Growing up in Bangladesh, a relatively small country compared to the United States, made me wonder about the cultural differences present between us.
I always wanted to go overseas for college and higher studies and like most kids, I built an image of America based on Hollywood. My parents made me go to an international school so that I would learn about some common cultural differences and become fluent in English. I was prepared for any change, I welcomed it, and I thought I would embrace it. At least I thought I was capable of change. You see, for someone to get used to a change, in my opinion, that individual needs to go through four phases of change. However, some people do not go through those four changes and experiences something called a cultural shock.
I had one that was so big that the effects are still lasting as I write this. Language wouldn’t be a problem, as I believe I speak it as fluently as any first-language English speaker. It’s not my first language, but believe me or not, I speak it better than my mother tongue. From the moment I landed, the first phase started, which I would like to call the “honeymoon” phase.
This phase is where the individual sees differences between their old culture and the new one in a tainted lens and in a favorably romantic light, and are fascinated with everything around them. I romanticized American culture before coming here, so my honeymoon phase was premature. The period ended after a few days of being here. People couldn’t pronounce my name correctly, so I altered it. Live here long enough with your altered name, and you will get so used to it that you lose your older one and start believing that you were forever as people call you now.
It is surprising as to how a simple pronunciation changes your identity.
Connecting with people was the most difficult for me. Adjusting to college is hard in general but adding language barriers, cultural differences, religion and other things made it worse. My humor wasn’t the same as my floor mates in my dorm. We even played different sports — football was soccer, and there was an entirely different sport called football. My taste preferences, too, began to change. I used to love burgers, fries and all the other food there is and prefer them over my own cuisine. That changed surprisingly fast; it made me understand that you don’t appreciate something you have till it’s gone.
All of these experiences lead to the “negotiation” phase, as individuals notice the huge gap between their new culture and their old one, it creates anxiety within them. This is usually due to the negative points about the new culture that the individual sees as evident, which contradicts their positive view during the honeymoon period. Language barriers in particular can create anxiety.
As humans are wired to evolve and adjust, I tried my best doing so. More than becoming a victim of peer pressure, I did things just to fit in and be a part of the culture. After being straight edge all my life, I started drinking now and then and experiencing other things college had to offer. The change wasn’t bad, but in order to get to becoming the new you, have to let go of some of the old you.
This is the “adjustment” phase where one becomes accustomed to local traditions and values. After an individual is set in a routine, the cultural differences provide less anxiety and shock, and they reasonably know what to expect in different situations and start viewing the cultural differences in a positive light again.
I started watching football and surprisingly, I was also chanting all the chants with my friends in a random dorm room on a Monday night, appreciating the different “Americanized” cuisines, changing my fashion sense, and much more.
The problem with this phase is you become different in the eyes of your family and old friends. That would be okay if you were accepted by your new friends as their own, but often times new friends see you as a foreigner. You are a foreigner wherever you go. You are too foreign for your own home. You find yourself in a grey area, which causes more anxiety and trauma. I didn’t lose my old habits and culture completely and I still partially retained my accent and the way I looked, but it was a huge change.
This last phase is called the “adaptation” phase, in which the individual is fully integrated into the new culture and actively participates in many aspects of it. It does not, however, mean that they lose some of their traits from their old culture, as they still retain many traits such as accent and language.
As simple as these four phases may sound, many people don’t make it through four phases and even if I believe I did, there is always a part of me feeling like I still don’t belong here and I am a guest. Things like “how do you speak such good English?” or “Do you wear clothes like that back in your country?” don’t have an effect on me anymore, but sometimes it still comes as a shock on how different people around the world are.