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Academic achievement is your primary goal in the United States, but a good social life is important, too. Recreation, diversion, friends all contribute to a balanced life.
Degrees of Friendship
As is probably true in your own culture, it takes time for friendship - a close relationship - to develop between Americans. Nevertheless, most Americans are very "friendly" and appear to be very open when you meet them. You may hear Americans refer to acquaintances, such as persons who happen to sit together in class, as "friends." There are, however, degrees of friendship.
In the United States, people often say, "Hi, How are you?" or "How are you doing?" and then do not wait for a response. This is a polite phrase, not really a question. You can respond by saying, "Fine, thanks." Or you may hear an American say, "Drop by anytime" or "Let's get together soon." These are friendly expressions, but they may not be meant literally. It is polite to call someone on the telephone before you visit. Even without an invitation, it is acceptable to call a new acquaintance to see if he or she would like to go to a campus activity with you.
You will have to make an effort to meet people so that friendships can develop. Because crossing borders to study is a unique and powerful experience, you may find, at least initially, that you have more in common with other international students than with Americans, and some of your strongest friendships will be made with other international students.
Soon you will meet Americans who have studied abroad - and who therefore know something of what you are experiencing - as well as individuals who share your interests, academic and otherwise.
Many students believe that there is no better place to make friends than the University residence halls. There may be 30 students living on your floor with different accents, different musical tastes, and possibly 30 different standards of acceptable behavior. Be prepared for very open discussions. Participate in residential life and become involved in residential hall activities and functions.
Relationships with roommates work best when the dual arts of flexibility and compromise are practiced. Your roommate may or may not become a friend, but there is no reason you should not develop a good relationship. If necessary, the Residential Life staff will offer guidance and advice to help you.
Participating in Campus Life
Seek out fellow students with similar interests. You may find them in your classes or laboratories, but there are other options, too. UM-St. Louis offers a wide array of clubs and organizations representing many student interests. You will find cultural and religious associations, sports teams and sports clubs, volunteer service organizations, fraternities and sororities, student government, academic societies, music and theater groups, a student newspaper, and, on some campuses, a student radio or television station. For an up to date list, go to the Office of Student Life.
If you want to enhance your leadership skills, you will find numerous possibilities on campus, whether you choose to run for an office in student government, lead an international student club or other campus organization, organize the activities of the international living center, volunteer in the community, or lead a volunteer group. All these opportunities give you a chance to meet others and work with them on issues that matter to you. That's the best way to develop friends.
Practicing Your Religion
The United States is a multicultural society founded on tolerance and mutual respect; you should not hesitate to seek out opportunities to practice your religious beliefs. Organized religious groups of many denominations are likely to be found at your college or university, and others exist in the surrounding community. ISSS will be able to help you locate such organizations.
Although America has a higher rate of church attendance than most other western societies, many Americans are uncomfortable discussing religion. Some Americans may shy away from the topic altogether. Others will want to share their religious views with you. Most people are sincere and straightforward, but some may try to take advantage of you or convert you to their religious beliefs by offering you their friendship. If you begin to feel uncomfortable in such a situation, politely but firmly explain that you are not interested.
See the appendix for a list of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.
Alcohol and Smoking
U.S. laws concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol may seem very liberal or very constraining to you, depending on your nationality. In Missouri, it is illegal to purchase or consume alcoholic drinks, including beer and wine, until you reach the age of 21.
Alcohol is not permitted on campus in the Residence Halls or elsewhere on campus. Remember, you do not have to drink to make friends or be accepted by others.
Do you smoke? In many parts of the United States, all public buildings are designated "smoke free," meaning that you cannot smoke in any part of the building. Other buildings may have spaces designated for smokers. Restaurants may have smoking and nonsmoking sections. If you are a guest in someone's home, room, or apartment, always ask permission before you smoke. Even if you are in your own room, it is polite to ask your guests if anyone objects to your smoking before you reach for a cigarette. Be prepared to see No Smoking signs in most offices, classrooms, and stores.
You may be surprised by the informality of relations between men and women in the United States. Couples go out alone in the evening to attend a movie, concert, lecture, or party; students may get together for a "study date." In the past, the man usually asked the woman, and the man paid the expenses of the movie, concert, or meal. Today, a woman may ask a man to go out with her. Whether the man or woman offers the invitation, students often share the expenses.
Depending on where you come from, attitudes about homosexuality may seem very permissive or rather restrictive. While GLBT people are generally much more able to live openly in the United States than before, you may still find people who do not accept different sexual orientations. As with most large American cities, there is a vibrant gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community in St. Louis, centered mainly around the Central West End and the area around South Grand. There are also resources on the UM-St. Louis campus for GLBT students. Prizm is an on-campus student organization that provides support, information and social activities for the campus GLBT community. The Prizm office, located in the Student Life suite in 366 MSC, includes a resource library with materials of particular interest to GLBT students. For more information about Prizm, contact Dr. Mark Pope, the faculty advisor, at 516-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Relationships between American men and women of college age range from simple, casual friendships to strong emotional and physical commitments. As your friendships develop past acquaintance, you may not always understand what your partners expect of you. Whatever the relationship, the best policy is honesty and frankness. Although sometimes embarrassing, it is best to express your feelings and intentions so you can avoid misunderstandings and even greater discomfort. If your date appears interested in a sexual relationship and you are not, it is very important that you say no clearly. And if someone seems to be saying no to you, listen. Unwanted sexual attention is a very serious matter in the United States. Do not interpret the acceptance of a date as anything more than an agreement to meet at a certain time and place and to spend some time together.
If you are in doubt about correct behavior, talk with American friends, or an international student advisor. Be aware that alcohol and dating can be a problematic mix, particularly in a cross-cultural setting.
Culture shock is not quite as shocking or as sudden as most people expect. It is part of the process of learning a new culture that is called "cultural adaptation." You may experience some discomfort before you are able to function well in a new setting. This discomfort is the "culture shock" stage of the adaptation process. The main thing to remember is that this is a very normal process that nearly everyone goes through.
Just as you will bring with you to the United States clothes and other personal items, you will also carry invisible "cultural baggage" when you travel. That baggage is not as obvious as the items in your suitcases, but it will play a major role in your adaptation abroad. Cultural baggage contains the values that are important to you and the patterns of behavior that are customary in your culture. The more you know about your personal values and how they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see and understand the cultural differences you will encounter abroad.
Know What to Expect
Anticipating future events and possibilities makes it easier to deal with them when they happen. For example, it helps to anticipate your initial departure and plan ways to maintain relationships with people at home while you are away. Be sure to allow ample time to say goodbye to all the people who are important to you, and plan how to keep in touch. This assures people that you will continue to care about them.
Planning to stay in touch does not require a promise to write or telephone on a strict schedule, but it does help to establish a realistic interval between communications. You will be extremely busy getting settled and learning about your new environment, so it is essential that long periods between communications not alarm your family and friends at home.
Some surprises always await you when you arrive in a new place. People may walk and talk more quickly, traffic patterns may be confusing, and buildings may look different than expected. Such differences are easy to see and quickly learned. The housing arrangements at your university or college, the manner in which classes are taught, registration for courses, and other procedures may seem strange or very confusing.
Studying abroad, however, means making big changes in your daily life. Generations of students have found that they go through a predictable series of stages as they adjust to living abroad. At first, although the new situation is a bit confusing, most students also find it to be exhilarating, a time of new experiences, sights, sounds, and activities. With so much to learn and absorb in the new culture, the initial period of settling in often seems like an adventure. During this time, you will tend to look for and identify similarities between your home culture and your host culture. You will find that people really are friendly and helpful. The procedures are different, but there are patterns, things that you can learn and depend on. You may classify other aspects of the culture that seem unusual or even unattractive as curious, interesting, or "quaint." There will be many opportunities to meet people off campus; such opportunities can be rewarding, but they also present an expanded array of cultural puzzles. Your "cultural comfort level" will vary over time as you move in and out of your home culture.
Gradually, as you become more involved in activities and get to know the people around you, differences-rather than similarities-will become increasingly apparent to you. Those differences may begin to seem more irritating than interesting or quaint. Small incidents and difficulties may make you anxious and concerned about how best to carry on with academic and social life. As these differences emerge, they can be troubling and sometimes shocking. But culture shock does not happen all at once. It is a feeling that grows little by little as you interact with other students, faculty, and people in the community.
For many this gradual process culminates in an emotional state known as "culture shock," although it is seldom as dramatic as the term implies. The common symptoms of culture shock are:
- Extreme homesickness
- Desire to avoid social settings which seem threatening or unpleasant
- Physical complaints and sleep disturbances
- Depression and feelings of helplessness
- Difficulty with coursework and concentration
- Loss of your sense of humor
- Boredom or fatigue
- Hostility towards the host culture
Students are sometimes unaware of the fact that they are experiencing culture shock when these symptoms occur. There are ways to deal with this period of culture shock, so it helps to recognize that culture shock may lie behind physical symptoms and irritability.
Coping with Culture Shock
The most effective way to combat culture shock is to step back from a given event that has bothered you, assess it, and search for an appropriate explanation and response. Try the following:
- Observe how others are acting in the same situation
- Describe the situation, what it means to you, and your response to it
- Ask a local resident or someone with extensive experience how they would have handled the situation and what it means in the host culture
- Plan how you might act in this or similar situations in the future
- Test the new behavior and evaluate how well it works
- Decide how you can apply what you have learned the next time you find yourself in a similar situation
Throughout the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or rent a video in your home language, catch up with what is going on at home through the Web, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty of rest, write a letter or telephone home, eat good food, and do things you enjoy with friends. Take special notice of things you enjoy about living in the host culture.
Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, the "shock" gradually eases as you begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you-and you toward them-are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come in conflict, the easier it becomes to make adjustments that can help you avoid serious difficulties.
"Will I Lose My Own Culture?"
Sometimes students worry about "losing their culture" if they become too well adapted to the host culture. Don't worry: It is virtually impossible to lose the culture in which you were raised. In fact, learning about the new culture often increases your appreciation for and understanding of your own culture. Don't resist the opportunity to become bicultural and able to function competently in two cultural environments.
Just as culture shock derives from the accumulation of cultural clashes, so too can an accumulation of small successes lead to more effective interactions within the new culture. As you increase your abilities to manage and understand the new social system, practices that recently seemed so strange will become less puzzling. Eventually you will adapt sufficiently to do your best in your studies and social life and to relax and fully enjoy the experience. And you will recover your sense of humor!