Culture shock

Hong ’24: What culture shock can tell us about the freshman experience

As the midterms of first years come and go, most of us feel stressed. For students like me who are on campus for our first full semester, midterm stress can be exacerbated by homesickness and irritability. Sometimes I found myself feeling uncharacteristically angry about little things like the weather. Not knowing why I felt uncomfortable, I figured it was just stress. But while talking with my family, I came across another answer: culture shock. Thinking of this semester as a cultural adjustment can help us better understand and manage the stress of the first year.

For me, coming to Brown Campus from the Midwest was a big step forward. Adapting to dorm life, learning to live independently and meeting people from all over the country reminded me of when I moved to South Korea for six weeks – I felt like to have entered a different culture. Whether we come from abroad or simply from another state, most of us adapt to a new environment and a new regional culture. Most of us experience some degree of culture shock.

Researchers often describe four stages of culture shockor cultural adaptation: initial euphoria, irritability and hostility, gradual adaptation and adaptation.

The initial euphoria, sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” phase, is characterized by enchantment and wonder in one’s new surroundings. Although my honeymoon phase was controlled by pandemic restrictions, I remember being thrilled to meet new people and explore my surroundings. After the regulations were relaxed, I remember walking through campus and marveling at the most ordinary New England-style buildings. Looking back, I see myself clearly enjoying this phase.

Soon, however, I moved on to the next stage of adjustment: hostility and irritability. Used in the context of travel, this stage is traditionally caused by the weariness of conversing (and often misunderstanding) with others in a foreign language, wading through incomprehensible administrative procedures and feeling confused by cultural differences.

Early years can feel similarly displaced in unfamiliarity with our surroundings, which can cause a lot of frustration. Not having a set academic routine, wandering off campus, arriving two minutes late for a class because of an unexpected traffic jam of pedestrians on the sidewalk – it can seem, at least at the irritable and unfriendly stage, like “huge disasters” instead of manageable problems. I certainly remember holding that mindset, and I think I still feel it now. Homesickness, loneliness and feelings of isolation – each exacerbated by the pandemic – also often occur at this stage.

Fatigue is also becoming a major concern. In addition to school stress, adapting to a new environment and interpreting new situations every day is challenging. Add fatigue and pandemic worries to Zoom, and exhaustion becomes a daily companion. At this point, it becomes essential to find a healthy daily routine to combat fatigue — to operate Automatic pilot saves energy.

All of the feelings I’ve described may be familiar to first years. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s why I find the culture shock lens to be a useful tool for navigating the first-year experience. After the hostility phase, things only get better.

The next step is “progressive adjustment” or “comedy scene.” Meanwhile, frustration, impatience and anxiety give way to growing comfort in his environment. We start to relax and laugh at small incidents instead of seeing them as the end of the world. We feel more energized because familiarity is less mentally taxing. And it may take many months or years before we get here, but most of us will start to call our new surroundings “home.” This is the last stage of cultural adaptation, aptly called the “home stage”.

In a normal year, keeping busy outside and going to social gatherings can help alleviate feelings of isolation and worry. It goes without saying that the pandemic has not made adaptation any easier. But there are things we can do to keep a positive attitude, to get us out of the hostility stage and into the humor stage. I’ll try to suggest some pandemic-friendly ways to do that.

Recently, I started writing a gratitude journal. Initially I thought it might not be useful – the idea seemed overrated by self-help enthusiasts. But by writing to it daily, I’ve come to appreciate more positive things around me: the people who support me, a particularly good meal I ate, the weather. Even better, as the pages of my diary fill up, I can easily look back at all the entries from previous days and smile. Likewise, the Brown Office of International Programs suggests keeping a journal of first impressions and specifically noting the positive aspects of her new culture — or in our case, our new lives at Brown.

Another helpful step is to recognize that if you’re feeling unhappy, frustrated, anxious, or sad, you’re not alone. It’s okay to schedule personal time for yourself. Although it may seem like a waste of time, regularly scheduling a rest period can relieve stress and help you stay more emotionally stable, and possibly even more productive, in the long run. I like creative hobbies like drawing or writing. Some of my friends make music, cook, bake or learn a new language. These are all hobbies that we love to share with each other – the ones that are really worth doing. But any activity that is stress-free and enjoyable works well.

No matter where you are in the four stages of cultural adaptation or how stressed you feel, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And this tunnel may be shorter than you think. Simply acknowledging our freshman experience as a period of cultural adjustment can help us develop more compassionate and proactive solutions to our stress. While grades, work, and personal and family responsibilities are important, physical and mental health are just as, if not more, fundamental to our well-being. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, “health is not everything, but without health, everything is nothing.” So as the weekend begins, I hope we’ll all take some time for ourselves. Breathe, have fun with a hobby, rest a little. As for me, I will continue to write in my gratitude journal.

Jaehyun Hong ’24 can be reached at [email protected] Please send responses to this notice to [email protected] and editorials to [email protected]