Before I left for France, I was required to go to an orientation at the university with the other study abroad students. Among other things, I was warned about culture shock, a sense of anxiety that can occur when someone is introduced to a new culture. We were informed of ways to prepare for this anxiety, such as reading up on our destination’s culture and brushing up on our language skills. So when I left the U.S., I felt prepared. I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand everything I encountered, and I also knew I wouldn’t be eating peanut butter for the next four months. Once I got to France, my program did its own presentation on le choc culturel, citing symptoms from “boredom” to “unexplainable fits of weeping.” My friends and I didn’t understand all the fuss. We had moved from one developed country to another, and quite frankly, this one had better food, better transportation, and better leadership.
In fact, one of my friends thought the biggest source of culture shock was how prevalent our own culture was in France. It seemed like American culture and the English language were everywhere, from advertisements, to stores names, to cuisine. There was even a restaurant in Rennes called Philly’s, which advertised authentic philly cheesesteaks and a sandwich called the “South Street.”
Over the next few days we joked around, pretending that small differences in culture were driving us over the edge. One of my friends noted, “the standard paper size here is an inch longer than in America, I think I’m experiencing culture shock!” while another said, “I love everything about France, except I can’t get on board with drinking coffee out of a bowl!” One day I purchased about twenty euros worth of stamps from a kiosk, thinking I could slap three on each of my post cards and mail them to the US. I didn’t realize that the stamps only worked in France, and were, of course, non-refundable. But I could even find the humor in that, and I texted my friends that I had stamp-related culture shock.
But the truth is, whether or not we wanted to admit it, we all experienced culture shock to some extent. During my first few weeks in Rennes, I felt anxiety whenever I couldn’t understand something that my host parents or teachers said. Other students felt like they weren’t fitting in with their host families, while others got frustrated when coming across things like credit card malfunctions or cell phone issues. Though my friends and I made jokes, there’s no denying that moving to a completely new country can be stressful, and I’m glad we were warned about culture shock, because then we can recognize it when it’s happening and know that we’re not alone. However, I know that if I ever get too stressed out, I can always go to Philly’s and get myself a cheesesteak.