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Culture Shock: Expectations vs. Reality

Posted by on March 21, 2017

Any student who is studying abroad has probably heard or read about the five stages of culture shock. As I prepared for my semester abroad in Morocco, I was warned about culture shock by both CIE and my program in Morocco. Not only was it incorporated into orientation, but it showed up in many informational packets and articles. So, I should have been fully prepared to go through the stages of culture shock, right? Not so much. As I discovered a few weeks into my semester, there is no way to truly prepare yourself for the emotional roller coaster that comes with being immersed in a different culture. And  remember, not everyone experiences culture shock the same way, but I hope to provide some idea of what you can expect based on my own experience.

On an excursion to the Sahara desert.

Before I went abroad, I romanticized the whole experience. I had many friends who had studied abroad and I was used to seeing their beautiful pictures on social media. It seemed like studying abroad was going to be a whole semester full of fun adventures.  However, I guessed it wouldn’t be completely smooth sailing adjusting to life in Morocco since I didn’t speak the language fluently and knew that the Moroccan culture was going to be in high contrast to the United States. This being said, I found that studying abroad was more challenging than I thought it would be.

The five stages of culture shock are: honeymoon phase, aggravation phase, integration phase, bi-culturalism phase, and finally the independent phase. Not everyone follows this exact pattern, though there is truth to this model. When I first got to Morocco everything seemed new and exciting. For the two weeks of orientation I loved the food, took tons of pictures, made friends, and felt incredibly excited to be in such a cool place for the semester. When we finished orientation and started our regular class schedule, I was abruptly hit with both physical sickness and homesickness—not a fun combination. I felt lonelier than I had ever felt in my life, and the idea of staying in Rabat for the next three and a half months seemed overwhelming. But don’t worry, these feelings passed! By spring break I had gotten into my own little routine. I had found a couple of cafes where I could work on homework or hang out with friends between classes and I had found some travel buddies with whom I explored the country on weekends.

Everywhere I went in Morocco, there were cats all over the place. (Luckily, I like cats).

For me, culture shock didn’t occur in five chronological phases. I had down days and up days. I had days when I would be cat-called (which is fairly common in Morocco) and it made me feel angry and resentful. Other days, I was thrilled to be in a country where the people and culture were so different from my own. Learning to thrive in another culture is a process, and sometimes it can take a long time. Though I was happy to be reunited with my family at the end of four months, I was also sad to leave Morocco. Culture shock is difficult, but it taught me a lot about myself.




Lydia Grossman 3 Lydia Grossman
International Affairs Major
Environmental Sustainability Minor
IES Rabat, Morocco


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