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Hong ’24: What culture shock can tell us about the first-year experience

As first-years' midterms come and go, most of us feel stressed. For students like me who are on campus for our first full semester, midterm stress may be exacerbated by homesickness and irritability. Sometimes, I’ve caught myself feeling unusually short-tempered about small things like the weather. Not knowing why I felt out of sorts, I told myself that it was just stress. But while talking with my family, I stumbled upon another answer: culture shock. Viewing this semester as a cultural adjustment can help us better understand and address first-year stress.

For me, coming to the Brown campus from the Midwest was a big move. Adjusting to dorm life, learning to live independently and meeting people from around the country reminded me of when I moved to South Korea for six weeks ― I felt like I had entered a different culture. Whether one comes from abroad or simply another state, most of us are adjusting to a new environment and regional culture. Most of us are experiencing some degree of cultural shock. 

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

Initial euphoria, sometimes called the “honeymoon” phase, is characterized by a delight and wonder in one’s new surroundings. Though my honeymoon phase was checked by pandemic restrictions, I remember feeling excited to meet new people and to explore my surroundings. After regulations were relaxed, I remember walking across campus and marveling at even the most ordinary New England-style buildings. Looking back, I can distinctly see myself enjoying this phase.

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

First-years may feel similarly displaced in the unfamiliarity of our surroundings, which can cause plenty of frustration. Not having a set academic routine, losing one’s way around campus, arriving two minutes late to a class because of an unexpected pedestrian jam on the sidewalk ― these may seem, at least in the irritable and hostile stage, like “huge catastrophes” instead of manageable problems. I certainly remember occupying this mindset, and I think I am still feeling it now. Homesickness, loneliness and feelings of isolation — each exacerbated by the pandemic — also often occur at this stage. 

Fatigue, too, becomes a major concern. On top of academic stress, adjusting to new surroundings and interpreting new situations every day is taxing. Add on Zoom fatigue and pandemic worries, and exhaustion becomes a daily companion. At this point, it becomes paramount to find a healthy daily routine to combat fatigue — operating on autopilot 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 this is why I find the culture shock lens a helpful tool to navigate the first-year experience. After the hostility phase, things only get better. 

The next stage is “gradual adjustment” or the “humor stage.” During this time, frustration, impatience and anxiety give way to growing comfort in one’s surroundings. We begin to relax and laugh at little mishaps instead of considering them the end of the world. We feel more energized, since familiarity is less mentally taxing. And it may be many months or years before we get here, but most of us will begin to call our new environment “home.” This is the last stage of cultural adjustment, aptly called the “home stage.”

In a normal year, keeping oneself busy outdoors and going to social gatherings can help ease feelings of isolation and worry. It goes without saying that the pandemic hasn’t made adjusting any easier. But there are things one can do to keep a positive outlook, moving us out of the hostility stage and toward the humor stage. I’ll try to offer some pandemic-friendly ways to do this.

Recently, I started handwriting a gratitude journal. Initially, I thought it might not be helpful — the idea seemed overhyped by self-help enthusiasts. But writing in 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. Better yet, as the pages in my journal fill up, I can easily look back at all the previous days’ entries and smile. Similarly, the Brown Office of International Programs suggests keeping a journal of first impressions and noting specifically positive aspects of one’s 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 some personal time for yourself. While it may feel like a waste of time, regularly scheduling a period to rest can relieve stress and help keep you more emotionally stable, and possibly even more productive, in the long run. I enjoy 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 like sharing with each other — the ones that really feel worth doing. But any activity that doesn’t build stress and is enjoyable works well. 

Regardless of where you are in the four stages of cultural adjustment, or how stressed you’re feeling, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And that tunnel may be shorter than you think. Simply recognizing our first-year 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 equally, 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. Take a breath, have fun with a hobby, rest a little. As for me, I’ll continue writing in my gratitude journal.

Jaehyun Hong ’24 can be reached at jaehyun_hong@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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