“Jian was eager to do everything when we hosted him,” his “host mom” said, concerned. “He asked lots of questions about American culture, even about the Bible and Christianity. We took him to church and to an IFI Bible discussion. He enjoyed both. Now his small-group leader says he’s not coming. When we ask him to do things with us, he says he’s too busy. Is he avoiding us? Did we do something wrong?”

What’s wrong? Most likely, Jian has left the first stage of culture shock.

Culture shock is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty–sometimes with feelings of anxiety–that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary online)

Stages of culture shock. Seasoned workers in IFI find that almost all new students experience culture shock in four stages:

  1. Fascination: Very interested in the new culture, open to explore it and meet new people, willing to have new experiences and take risks.
  2. Flight: May feel overwhelmed, inadequate, unworthy, lonely, isolated; may experience wide mood swings; spends much time sleeping, grooming, or alone.
  3. Fight: Dislikes much about the new culture, avoids local people and stays with own nationals; constantly compares life here and at home. School work may suffer and minor health problems arise.
  4. Fit: Grows more comfortable, less frustrated with new culture; does better in school and social life; appreciates positive aspects of new culture.

As you can see, culture shock is a wide gamut of emotions.

Duration of culture shock. How long culture shock lasts often depends on how different a student’s home culture is from the new culture. For example, a student from Canada or England studying in Michigan will get through culture shock more quickly than a student from Turkey or Thailand will.

The duration of culture shock also depends on the attitudes that students bring with them. Being aware of those attitudes can be difficult because most attitudes are subconscious. A student may recognize that she is reacting to new situations in unhelpful ways but not be aware of the attitudes that prompt her reactions.

For example, many people tend to judge anything different from home as inferior to home. The underlying attitude is “My people’s ways are best.”

Students who have prepared for culture shock by learning about their new culture (preferably not from movies or TV shows) before they arrive will understand and appreciate their new surroundings much sooner than those who don’t. But even well-prepared students will appreciate our help!

Help needed! Host families, friendship families and English conversation partners can make a huge difference in how painful culture shock is and how long it lasts.

All four stages: Pray for your new friends. Ask God to give them understanding, patience, and the ability to see differences objectively. Ask Him to love your students through you and help them trust Jesus in you, even if they have no idea who Jesus is–yet.

Fascination stage

Enjoy this stage! Use it to build friendships and trust. Take your student shopping for things they need for daily living: groceries, household supplies and furnishings, even small appliances such as a rice cooker. Help your student open a bank account, get a university ID and/or a Social Security number, internet connection, and a mobile phone. Show them how to use laundry equipment, and help them find an ethnic grocery store. (In Columbus, see general information) Tell students about the stages of culture shock so they can anticipate and recognize each stage. Pray for them.

Flight stage

When the newness wears off and stress sets in, stay in contact with them, be patient with their responses, treat them kindly and assure them that you’re there for them. Remind them that this is a stage. Help them with their spoken and written English. Ask questions to get them to talk about their feelings and explore underlying attitudes. Encourage them to contact people back home and countrymen here. Watch a movie from their homeland together or go to a restaurant that serves food from home or cook familiar foods together. Pray for and with them.

Fight stage

When students become angry or frustrated, see only the negative differences in our culture, become critical and withdrawn, stick with them. Pursue them lovingly. (Remember how God pursued you when you were in a “far country.”) Don’t take their attacks on our culture personally; it isn’t your fault. Get them away from campus, whether for a walk in a local park, dinner at your place, or a day trip out of town. Ask questions that get them to talk about what they’re feeling. Be patient. Listen. Encourage them to write about their feelings. Remind them that this is a stage, what they’re feeling is normal and that a better time is coming, a time when they will be able to see the good in both cultures and choose what works for them, a time when they will fit in and school and relationships will go better. Keep praying!

Fit stage

Eventually your student’s cultural sensitivity and language skills improve, their annoyance with cultural differences decreases, and their awareness of the interplay of the two cultures grows along with their appreciation of what’s positive in each culture. Whew! Now you can encourage them that they are moving toward feeling at home here while still loving home. Congratulate them on what they’ve gotten past! Thank God together! If your student has become a believer, challenge him/her to help other students to adjust.

Preparing for the future. When culture shock is in your student’s distant past, he or she may prepare to go home. Alert them to the fact that they will have to make some major adjustments when they go home, and offer to help them prepare for reverse culture shock. As an American friend who’d just returned after teaching in China for six years said, “Not that much has changed here in the States, but I’ve changed a lot!”

To help your student go home well, refer to Appendix D in IFI’s The New Volunteer Handbook, go through Lisa Espinelli Chinn’s Think Home or Nate Mirza’s Home Again together, or use one of the many resources from the Reaching Internationals web site. And keep praying.