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Culture Shock: What Does It Really Mean?

This post is by Elizabeth Templin, a Marketing major student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. During the spring 2013 semester she is participating in the CIEE Business and Society program.

Before arriving in Spain, friends, teachers and family advised me that I would experience culture shock living abroad and again upon re-entering the United States.  When I asked what exactly “culture shock” meant, there were diverse and varied answers, making me realize that there is not one single definition. 

Culture shock means different things to different people.  For example, for my friend Reyna:“My biggest culture shock was seeing Spanish families together doing family bonding things, like going to church, eating out at a restaurant, etc. It makes me very sad.  At college in Madison, I get to see my family once a month, so it feels strange not being able to do that here.  It really makes me appreciate my family in a different way because I know what it’s like now to not have a "family" when everyone else does.  I’ll be so excited when I get home and have my first big reunion with all my extended family for a birthday or party at some point over the summer.”

 For me, culture shock was not only about feeling disoriented when exposed to a new language and country or not living near family; it was about living a different way of life.  More specifically, I was living alone for the first time, without the constant presence of my family or friends around me. 

My señora here works long hours, so although I do see her at night, I feel more like a tenant in her home than completely part of a family.  Consequently, I have had to adjust to being alone off and on throughout the day, without family or crazy roommates to distract me.  Although this is uncomfortable at times, it has made me realize that I can live and travel on my own and appreciate the time I spend with friends in Seville and back home.  It has also given me the time to better understand what I truly appreciate in my life and about myself.

Study abroad isn’t just about studying and living in a different culture.  It’s an opportunity to better understand youself as an individual in a totally different setting.  Maybe you now realize how much you love/hate traveling, or how well you handle uncomfortable situations that you would never known about had you stayed in the United States?  Maybe some of you don’t want to come back to the United States at all and stay in Spain forever?  It’s exciting to think about…


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