Identifying Culture Shock In Foreign Students – Part 1

September is an exciting time for many students because it marks the beginning of the academic year. For foreign students arriving in Canada, the excitement is magnified. Within a few days to several months, the reality of being away from home and adapting to a new environment quickly sinks in. Everything from food, clothing, friends, entertainment, language, expressions, and customs are unfamiliar. As a result of settling in a new environment that is different from what they are accustomed to, foreign students may experience discomfort or stress, a condition which is identified as “culture shock.”

This phenomenon was coined in the sixties by Kalvero Oberg, a world-renowned anthropologist, who believed that all humans who travelled or lived overseas for an extended period of time may experience some degree of culture shock. Oberg explained culture shock as “an anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse,” and compared this experience to a “fish out of water.” Similarly, when humans are immersed in a new and unfamiliar environment, they don’t have the communication skills and social cues that allow them to adapt to the new culture. These include: body language, words, facial expressions, tone of voice, idioms, and slang. This lack of understanding is one of the reasons why they may experience anxiety.


This article is a two-part series to assist foreign students in understanding why and what they could experience while adapting to their new host country, and to help Canadians understand why these foreign students may behave the way they do. Foreign workers and immigrants also experience culture shock and will go through these phases. The second part of the article will be available in next month’s issue, and will address how to identify someone with culture shock and how to cope with it.

It is widely accepted that there are five stages of culture shock, and foreign students may experience some or all of these. Sometimes, the different stages of culture shock may be skipped, experienced more than once, and in a different order. The stages of culture shock are: Honeymoon Stage, Irritation and Anger Stage, Rejection or Regression Stage, Integration or Assimilation Stage, and Reverse or Re-entry Stage.


Stage 1 – Honeymoon Stage

The Honeymoon Stage can start prior to arriving and may last for months where foreign students feel excited and fascinated with their new environment. Every experience appears to be like an adventure, such as a simple morning commute on the public transit. They are eager to try anything and accept the differences between their host country’s culture and their own.

 Stage 2 – Irritation and Anger Stage

This phase occurs after the foreign students have settled down, and the luster of initially exciting things has worn off. They begin to encounter difficulties and notice differences between the two cultures. Since their family and friends from back home are not as easily accessible, they feel isolated, frustrated, irritated, and sometimes confused about their new life in Canada. Examples of difficulties they may experience are not being able to buy their favourite foods and effectively communicate their needs to their host family or new friends.


Stage 3 – Rejection or Regression Stage

Stages two and three can occur simultaneously because after the foreign students feel frustration, they begin to reject the new culture by questioning why the locals do things a certain way. They find themselves questioning their purpose in Canada, and missing their family and friends, and especially missing home-cooked meals. In Canada, where the winter is long and cold, the foreign students may find it difficult to adapt to these weather conditions and may feel resentful. With all the difficulties they encounter, the foreign students may sometimes withdraw and isolate themselves from their school and homestay environments.

Stage 4 – Integration or Assimilation Stage

Fortunately, the Rejection Stage does end and the foreign students start to feel comfortable in their new environment. They begin to understand the host country’s cultural cues, and have a better grasp of the language. They also accept their new host country’s culture by assimilating with their environment and making local friends. They also appreciate the differences and similarities of both cultures. Consequently, they become more confident and are able to cope with encounters that were once difficult. This stage generally lasts until the end of their stay in Canada.


Stage 5 – Reverse or Re-entry Stage

Once the foreign students have finished their academic year or programme, they prepare to return home and fantasize about their life prior to when they left. Once they arrive at home, they are disappointed to discover that things have changed while they were abroad and the “grass isn’t greener on the other side,” as they had imagined. This experience is known as reverse culture shock. Foreign students who are fully assimilated in their host country’s culture find it more difficult to re-adjust at home.

Culture shock is a normal recurring cycle that foreign students encounter as they arrive and leave Canada. Like a roller-coaster that goes up and down, foreign students should remember there will be periods of highs and lows. By understanding these different stages of culture shock, hopefully foreign students will be able to better adapt to Canada.

By Le Luong