Cultural shock: This phenomenon refers to the feeling of unfamiliarity one experiences while being present in an environment which differs vastly from their own. If you’re residing abroad or planning to move for higher education, chances are you’ll be caught off guard initially by how differently things work in various parts of the world. Each individual goes through a different experience as we all have our own perception of what ‘shocks’ us.

Read about the experiences of five current/former international students; their accounts may give you some valuable insight into some of the countries/cities you may be planning to study at.

Mariam Khawer – studied in London, United Kingdom

I had visited the UK once before moving there for my studies; therefore I was somewhat aware of the English culture before I got there. However, some incidents still did take me by surprise. One such incident occurred on the day of my first class. Coming from a country like Pakistan where I was accustomed to traveling everywhere by private transport, I wasn’t ready for my first commute by the tube. It didn’t take me long to learn that, the London underground is crazy busy in the morning and you can consider yourself lucky if you manage to get an inch of space to wedge yourself in. After waiting for a while I got in the tube lugging a huge bag on my back. My mind was whirling with anxiety and excitement about  the day ahead, when I overheard two elderly women whisper behind me, and surprisingly realised that they were talking about me. I’m sure they didn’t intend for me to catch what they were saying but I did anyway. I distinctly remember hearing “Oh how rude to have your bag on your shoulder in a crowded train, one should put it in between their feet to save space”. This surprised me for a number of reasons; first that I was clearly unaware of the etiquette of ‘tube riding’ and wasn’t trying to be a bother on purpose, so the polite thing would have been to communicate it to me directly. I realised a few things in that moment; that there is an unspoken way of doing even the smallest things in the UK and people get miffed if you don’t follow it but on the other hand they don’t out rightly admonish you face to face for it either.

Mohammad Al Onaizi – studying in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I moved to Dubai to pursue my postgraduate studies, but since my classes are in the evenings I explored the idea of finding a job where I could get a bit of experience and keep myself occupied during the day. I was quite surprised to learn about the different work ethic that Dubai has compared to Kuwait. In Kuwait, the normal work hours are 8am to 2pm. It wasn’t that big a surprise that work in Dubai is from 9 am to 6 pm but on one occasion when I was out with my friends late at night, at around 11:30pm, one of my friends got up and said that he had to go back to the office. That shocked me because you would never see someone going to work at 11:30pm in Kuwait.

Aparna Kadasne – studied in New York City, United States

My experience of studying at an American college in the US is very different from the experience of studying in the UAE. In my opinion, I find everything very relaxed in the US. The environment is very liberal as well. For example, if you visit the coffee shops or restaurants on campus, the conversation flow and atmosphere of these places is very friendly and informal. But, in the UAE, the environment isn’t as relaxed or laid-back because of all the rules and regulations set in place.

Being an Indian has also played a part in pointing out some differences between the cultures. My childhood and school life was a lot stricter and controlled than it is here in the US and that really surprised me because I was never used such freedom. I would say the thing that was really new and different for me was the dorm system. In the US, it’s a combined system of boys and girls living in the same building – but in different rooms of course. There isn’t even a curfew here. But back in the UAE or India, boys and girls have completely different dorm buildings on the opposite sides of campus!

Arnold Xavier – studied in Ithaca New York, United States

In the summer of 2009 I left Pakistan to embark on a 2 year journey at a small town in NY State. The first culture shock I remember feeling was how small the town was. Coming from a city that has a population of about 20 million people, a town of 30 thousand felt very different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. Quieter to the point where sleeping at night was difficult initially.

There were other small things that took a bit of getting used to, like no fixed telephone lines at home (that may have been true only for all the houses of college students), and homes made of wood rather than concrete.  There were many things that you fall in love with and many things that aren’t so good; but one must learn to adapt to cultural changes to have a truly educational college experience. I have had two light bulb moments that stand out.

It is no secret that the American community prides itself on its independence and it is a quality that has given the country great success, but it certainly has its downside. Friendships are different where one doesn’t expect dependence. One night while running to catch the evening bus to town, a friend slipped on sleet and hit his head on the road. We decided to stay in that night, but we were both afraid that he may have suffered a concussion. Going against what common sense would dictate we decided not to go to the hospital that night. However, the next day my friend called an American friend to drive him to the hospital and she was great; came over and drove him to the hospital. Though, after dropping him off said she was leaving since she had an early morning. Where I came from you wouldn’t leave your friend to face that situation alone. I didn’t understand at the time, but I eventually realized that it wouldn’t have been expected of me either. I learned that day that friendships may be different because you don’t expect absolutely everything from friends.  Again nothing right or wrong either way, just a different culture.

Also in Pakistan, coursework at my undergrad college was almost military styled in its structure. For the first 4 semesters, the courses were set in stone. When I went to the US we had to choose our own coursework from the available courses and for the first time, I remember being afraid of how college would turn out because I felt directionless. I tried speaking to every senior I could find; I suppose hoping to get others to make the decision for me. In the end I figured things out myself and grew to love the system that allowed so much freedom of choice and expression. I believe the system allows students to become more independent and take more responsibility of their lives compared to schools in Pakistan. Once you experience it, it is difficult to change.

Lionel Joel, studying in Dubai, UAE

The most shocking thing I found was that my ideas of Dubai were completely false. I honestly had a different perception of what Dubai would look like, how the people would dress and also about the ethnicity of the people that lived here. Coming from a multicultural city like Johannesburg, South Africa I thought the country’s diversity was just unique to Johannesburg.   

The international media’s portrayal of the Middle East also gives you a very limited view of this place; it makes you imagine that the laws are very strict and that you have to be cautios at every bend and turn but I realised that this was not the case at all.

Getting accustomed to my new university environment also took some getting used to.  The traditional universities that I have seen, always have grounds that are exclusive to the students, but sharing a campus with other universities (as it is in Knowledge Village in Dubai) was completely unknown and new to me. My first metro ride to University was also an experience on its own. Not being able to drink or eat anything on the metro was unknown to me and I was fined on my first metro ride.  

About the Writer: Mariam Khawer is an Accounts and Finance graduate with a passion for the creative arts.