‘Culture Shock’? What Culture Shock?

Lauren Ashley

Before permitting any student to go on a study abroad program, my home school of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, required us to attend a full-day session designed to prepare us for our upcoming year abroad. In the midst of the preparatory talks warning us that everything we experienced would be different and how to deal with the inevitable meltdown that would be the culmination of our culture shock, they failed to mention that there would be many things that are remarkably similar: for example, the stress of an approaching deadline for a third year essay that is due sooner than one would like to admit is, somewhat unfortunately, a familiar feeling.

Illustration by Kaja Margrethe Aanonsen
Illustration by Kaja Margrethe Aanonsen

It’s possible that coming from a country like Canada, where the culture is not that different, was an advantage, but if that were the case I would have expected the differences to be more impactful. They weren’t. I had to learn to ask for milk in my coffee rather than cream, relearn some phrases so that when a cab driver asks if I’m “alright” I know that he literally wants to know how I am doing, and avoid paying in exact change so I don’t have to fumble around with coins I’m unfamiliar with. Yet none of these were earth-shattering differences, none of them made me want to get the first flight home.

Yes, England is different than Canada. And yes, Cornwall is very different to the cities I am used to. Ottawa is Canada’s capital city. It’s nearing one million people and is well known for its festivals, museums, art galleries and historic landmarks, as well as our many Parliamentary buildings. Understandably, studying there has a completely different feel compared to Cornwall. However, from an exchange student’s perspective, these differences are a major reason to go on a study abroad in the first place. After all, what is the value in going to another country to study in a carbon copy of your home with a slightly different accent? To me the academic payoff may be present but there is a personal loss in that type of experience, which is one reason I chose to study here as opposed to the United States.

Falmouth vs. Ottawa

I have yet to have the meltdown that my university was so keen on warning us about, largely because I believe in keeping a broad perspective. While the differences are present, I have found that being able to put the small things that create stress into a wider perspective has allowed me to settle in without much anxiety. Is it the end of the world if I cannot find my favourite shampoo brand? Of course not. Rather, it’s a part of the experience. After all, if everything was exactly the same as my experiences at home, would it be worth travelling across the world to study at all? To me, the answer is a clear, resounding “no”.