel more familiar
  • kept watching my favorite shows. There’s no reason to put life (even tv) on hold, especially when you’ll be in the same place for months. At first it seemed wasteful to spend time in Japan watching American tv, but then I realised moping around wasn’t any better
  • ate familiar food. Again, four months in Japan. The occasional pretzel from Auntie Anne’s wasn’t going to take away from all the Japanese food I ate. Also, they serve hot lemonade there!
  • hung out more. Went to bars and cafes more. Started going clubbing. It’s how I met a bunch of new friends and how I really started to have fun in Japan.
  • Did the same thing every day for a while. Routine is boring, but it also helps things feel familiar. And once they feel familiar, they start to feel better. Boredom is a luxury that only comes with comfort.
  • Talked about it with other study abroad people and foreigners living abroad. People back home never understood that while it’s a ton of fun, a life-changing experience, blah blah blah, it can also be really hard. And it’s difficult to discuss your homesickness with people who want to go on and on about how they’re “soooo jealous!”. It usually just made me feel guilty for not loving every second of it.
  • Talked about home with people from home. On the flip side, those Skype and facebook conversations about all the gossip I was missing helped me feel more connected to my friends back home. I liked being in the loop, even if I was far away.


Eventually things became more fun and more normal. I still wasn’t having the time of my life, but I adjusted within a month. I still look back on that time as one of the loneliest in my life, but my belief that I would get through it helped me ride it out. I think I mostly just tried to distract myself from it, and look for the little things. Like vending machines that sell beer and whiskey:


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