Students and faculty share their experiences at Culture Shock Event


Jason Shaw

Osayamen Azebamwan-lgbinigie and Trung Nguyen share their culture-shock experience.

Mariel Weber, Staff Writer

On Tuesday, Nov. 17, as a part of its International Week festivities, Elgin Community College had a presentation discussing cultural shock in the Jobe Lounge.

Ulises Zamora, educational officer of United Students of All Cultures (USAC), led the discussion and was accompanied by a panel of students and instructors.

Cultural shock is a feeling of confusion, doubt or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what you are used to, according to the presentation.

The process of adjusting to a new environment is lengthy, as the seven people on the event’s panel illustrated when they discussed their own experiences with culture shock upon arriving in America or during their travels.

Psychologists have identified four distinct phases of cultural shock.

The first phase is the excitement phase, or honeymoon period. This is the adrenaline rush someone feels when first arriving to a new country. Everything is an adventure; the person is impressed and fascinated by all of the new surroundings.

Panel member AJ lived in the Philippines and remembers feeling scared and excited to come to America for the first time. Above all else, AJ said he couldn’t wait to see snow.

“In the Philippines there is no snow, and I always wanted to know what snow looks and feels like,” said AJ.

The withdrawal phase follows. Excitement fades and the person begins to feel the pressure of trying to adapt to a new place. This may include trying to overcome a language barrier, new laws, new traditions, new foods and much more.

Carole Burstein, instructor of the intensive English program at ECC, has been teaching international students for 17 years and said that the most difficult adjustment for them is keeping track of time.

“In other countries you show up when you can be there and no one cares,” said Burstein, “but in the United States, we are very clock-oriented.”

The adjustment phase begins once a person starts to settle in; life becomes more routine and the individual begins to adapt to the new place while identifying the things they do and do not like.

“Everything we eat, we eat with rice,” AJ said of the Philippines. “Here there is rice, but there are many options: Italian food, Chinese food, Thai food. I feel like I am tasting the world, like it’s a buffet.”

The final stage is the mastery stage, during which time the individual has to connect with people from their new surroundings and begin to practice their traditions.

“The idea of getting to a place on time, finishing something on time or in a certain amount of time is very important in the US,” said Burstein. “Most of our students have trouble with this, and it’s not that they aren’t good students, they just don’t come from that kind of culture.”

Osayamen Azebamwan-lgbinigie, an ECC student, was born in Nigeria and came to the United States when she was three years old. The first time she experienced culture shock was when she started school.

“I had a very thick accent because we didn’t speak English in my home,” said Azebamwan-lgbinigie. “The kids were really mean because they couldn’t understand me, and I was smaller than all of the other students. They didn’t like me just because I was different.”

In addition to struggling with the language barrier, AJ experienced culture shock when he saw how massive the hamburgers were in the United States compared to the Philippines.

“They were huge and I asked, ‘how can I fit this in my mouth?’” said AJ.

All of the panel members agreed that there were major differences between the food in America and that of their home country.

“Food in Nigeria is homegrown and fresh from the farm,” said Azebamwan-lgbinigie. “The only American fast food chain in Nigeria is KFC.”

Azebamwan-lgbinigie added that the KFC chicken in Nigeria tastes better than American KFC chicken.

Mario Marroquin, born in Guatemala and living here for two years, said the food he misses the most from Guatemala is the tortillas.

“Here [tortillas] aren’t the same. They mix them with preservatives that kill the taste,” said Marroquin.

While traveling, Kamie Peterson, born in Korea and living in the United States for 28 years, noticed that in other countries, not many families eat out.

“Eating out is for businesses, jobs and tourists,” said Peterson.

Although each person has unique individual experiences with cultural shock, there seemed to be a common initial feeling of disorientation when first arriving in the United States.

Burstein said that while traveling in various countries, she found that if you saw a sign written in the language of that country, you could usually find English somewhere on it as well. No matter where she was, things always looked familiar enough to get by. However, that was not the case when Burstein visited China with her husband.

“All the signs in China are in Chinese, all of what you see is Chinese. I was scared to death to go anywhere because I didn’t know where I was,” said Burstein. “I have never been scared like that in my life, before or since.”

This hurdle was not something she was expecting.

“That was the first time it had occurred to me that all of my students, when they come to the United States, don’t know what anything says, don’t know where they are, don’t know how to get anywhere and they are scared to death,” said Burstein.

Many American traditions evoked culture shock upon arrival, the panel suggested, from customs as large as holiday celebrations to small formalities such as how you greet one another.

In Nigeria, respect to the elders is very important, according to Azebamwan-lgbinigie. They never say an elder’s first name; instead they address them as mom, dad, auntie or uncle and bow to greet them.

“When I first came here I was bowing to people, and people were telling me, ‘you don’t do that here,’ and it was weird to get used to that,” said Azebamwan-lgbinigie.

Trung Nguyen, born in Vietnam and living here for one year, said that in America we come together to be thankful on Thanksgiving Day, but in Vietnam that is how they celebrate New Years.

Even after years of being in America, some traditions can still be puzzling. For Ramon Albino, enrollment facilitator at ECC, that tradition is Black Friday.

“Who the hell goes out in the middle of the night to go shopping and stand in lines?” said Albino. “I think its crazy!”

Audience members, even those who were born and raised in America, laughed and nodded in agreement with Albino.

At the end of the presentation Chicago’s Korean Dance Academy performed traditional dances.

ECC students and faculty gathered in the Jobe lounge to watch the women perform. They were wearing traditional outfits and showcased the precise, elegant, smooth movements of their dances while celebrating international cultures.