Mind Matters: Culture Shock

On the move

Last year, more than half a million international students, mainly from Asia, enrolled in higher education institutions in the United States, according to the Open Doors Report from the Institute of International Education. In Europe, in 2003, 21.6% of the science and engineering students in Cyprus came from abroad, along with 20.7% in Switzerland, 15.5 % in the United Kingdom, 13.2% in Denmark, and 12.9% in Austria, according to Eurostat. Countries and regions around the world are developing new schemes to attract more foreign students to their institutions, so these numbers will only increase.

Trainees who come to study in a foreign country are more vulnerable than people who come to take a high-level job or to reunite with families because they often are less experienced, have fewer economic means, and lack local social support. The challenges are both logistical and emotional, and if training and productivity are compromised, scientific careers can be derailed. On the other hand, wide experience and international contacts have become almost compulsory in science, so scientists need to be willing to take on these challenges. If you’re well-prepared and flexible, the experience should be positive.

The hurdles of moving abroad

Louise Brandes M. Ferreira left her native Brazil in 2004 to do graduate work in science education at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Ferreira passed the tests of English required by the university, but she had difficulties using the new language. “I couldn’t understand people who spoke very fast or used slang,” she says. With the help of her professors and the tincture of time–about 6 months–she came to understand even the subtle meanings and colloquialisms of spoken English.

Ferreira also found that American faculty members took a different approach to written assignments. “My difficulties weren’t so much the language but the length,” she says. Brazilians are used to writing at length to express themselves, she says. “I was trained to write extensive literature reviews because this is what our social science scholars are used to doing.” In the United States, her professors taught her how to “prune” her writing. She now feels competent to publish research in both Portuguese- and English-language journals.

Ferreira says that personal relationships buoyed her spirits during tough times. “It is hard to be far away from family and friends, and sometimes things just don’t go as you expect them to when you are carrying out research,” she says. “At these moments, it is really comforting to know–both by words and deeds–that your doctoral committee is backing you up.”

Outside the academic environment, newcomers are faced with other adjustments that may not be obvious to supervisors. Trainees may have to grapple with obtaining a social security card, getting a driver’s license, and purchasing a car. Sometimes even seemingly simple issues, such as converting from 220 to 110 volts, can be a headache, says Harold Myron, director of educational programs for Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois. And trainees often bring families who need to find a place to live and decide where to school their children. A partner may need language lessons or a job.

The matter of relationships

“Foreign students or workers in the U.S.A. for the first time are frequently disarmed by the informality of research and teaching laboratories,” says Mel Schiavelli, an organic chemist and founding president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. “In Japan, some South American countries, and in Germany, the interaction between these two individuals is very structured in terms of formal meetings and terms of address,” Schiavelli says. Consequently, students are more likely to withhold data until they are considered “wine to be served at the right time,” he says. “Likewise, a U.S. grad student or postdoc studying in Europe may be accustomed to an informality that leads to discomfort or complaints on the part of the non-U.S. adviser.”

Understanding the nuances of relationships is crucial when dealing with your peers, too. When chemical engineering student Zhe Loy arrived at Rice University in Houston, Texas, from his native Singapore, he was surprised at the heterogeneity of American culture. “Hanging out with someone from New York is a big contrast to hanging out with someone who grew up on the ranches in Texas,” he says. Loy chose to adopt the local customs. Singapore is such a busy and dense city that it is impossible to greet every passerby, he says. “Here, however, a lot of people greet you and ask how you’re doing.” Although he found it awkward at first, he realized that if he didn’t respond, he risked alienating other students.

How can cultural divides be avoided or overcome? “I think that the strategies are quite simple: communication, communication, and communication,” Myron says.

The phases of culture shock

“Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse,” Kalervo Oberg, the Canadian anthropologist who first coined the term almost a half-century ago, once said in a talk. “These signs are the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situation of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, … when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not.”

Oberg outlined five phases of culture shock:

Honeymoon–At first, everything is new and exciting. Hosts, too–faculty, other students, colleagues–are especially gracious.

Crisis/rejection–When the honeymoon wears off, people tend to focus on inconveniences and annoying differences. This stage is critical because the individual either adjusts or succumbs–by going home.

Regression–People remember only the good things about home, opt out of learning a new language or trying new foods, and socialize with people from their own country or culture.

Adjustment–People achieve balance, are less anxious about differences, and grow more accustomed to their new environment. They develop a new sense of belonging.

Reverse culture shock–Some people find that, after a long visit abroad, they have difficulty reacclimating when they return to their home country.

When going home again is tough

Sarah Meek spent three and a half years as a postdoc in the United States before returning to the United Kingdom. Her transition to the United States was relatively smooth. But then she went home.

She felt a loss of identity, having moved on from being the person she once was in the United Kingdom and no longer being the person who lived in the United States either. Most of her friends in the United Kingdom had moved on too, either in their relationships or their living or work situations. “I returned to take another postdoc in the U.K., knowing that I would feel uprooted from the life I had built in the U.S. and miss my friends, but I never expected the transition to be as hard as it was,” Meek says. Few people recognized that her homecoming might be a source of loneliness and depression. When someone at work introduced her to the concept of “third culture kids”–people who no longer fit in any culture because they’ve been raised in several–the idea resonated. She found solace and practical advice in the book by Robin Pascoe. “It was comforting to know that others experience similar feelings,” she says. After 18 months, she was able to recoup her losses and move forward.

Grounding yourself in a new culture

Many institutions have programs designed to help foreign trainees adjust, so one of the first things to do upon arrival is to find out what resources are available. Argonne National Laboratory, for example, has a Newcomers Assistance Office for its visitors from abroad. The office sponsors social events and provides welcome packages with practical information, assistance in finding housing, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Trainees may also improve their chances of adaptation by choosing the right lab. Lab heads can help by providing a workplace culture that values diversity. All have everything to gain, both inside and outside the lab, believes Michael Summers, a biochemist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “People who initially join the lab are often surprised by the frank and open discussions that center on race, culture, politics, and religion,” says Summers. “Differences are a source of constant discussion, which actually brings people together.”

“The foreign students and postdocs that have joined my lab–including those from such places as Iran, Palestine, Japan, Korea, and China–have not struggled in our environment,” says Summers. He eases their passage by sponsoring off-campus events–picnics, weekend ski trips, and mountain-bike outings–designed to facilitate intragroup communication and cross-cultural understanding. “The beauty of science is that, when practiced properly, it revolves around facts and truth, principles that are easily understood and shared among people with different backgrounds,” he says.


For students:

Study, Work, Travel Abroad information sheet

Study Abroad: A Guide for Women

Culture Shock: A Fish Out of Water

Hints About Life in the United States

For advisers:

NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Unionization Boosts Pay for Adjunct Faculty

How to Be an Effective Mentor