How I Overcome the Culture Shock

I want to talk about, how I came to terms with the American way. This is not a critic, this is not a moral-teaching or a preaching of any kind for that matter. Because, let us face it, when we come to the US of A, we all, assuming the reader is not American by origin, look at its citizens and thinks, have I gone to Mars instead? But this is completely natural. Many people, no matter if they are young or old, find it difficult to adapt and act in any new society, not just when coming to America. There are even, and this is true, a special section in the Japanese embassy in France that helps tourist coping with the effects of this shock.

I was aware of the effect this shock could have on people, and that this occurs all the time with people traveling, but at the same time, I genuinely thought, it would not happen to me. My reasoning for this hypothesis was founded in the fact that I had experienced Europe´s many cultures, traveling through each nation during my summer holidays. What I didn’t take into consideration was two factors, living in another culture and how much 7000 km (4349.6 miles) would do to a culture. You see, I assumed that those stories I was brought up with, given to me through movies and the news, was the true America, but when I first arrived to Charlotte Airport, I assumed everyone in this airport would be very egocentric, since I saw USA as the heart of capitalism, and for me that meant everything would be done out from a cost-benefit analysis. But I was truly wrong in these assumptions. The first person I talked to in America, I mean real talk, not just “here is your cola. Anything else?”, was with a lovely lady from Atlanta, Georgia. We had to wait for over 2 hours there, and she had already waited since yesterday, because her original flight had been cancelled. She quickly found out that I was from another country, I think my accent revealed me, you can´t run from the Germans, and apparently neither from the Danes, in this regard referring to my pronunciation. As I mentioned before, she was so nice and courteous, and we ended up being engaged in a conversation about men, parenthood and worries in everyday life, she even helped me rearrange my flight to Chicago. We had to part, when we landed in Chicago, and I had to wait another 9 hours before I could go to Waterloo, using the time to reflect over my experiences, and at the same time explore the massive O´Hare Airport. It is truly massive, if you are a Dane, I can tell you! Once I was on the plane, I was tired. I had not been sleeping for over 30 hours, but still I was so fascinated about what my neighbor could tell me of stories that I kept myself awake most of the trip. He was a lorry-driver, who had experienced some truly marvelous things on his way over the continent, but what fascinated me the most, was his openness and frankness. My prejudices´ towards the American way of life and behavior began to be worn down.

I finally came to Cedar Falls and was greeted by fellow exchange students, most fellow Europeans, but also friendly faces from Oceania and Asia was among my new acquaintances. Time went on, and the natural inhabitants of the university returned, the American students. I had of cause been introduced to a few members of this group, as we the exchange students had soon to be co-students in the first period of time here, but truth be told I still felt like a drop of oil in a water-tank. This changed soon though, when my new friend C (American) introduced me to many different Americans that all had different values, ideas and in general were unique by their own right. They finally destroyed the idea of “the American” as a standardized archetype. They brought me on the path of trying to understand this myriad of habits, beliefs and customs that define the American people. This is an ongoing process, I have to admit that. I can still feel myself as the outsider and have to ask for advice and guidance from my friends.

What I am trying to say here, in these ramblings of mine, is that it is perfectly normal to feel like an outsider looking into a madhouse, when you first come to a new culture, especially one so famous yet diverse like the American. This feeling will not go away naturally, neither will it go away after a day or two, not even a fourth night is long enough. It is something you, as well as I, constantly must work on, because even Americans themselves do not completely understand themselves and their culture in depth, so should you really demand the impossible of yourself? No. The best advice I can give to future exchange students to overcome their culture chock is to go out and socialize with “the natives”, because understanding an American is, like when you learned to understand yourself, a trial and error process. You don’t get it by staying outside and looking in, it is first when you stumble through different interactions that you will gain understanding.

Remember, a smile will bring you a long way.

Jeppe Bruggert

Exchange Student - Spring 2018