American Adjustment

. . . What's Happening to me?

Adjustment to a New Culture

People become products of their own cultures and environments, having learned the values, attitudes, customs, languages, and other aspects of the culture that surrounded them. It is a challenging, stimulating, and sometimes difficult process to leave one's culture and go to live in another country. You are separated from the people and circumstances that define your role in society when you enter a new culture and this may result, in varying degrees, in a loss of identity. In a new environment, you must learn to adjust to many new and different things all at the same time. Living abroad can be a very exciting experience, but it also requires much effort, patience, and perseverance.

The Adjustment Cycle:

People who enter a new culture almost inevitably suffer from a certain level of disorientation. Cultural adjustment is the process that people go through when they go to another culture. The cycle of emotions that people experience varies somewhat with each individual; however, there is a set of stages that most people tend to experience. You may find that one stage is more pronounced than another, or that you seem not to enter a particular stage at all. This information may be helpful in understanding your reactions to living in the United States.


Stage 1 is characterized by a high level of excitement and perhaps some anxiety. In this stage of initial euphoria, everything is new and students are busy with the initial tasks of settling into the culture. At this point, they are most likely to notice similarities and to assume that people everywhere are basically alike. This stage can last from a few weeks to several months, but it inevitably ends.


Soon after arrival, it becomes apparent that many aspects of living in the United States differ from your own culture. The differences in the educational system, food, dress, language, friendships, values, customs, transportation, climate, etc., start to become noticeable, and people react to the situation in different ways. These reactions, in the irritability stage, are referred to as culture shock. Culture shock can be characterized by feelings of frustration, irritation, exhaustion, and disappointment at the difficulty in learning so many new things all at once. Since the new environment is the cause of the discomfort, some hostility toward Americans, the university, and the U.S. may be expressed at this time. It is common for international students to turn to each other in this stage in order to express their negative feelings. However, as they develop a deeper understanding of the culture, the students gradually adjust.


The gradual adjustment stage is characterized by a sense of greater comfort in the new culture. Students adapt to the educational system, make a few friends, become involved in areas of interest, and establish a routine which allows them to function fairly well in the U.S. There will always be aspects of the culture that they do not like or choose not to adopt, but there are other aspects they enjoy and integrate into their lives. When students begin to make adjustments, they usually stay at this stage until it is time to return to their own culture.


As students near the completion of their studies, they often feel excited and anxious about returning home. Readjustment seems a strange concept to many international students, because they think they are going home to what is comfortable and familiar. However, by adjusting to the U.S. culture, they have changed in ways that may not be apparent until they return home. Depending on how long they have been gone, the situation at home may have changed a great deal as well. As you prepare to go home, the adjustment cycle begins again, and will most likely be characterized by the stages of initial euphoria, irritability, and gradual adjustment. Resolution involves somehow internalizing the experience gained in living in another culture and moving forward with life and career.

Cross-Cultural Adjustment

As you go through the adjustment cycle, your experience may differ from the described stages. It is very common to have a variety of high and low points during your stay in the U.S. and people have different reactions to living abroad depending on their background, experience, and personality. It is helpful to ask yourself the following questions as you encounter confusing situations:

  • How is this accomplished in this country?
  • Did the person I'm talking to understand what I said and what I meant?
  • What does this mean here?
  • Does this mean the same thing here as it does in my culture?

By asking such questions, you will increase your understanding of the culture and develop a pattern of adapting to life in the U.S. Students often wonder how far they must go in their adaptation. There are two extreme responses to a new culture. At the one end is the person who refuses to make any adjustments. This person is probably unwilling to try new foods, to learn the language, and to change daily habits and will find it difficult to function in the culture and focus on returning home as soon as possible. On the other end, the person who completely assimilates becomes so Americanized that one would not know they were not born here. Almost everyone eventually finds a balance between these two extremes. You will probably accept some things about this country and reject others. There is no obligation to take on any U.S. habit or to change personal customs that you do not wish to. The following are suggestions for easing adjustment:

  • Learn and observe listen carefully and watch reactions.
  • Ask questions - don't be afraid to ask.
  • Try not to evaluate or judge - by comparing and labeling things as good or bad you may be misinterpreting the information.
  • Try to empathize put yourself in the other person's place and try to see the situation from the other person's perspective.
  • Show openness and curiosity.
  • Recognize anxiety and frustration - situations you might have treated lightly in your culture may have a greater impact on you here. Sometimes talking to someone who has experienced culture shock can help, such as another international student or an International Student Advisor.
  • Become involved - the more you put into the experience, the more you will gain from it. You should make an effort to meet people, form friendships, and get involved in activities.
  • Maintain a sense of humor