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How do I survive uni: Experiencing a culture shock

Date:20 December 2022
Yasmin walking through the streets of Leeuwarden
Yasmin walking through the streets of Leeuwarden

Moving to another country for studies can be both exciting and terrifying. When you start living somewhere new, especially if the culture is new to you, you may experience a culture shock. This means that you go through four phases: honeymoon, anxiety, adjustment, and acceptance. Of course, each culture shock is unique, but they all share some common characteristics. Yasmin, a second-year Global Responsibility and Leadership (GRL) student at Campus Fryslan, was interviewed for this blog post.

Hi Yasmin! Can you maybe introduce yourself? Why did you choose to study in The Netherlands?
“My name is Yasmin Madsen and I am a second year GRL student. My mum is Japanese and my dad is Danish, but I grew up in Hong Kong. I chose to study in the Netherlands because I wanted to study something along the lines of sustainable development and wanted to study somewhere in Europe, and found this study with these requirements.”  

The Honeymoon phase

You are usually very excited in the first few weeks after moving. You can go explore your neighbourhood now that you live on your own. There is a lot of sun when students arrive during the summer, which allows you to go out more. You meet new people and possibly make new friends, but the introweek is also an exciting part of this stage.

How did you experience the first few weeks in The Netherlands? 
“It was very exciting but also slightly stressful, for sure. It was the first time that I was travelling by myself, and had to figure out how to get to Leeuwarden from the airport by myself in a country that I had never been to and didn’t speak the language. Once I arrived in Leeuwarden and had settled down a little bit, I still had to do all the bureaucracy things like get my BSN number and register here.”  Every phase is different for everyone, as some people deal with the bureaucratic tasks before arriving, and others after.

“But after getting all those things done, the first few weeks were really like a honeymoon phase. I visited the campus before the term started and met some students, went on walks with some other first year students as well and got to know them a little bit more. I also got to know the city a little more, and (maybe an unpopular opinion, but) I found this little city so pretty, and was in awe of the brick houses and the shapes of the houses.”  

How did you feel about making new friends and living on your own? 
“I was very excited about living on my own and living alone didn’t feel like a huge step for me, so it wasn’t something I was very worried about. Friends, on the other hand, was something that worried me. I am not naturally good at going up to people and making small talk, so I really had to force myself to do so.”

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Stages of culture shock

The anxiety phase 

After the honeymoon period, you will experience a minor slump. Summer is coming to an end, rainy days are becoming more common, and the wind is becoming more noticeable. You must find a bike, complete all household tasks, run errands, and generally adjust to your new surroundings. When moving to a new location, it is common to feel homesick after the first few weeks. Stress can also be caused by the formation of new friendships, assignments, and exams.

Did you notice a shift? For example in the weather, friend group changes, or feeling homesick?
“Definitely. I think every aspect that was listed in the question had an immense impact on me. Firstly, the weather was something that I wasn’t expecting to impact me as much as it did. Living in Hong Kong, the weather doesn’t change too drastically and the time that the sun rises or sets probably only changes by one hour (maybe an hour and a half at most) between summer and winter. Winter in the Netherlands was, to put it bluntly, not a nice time.” 

“Something that maybe also impacted the severity of my experience in the winter was also just the fact that I felt lonely during this time. Although I had tried to put myself out there and join activities that were organised to make friends, I felt as though I didn’t really have close friends. I saw friendships forming and felt as though I wouldn’t be able to achieve this. Obviously, this changed and I was able to make very close friends, but at the time, I remember feeling quite isolated.” 

“Feeling homesick was something I was not expecting. I would like to think that I’ve always been relatively independent and I’ve never had the experience of being homesick and missing my family and friends, but I think it occurred maybe three months into moving to the Netherlands. Even after living here for over a year and feeling as though I’ve established a life here in Leeuwarden, I still miss my friends and family dearly. I think it’s also difficult because I haven’t been back home since moving to the Netherlands, so I haven’t seen my parents and most of my friends from back home in one and a half years. In a happier light, I am (finally) seeing my parents this Christmas!!”  

The adjustment phase

You will eventually get used to the new aspects of your life, such as when you finally buy that rain jacket and dress more appropriately for the cold weather. You have a better understanding of the city and its transportation options. You might be able to say one or two words in the new language at the market as you establish your rituals and routines.

How did you feel about this? And did you manage to adjust to it?
“I think I have managed to adjust, and whilst these worries and feelings don’t completely go away, I think I’ve learnt to deal with it over time. The winter is still a time that I dread, but this year I prepared beforehand by making sure I was busy during the winter period, so I didn’t have to spend too much time thinking about the weather (haha). As for friends, they came naturally over time and now I have a great group of friends, and of course, because of the small nature of the study, I feel comfortable chatting and hanging out with a large amount of the people here. When I’m homesick, I often call my friends from back home and have a little chat with them, or look through some old photos to make myself feel better.”

Do you understand dutch systems better (ex.: Understanding the city of Leeuwarden)?
“Perhaps a Dutch system that was one of the hardest for me to integrate was the cycling culture. Back home, I never rode a bike and my only experience riding bikes was during my summer holidays when I would visit my Danish relatives, where I would maybe ride a bike once during the whole holiday. There are a lot of small things in riding a bike that I think a lot of Dutch people don’t realise how impressive it is.” 

“I have had to get used to making sure I was riding on the right side of the road, which I once forgot and only realised when I started questioning why a car drove past me in the opposite direction. I’ve had to learn how to cycle whilst carrying my groceries - I’ve had all of my groceries bags fall onto the car park in Cambuurplein before, and cars were waiting behind me whilst I stumbled to put everything on my shoulders and on my bike again. I had to learn how to signal turning without falling off my bike - when I first moved here, it would be a signal of 0.1 seconds because I could not hold my bike with one hand for any longer. I have had to learn how to cycle in slippery conditions, even now, I go especially slow when there is a slight turn. Even what may seem like the simplest thing, having control of my bike was a new skill. Although I have more control now, I still almost crashed into my friend a few weeks ago whilst we were cycling side by side. There are countless more things to riding a bike that I have had to get used to, but perhaps this sheds light on how something that is so easy for some has been so difficult for me. I used to be ashamed and embarrassed of my cycling ability because everyone else around me didn’t have this fear of cycling, but overtime I’ve realised that I shouldn’t compare myself to people that have been cycling since they could walk and I am now quite proud of my cycling ability. During the summer, I even learnt how to cycle without any hands (for about 10 seconds)!”

Many international students struggle to adjust to cycling, but fortunately, everything in Leeuwarden's city center is walkable, and most students walk to university. This is why some people don't need to cycle very often, but we recommend giving it a try! It’s fun!!

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The acceptance stage

Finally, you can begin to embrace the new culture and be proud of all the skills you have gained. You probably have a couple of favourite places to visit and have rituals and routines in your daily life.

How do you feel about living in The Netherlands now? Are you embracing the dutch culture, and everything else?
“I really like the Netherlands overall. I’m not sure if I can say that I am fully embracing Dutch culture, but I’m embracing the friends around me, the new skills that I’m acquiring and the knowledge that I’m gaining whilst studying in the Netherlands.”

Thank you Yasmin for taking the time to speak with us and share your experiences. We appreciate your openness, and we hope you have a wonderful holiday at home!!