Culture Shock of an Exchange Student


After being in America for almost 3 months, Foreign Exchange Students can begin experiencing Culture Shock, without even know it. And even the Host Family can experience a form of Shock, called “Retro Shock”.

This is something that is addressed in our Handbook by the Aspect Foundation, the Exchange Student Company that brought Lara to America. It’s also the subject in the Aspect Foundation Monthly Calendar for November.



So, what is Culture Shock? The Handbook says these are several signs students should look for:

• You can’t seem to have a normal conversation with anyone.
• You are sleeping too little or too much.
• Everything makes you nervous and they have to go to the bathroom more than normal.
• You worry about cleanliness of food and drinking water.
• You get angry often and at things that aren’t very important.
• You are critical of your new surroundings.
• You feel negative toward your host family.
• You cry more than usual.
• You feel helpless and think that you can get help only from people from your own country.
• You wish you were home and you want to talk to your natural family all the time.
• You are afraid of anything new.
• You have stomach aches and headaches, that you usually don’t have.
• You don’t want to speak english.
• You are not excited about being in the u.s.
• You don’t look forward to things you’ve been dreaming about for months.
• You feel a lack of confidence.
• You don’t feel like You.

It also states the causes of culture shock, which are pretty obvious: changes in food, housing, climate and transportation. Well, sure! Everything in their life is different! I’m not sure I could handle it as well as Lara and other kids. Other causes… rules and structures where you are not used to them and no rules and structures where you are used to them. Also, not knowing what will happen next or how to act in some situations, and loss of familiar ways and things.

Lara and Morgan

What does an Exchange Student do when faced with these challenges? The Handbook says they should talk to their Host Family, friends and teachers about their feelings. I think Lara is pretty open with me. I think she also feels she can confide in her first close friend, Morgan. In fact, Lara had her first “girls night sleepover” with Morgan last night!!! I’m glad she has a friend she can confide in outside of the home. And Morgan’s a great kid! The Exchange Students are also told to slow down and let their emotions catch up with them if they are feeling overwhelmed. Also, to develop a routine and stay with it so they have a sense of something that is familiar. And, to get physical exercise, sleep, eat well and allow yourself “time out” periods for rest. As for Lara… she has no loss of appetite. In fact, I keep asking her where all the food goes that she eats! As for exercise, this girl bounces off walls sometimes! She has more energy than all of us put together! And trust me… it’s a great thing because sometimes she gets us to do things we put off! In fact, this weekend, she wants to help us paint our kitchen cabinets… something I’ve been putting off for 5 months!

We’ve seen very little hints of culture shock in Lara so it’s been smooth sailing. But if problems arise, the handbook offers several suggestions on how a Host Family can help a student deal with culture shock. They include:
• Realize this is an actual state that your student is in, caused by changes over which you have very little control.
• Realize you are not responsible for this change in culture and you can not make it go away.
• Be understanding.
• Be available to discuss everything and minimize other stress factors.
• Read about your student’s country so you know what s/he is experiencing that is different.
• Expect disagreements and work them out.
• Encourage rest, exercise and a good diet.
• Be prepared for judgmental remarks.
• Give your student time for themselves but not too much time.
• Don’t pressure your student about grades.
• Expect a quick recovery.
• Be there for your student.

The Handbook also states that the family can experience a form of shock due to change… called “Retro Shock”. I found this important to talk about with my husband, son and daughter because, after all, how they feel about this change in our family is extremely important too. Some of the signs include:

• Disturbances in your family routine may cause upset and a loss of objectivity.
• You may find yourself judgmental about some of the ideas and actions of your student.
• You may learn some startling things about your own family’s habits and reactions.
• You may not be able to answer some of the questions about America easily.
• You may find yourself trying to force some of your beliefs and practices on your student.

I must admit, Terry, Travis and Brittany have adjusted well. Terry has realized that he now has three Females in the house who like to shop, giggle, shop, cook, shop, watch dramatic TV shows… and did I say SHOP some more? He got a taste of that today when he took Brittany and Lara to get Brittany softball equipment. Four hours later when he got home… he was exhausted! Travis is about as laid back as anyone. He already has 3 sisters so, to him, having one more girl in the house means just more make-up, hair and clothing issues he has to hear about! As for Brittany… she has had the most adjustments to make. She’s always been the only girl in the house and the “baby” of the family. Some attention has been taken away from her but I think it’s been for the best. She has learned to share her Mother, which she had 100% of the time. Now she has 50% of the time. She’s learned to share her bathroom with someone who spends almost as much time in their with hair and make-up as herself. And THAT in itself could be a miraculous thing! Of course, I’m saying that with a sense of humor that any mother of a Teenager has!

Some people may think these are too many emotions for a Student, or a Host Family, to deal with. The Handbook says there are many benefits the Student will take back with them. I feel it goes both ways. They include:
• You will learn and grow in this new situation.
• You will learn how to deal with problems.
• You will become more independent.
• You will learn new ways.
• You will have a fresh outlook on your own country and culture.
• You will gain a new understanding of yourself.
• You will have a sense of pride in the courage that you had to become an exchange student in another country.

Below are comments in our Handbook from Students and Host Families. It’s a good example of what everyone can learn in this learning process.

A FRENCH EXCHANGE STUDENT ~ “Do not expect come here and get a perfect family that is just like your own. Your family will be very nice, but you will still have days where you think they are the most strange people on the entire earth and you just want to go to another place for the rest of the year. But don’t worry, the next day it will all be just fine again.”  (This is really funny because, when I read this to Lara, I asked her, “Do you sometimes think we are the strangest people on Earth?” She smiled and giggled. I said, “That’s OK. Sometimes we think you are the strangest child on earth too.” We both busted up laughing out loud. THAT’S the kind of relationship we all have with her… able to laugh at ourselves.)

AN IRAQI STUDENT~ “Don’t decide to leave before you live for a month,because that’s what I wanted to do but I stayed and it’s so fun now.”

A COLOMBIAN STUDENT ~ “I’m just feeling as part of the family. It has been awesome how people that I didn’t know before are now my family, my friends, and the people that I love.”

A GERMAN EXCHANGE STUDENT ~ “I am more easy-going responsible and mature. Plus, I learned that there is still a lot to do between the different countries to understand each other’s culture.”

A SWEDISH EXCHANGE STUDENT ~ “My biggest challenge was facing myself, contrasted to another culture.”

A DANISH EXCHANGE STUDENT ~ “I make better decisions, use my time better and spend my money wiser. I feel that facing the cultural differences and the problems have made me grow mentally quite a bit as I now can handle tough situations better.”

“Don’t expect too much too fast. This child has had different upbringing and different values. Be flexible, be open, and be open-minded. We don’t have all the answers and neither does Sindre, but together we work them out.”

“One of the most rewarding aspects of having an exchange student this year is how much my family’s table manners have improved.”

“Our cultural differences with our Brazilian student were mostly around a ‘sense of time.’ Also more hugs than we were used to but now we love that!”

“Sit down daily and ask your student what they found pleasing, enjoyable, confusing or fearful today. It really helps their adjustment.”

“Just seeing the change in our student from closed-minded and judgmental to becoming more open-minded and accepting (even he acknowledges this) was wonderful and rewarding.”

THE SCHREINER’S: We feel comfortable enough with Lara to talk to her. We also feel it is our responsibility as her American ‘Parents”. After all, her family has entrusted us to care for her and keep her safe. I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I took the handbook out on November 1st and read each item with Lara to see how I might be able to help. Looks like I will do the same thing on December 1st and every 1st of the month!

About schreinerrealty

I'm a Realtor, Property Manager ad Owner of a Real Estate Brokerage, Schreiner Realty. I'm a Mother of 2, stepmother of 3, and now a Host Mother of a German Exchange Student. I am an avid volunteer in our community, involved in networking groups including Women's Council of Realtors and Women of Faith in Business. I spent 16-years in TV News as a Producer/Anchor/Reporter/Newsroom Manager and still participate in free-lance Producing Projects.

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