Homesickness and Culture Shock

This is typically the time when host families start to notice their students having issues with homesickness and culture shock. Studying abroad is a great experience for any student, but it can also be a daunting one. Leaving behind everything a student knows can cause them to experience significant culture shock and homesickness, which can cause tension with the host family. To prepare families, we have listed the Five R’s – the top causes of culture shock – along with some solutions to prevent them from getting out of hand.

Routine: Students probably had their own routine at home that is different from the one your family follows. As they become familiar with your routine, they are likely to feel stressed out, tired, and unsure. Don’t feel like you need to change your routine to align with their schedule back home – this will prolong their process of adapting. Instead, reassure your student that they will catch on eventually. If there are certain activities that always take place at the same time, it might be a good idea to write everything down in a central location where the student can read it. This will help them feel more grounded in their new routine and feel like they are truly becoming a part of your family.

Reactions: It is fairly simple for us to interact with other people in the U.S. because we share the same sense of cultural norms. For an exchange student, this ability to understand interactions is made much more difficult. Certain behaviors that are acceptable in China may not be received as well here, and a common gesture in the U.S. could be seen as offensive to a Chinese person. As a result, students may feel confused and they may criticize any custom that they do not fully understand. They may also shy away from interacting with you, afraid that they might do something wrong. In this case, it is important to be encouraging. Enforce acceptable cultural interactions and don’t be afraid to tell students when they are doing something wrong. However, be sure to explain to them why their behavior is inappropriate and show them what an appropriate response
looks like. Simply telling them no will leave them feeling confused and unsure of how to respond in the future.

Roles: Similar to adjusting to a new routine, students must also adjust to their new roles at home and in school. It will be a little easier for them to adjust to their new role in school, although it may take them some time to begin speaking up and actively participating in class. Figuring out their role at home will be trickier. In their family, they may have had a specific chore that they were responsible for doing. Without that, they may feel as though they don’t have a place in the home. It may also take them time to get to know the different roles each member of your family plays and to understand how you all interact with each other. If there are household chores that everyone helps with, be sure to tell your student who is responsible for which task. Feel free to give them a chore that will allow them to participate. This will give them a sense of purpose and belonging, which will go a long way in the adaptation process.

Relationships: Many of our students are also now experiencing having a new sibling in addition to dealing with their other new relationships. Just like regular siblings, your student and your own child may go through periods of getting along and then…not so much getting along. Remember that throwing a new child into the mix will change your family no matter what – your attention as parents is now directed at a new child in addition to any of your own  you have in the household, so jealousy from either is totally normal. Some helpful tools might be gentle nudges to encourage a jealous sibling (host or biological) to do something nice like write a note or share a favorite snack (two cookies are better than one). Going out of their way to be helpful or nice can help the kids work on the relationship!

Reflections: As students adapt to the four R’s above, they may begin to change. Much of this personal growth is a good thing, and something that should be celebrated. However, the student may begin to feel a sense of conflict between who they were when they left their home and who they have become. Encourage your student to talk about these changes, and point out all the
positive changes you have seen in them. This will allow them to take a little bit of the experience home with them.

With time, patience, and encouragement, students get past homesickness and culture shock. This is a natural step in adjusting to a new normal. Before you know it, they will be embracing life in the United States!

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