Culture Shock in Minnesota
“Hi! Where are you from?”
“Oh, isn’t that somewhere near Pakistan? Say something
in Indian. Did you live in a grass hut?”
Culture Shock in Minnesota
That was what my first few days at college in the
United States sounded like. After a few days I was tired of talking.
“How could anyone be so dumb?” I wondered to myself.
I was shocked that people going to college could be so naïve. I began comparing
my Indian culture to the American culture and seeing only bad things in America.
The advanced technology that I saw did not impress
me very much. Life seemed to fast and confusing. I missed the simpler and
slower pace of life back home. This was my first experience with culture shock.
Anthropologists have several definitions for the
term “culture shock.” To me it simply means the feelings of disorientation
and repulsion a person experiences when exposed to a new culture. And if such
feelings persist, they can make that person miserable and cynical.
My initial reaction was to withdraw from the foreign
society and everything I associated with it. Instead of laughing good-humoredly
at others mistakes, I took the personally.
It seemed as if every time I decided to do something,
someone was sure to ask, “Is that the way they do it in India?” Or if I decided
to cook something different in the dorm, I had to answer the inevitable question,
“Is that Indian food?”
I wanted to scream, “Just because you haven’t seen
things done this way doesn’t mean it’s done that way in India. That’s my
way of doing things. I may be from India but that doesn’t mean everyone in
India is like me…”
Desperately I tried to establish my own identity
apart from the Indian culture. At the same time, I did not want to become Americanized.
I became more confused than ever.
Within a few days I was unable to communicate effectively
with anyone. For the first time in my life, I stuttered and stammered. I couldn’t
concentrate in classes and lost all desire to study or socialize.
As I look back at those freshman days, I can see
why I had such a miserable time. I just didn’t know how to absorb culture
shock. Consequently, I was overwhelmed with the problem of coping with a new
culture. (I was fortunate not to have language problems.)
How does one absorb culture shock?
The first step is preparation ahead of time.
Since an experience with a new culture usually involves going to a different
country, read as much as you can about the country. Study maps and photographs,
if possible. Talk to someone who has been there before. Once you immerse yourself
in the new culture, strange names of people and places will begin to sound normal.
Having arrived in the new country, accept the
culture as it is. A person with a good sense of humor can overcome racial
and cultural prejudices. Even the most embarrassing situations can be funny.
I can still remember my first day at the coffee
shop. After going through the list of unfamiliar names (hamburger and BLT’s
are virtually unknown in India), I finally saw something I thought I recognized.
It was a beef patty.
In India a patty is a crisp, moist pastry filled
with spiced vegetables or meat. Chicken patties were my favorite but I thought
a beef patty would do. So I ordered a beef patty.
“With or without the bun?” the girl over the counter
“Without,” I replied, wondering why someone would
want to east pastry with bread. The girl gave me a surprised look. I began
to wonder if something was wrong.
The round, flat, greasy piece of meat sitting on
the counter did not look very appetizing. I walked by it disdainfully.
“That’s your patty,” the girl said, shoving the
plate under my nose.
“Figures,” I thought as I paid for the patty and
sat down to eat it. People stared at me oddly. “If only they knew what a real
patty tastes like,” I thought.
It was not very funny at the time, although it
sounds ridiculous now.
After you accept the culture, give yourself
to it. Find out its good points. Cultural differences can be beneficial
At home, my mother always had insisted that we
girls help the hostess in the kitchen whenever we went to someone’s house for
a meal. I soon found out, to my relief, that an American hostess usually prefers
to work alone. So, unless someone needed help, which rarely happened, I learned
to relax and stay out of the kitchen.
Picking up everyday expressions is more important
than learning the correct form of speech. For one thing, everyone is able to
understand you and therefore feels more relaxed. I regained confidence when
I caught on to some of the colloquial terms.
However, most people did not appreciate my “weird
sense of humor” for a while. Polite smiles were all I received when I told jokes
from home. This particular problem disappeared after some practice.
Understanding a new culture can be a trying experience.
Patience and perseverance are more valuable than verbal or intellectual abilities.
A few faithful Christian friends can make all the difference. I am grateful
for the friends who stuck with me and showed me that they cared about me.
Through their patient friendship, I began to lose
my misconceptions of America. And they saw that their stereotyped image of
India with its tigers, jungles and grass huts was inaccurate. Many were surprised
to know that college kids in India wear blue jeans and T-shirts and watch American
When these friends invited me to their homes, they
destroyed my image of the “cold American.” Some were brave enough to try spicy
Indian curries my sister cooked. I was glad my older sister Puii was with me,
especially since she loves to cook and I love to sample her dishes.
And of course, they wanted to know what kind of
American foods I liked the most. I was used to cakes and cookies but not pizza.
So I tried it out, and concluded that I preferred
deep-dish pizza (with lots of cheese) to thin-and-crispy pizza. I was also
introduced to a variety of other foods ranging from Swedish lutefisk to McDonald’s
Adapting to a new culture means learning to cope
with new currencies as well as rules and regulations.
As a foreign student, I do not have the same privileges
as everyone else. I learned to respect my host country’s laws. Immigration
rules are often strict and I have to fill out legal forms one or twice a year.
I am fortunate to have friends who give me legal advice.
Shopping in a foreign country can be a harrowing
experience. Finding “good buys” and the right size clothes is a lesson in itself.
You need to know what kinds of clothes are suitable for the climate.
Housing and transportation can be a source of grief
to a foreigner. Unless you know how the system works, you can be stranded in
a strange city without a roof over your head. Most countries have organizations
geared to help internationals in these areas. Otherwise, you can call the embassy
as a last resort.
But the best hosts you will ever find are personal
friends, especially someone who has lived in your country.
Try to meet with other foreigners and discuss your
problems. A person who has been in the country longer than you have can give
very useful tips.
It is also possible to meet a bitter person who
has not learned to absorb culture shock. Such a person could dampen your spirits
if you listen to his complaints.
Personal contacts with people your age, especially
Christians, will be one of your best aids. As you make new friends, you will
realize that smiles and frowns mean the same thing everywhere.
And with Christians, you’ll find that despite the
cultural differences, you will sense a special bond between you and them.
So, to North American students I say, when you
meet a foreign student on campus be sure to give him or her a smile and any
help you can.
And, even after some rough moments, I say to other
foreign students in North America, relax and enjoy your exciting new life!
Reprinted from HIS magazine, October 1978 issue.