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Coping with Culture Shock While Studying Abroad in Argentina

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The decision to study abroad in Argentina is an amazing opportunity to transform your life and world view, but it does come with some challenges. You’ll be living in a totally different country; and there will be an initial period of adjustment to social customs and norms that may lead to emotional discomfort and anxiety. Known as Culture Shock, these experiences are a normal part of study abroad in Buenos Aires.

Culture is the pattern of learned behaviors and beliefs of a group of people, something you’ll immediately notice as markedly different as you embark on your journey to study abroad in Argentina. Growing up in our home countries our native culture is like the air we breathe, it surrounds us in every aspect of our lives yet seems so natural it remains invisible to us. Whether it’s how to maneuver your body in a public place, how we interact with people, or simply how we order a cup of coffee, these daily practices are so obvious to us at home they feel like second nature, and we can go through the motions of everyday life without a second thought.

When we are immersed in a different culture this is certainly not the case! Even if you initially came to study Spanish in Argentina, language probably won’t be the only thing that’s hard to interpret.  Whether you’re bumping into people on the bus, struggling to buy groceries, or awkwardly cheek kissing your classmates, everything suddenly becomes a challenge and that can be frustrating and exhausting. You are not alone!  Everyone coming to live in another culture whether it’s to complete a short course in Argentina, study Spanish, or complete a master’s degree in Buenos Aires will experience a bumpy transition at first.

Any person moving between countries and cultures experiences some degree of culture shock. Some common symptoms you might recognize when you first come to study abroad in Argentina might include:

  • feelings of helplessness/ vulnerability
  • feeling lost,  confused, overwhelmed
  • anger
  • sadness
  • irritability
  • longing for  home and old friends
  • physiological stress reactions
  • excessive concern over cleanliness and health
  • boredom
  • withdrawal/staying home
  • insomnia or  excessive sleep
  • idealizing home culture
  • stereotyping host nationals
  • hostility towards host nationals

Like any major social transition, adapting to a new culture takes time, and evolves and gets better as time passes. That’s great news! Culture shock can feel like a wild roller coaster with lots of ups and downs but it is important to keep in mind that you will adjust with time as you pass through the various marked phases:

Honeymoon/Excitement Stage

Everything is new and romantic, leaving you feeling euphoric. Every moment of the first stage is filled with new observations and discoveries about the food, people, and other details of Argentine culture. You’ll be fascinated with the city of Buenos Aires, Spanish, the pace of life, and every moment will feel like an adventure! The rush of foreign stimuli makes you overlook major cultural differences at first, a sense of curiosity and excitement masks any potential discomfort.

Negotiation/ Withdrawal Stage

Weeks pass and your sense of romantic wonder may fade as you get deeper into your time abroad, and cultural differences become more apparent. You’ll notice that there are things you don’t understand, that you have trouble communicating your needs, or make embarrassing social mistakes, all of which can lead to frustration, anger, homesickness, and many of the symptoms described earlier. Everything will be strange and unpredictable, leading you to want to withdraw.  However, the best course of action is to stay optimistic and don’t be afraid to seek support from the university you are studying with, or the organization you are travelling with.

Adjustment Stage

As more time passes you begin to adapt to differences, discover problem-solving strategies, and develop daily routines that help you cope and enjoy life in Buenos Aires. If you came to study Spanish in Argentina, your language abilities will be greatly improved at this point, allowing you to communicate better and minimizing friction with the new culture. You know what to expect, have a new set of reflexes and reactions, and everything starts to make sense. Congratulations! This is the time when you really begin to reap the benefits of your study abroad experience, with new local contacts, a deeper sense of cultural understanding, and more access to all that Argentina has to offer.

Mastery Stage

Functioning in Argentine culture has become second nature to you as you go about your normal life. You can participate fully and comfortably in most Argentine social and cultural events, have many new friends, and enjoy life in Argentina to the fullest. If you have lived abroad for a longer period of time doing a whole degree program in Argentina, you are likely at this stage. Mastering the culture doesn’t necessarily mean blending in and losing your old identity, because now that you have more experience you can pick and choose aspects of both cultures you want to incorporate into your life. You feel at home in multiple countries and cultures, and are a true global citizen. Congratulations!
Time is the number one cure for culture shock; however there are certain practices and attitudes you can adopt to help you along your multicultural journey.

  1. Be Open Minded: The key to reducing culture shock is to have an open and positive attitude towards the country you’re visiting or planning to live in. There’s no greater guarantee for unhappiness in a foreign environment than taking your prejudices with you. It’s important when trying to adapt to a new culture to be sensitive to the locals’ feelings and try to put yourself in their shoes wherever possible, which will help you understand the new culture. Empathy is key.
  2. Be Prepared: Reading up on a country and its culture before you leave home will help you familiarize yourself with the local customs and language, and make the country and its people seem less strange on arrival. You’ll know how to anticipate certain events and interactions, which will make you and the locals you interact with more comfortable.
  3. Be Proactive: Make a conscious effort to get involved in the new culture; go out of your way to make friends. Join in on activities that you know will put you in contact with local people, such as festivals, courses, or other hobbies. There are a number of local sports clubs where you can practice a sport or work out, join an arts workshop, or learn to cook local dishes, taste wine, etc. Getting involved in stimulating activities will help you socially integrate and distract you from missing home.
  4. Be Inquisitive: Although it can sometimes be frustrating to be a novice in everything, use your beginner status in a foreign culture as a way to learn, make friends, and absorb as much as possible.  As adults in regular life we often feel stupid or foolish asking basic questions like “What is that?” “How is that used?” “Why is it this way?” but studying abroad is a great chance to regain that childlike sense of wonder with minimal embarrassment. Capitalize on your own ignorance to strike up random conversations or enter situations you normally wouldn’t. Friendly and outgoing porteños are generally delighted to explain their own culture, and being appropriately curious is a great was to show respect and interest in someone else’s way of life.
  5. Be Positive! It might sound corny, but try your best to be optimistic. Many psychologists believe that true happiness can only come from a sense of lasting self-satisfaction and inner strength, two qualities that living abroad undoubtedly brings out in a person. Being thrust into a foreign culture can be scary or challenging, but it shows us that there are always things in our environment that we can’t control and teaches us how to be adaptive, flexible, and self-sufficient. If nothing else, try to focus on how your study abroad experience is helping you grow as a person. When in doubt, try and live in the moment and enjoy the pleasures of daily life in an exciting foreign culture. Your time doing study abroad will be over before you know it!

Kayla B.
Mente Argentina

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