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Integrating with Customs and Traditions: International Students Dealing with Culture Shock

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Kimberly Mitchiko
Kimberly Mitchiko
Kimberly Mitchiko is the recipient of the International Student of the Year (Vocational Education) at the Victorian International Education Awards 2020. Connect with her on Instagram @kimbrlymitchiko for food and life in Melbourne.

Moving overseas can be a rollercoaster of emotions, combining excitement and fear. Adapting to a new culture can be more difficult than expected – the differences in customs and traditions, communication style, and social norms can lead to feelings of confusion or frustration. 

You may find it difficult ordering a coffee or engaging yourself in simple conversations may seem trivial because you can’t find the right words, but for someone in a new environment, it can be a significant step towards adaptation and learning. Remember, it’s perfectly okay to feel unsure or less confident when using a new language – these are normal, and it’s probably a stage of culture shock.

Culture shock is a common and natural experience for international students. Talking about culture shock – how much do you know about it, and how would you know that you are experiencing culture shock?

According to Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, who theorized the idea of culture shock in 1954 – culture shock occurs in four stages: excitement, irritation, adjustment, and adaption.

Excitement – Honeymoon

This is the first stage and occurs on arrival. In this stage, everything is new and exciting. You are intrigued by cultural differences and similarities. There is a feeling that you can conquer anything and that there will be no trouble adjusting.

Irritation – Culture Shock

After the honeymoon stage wears off, the focus begins to shift to a negative view of cultural differences. There is often a sense of helpless frustration. People often withdraw in this stage. This is when feelings of homesickness are most prevalent.

Adjustment – Perspective

Adjustment takes place gradually. You start to become comfortable as your understanding of the language and culture increases. You are now more confident that you can manage life in your host country. You begin to see multiple perspectives and question your own assumptions about the world.

Adaptation – Feeling at home

Eventually, the host culture is no longer new, and you begin to feel at home. You may prefer certain traits of the new culture over your home culture. You might even begin to adopt cultural behaviors. Depending on the length of your stay, you may never reach this stage.

Monic Ann Tan Santos

In the Philippines, living with your extended family is deemed normal. This set up can be fun – a household filled with laughter and a family bond that can’t be beaten by others but of course, this kind of set-up can equally have its own negative impact while you share the same energy with those around you. 

Monic Santos
Monic Ann Tan Santos

Nursing student Monic Ann Tan Santos grew up with the privilege of having a close-knit family. However, this has also created a challenge of truly understanding her authentic self when she left the Philippines and embarked on her student journey in Australia. 

Flying out of the nest

Leaving her family for the first time on 26 October 2022 was a huge step for the 21-year-old at the time. Her life paused during lockdown – only met her university peers online, only had friends from high school, and literally lived her life in a cycle of eat-sleep-read-repeat. 

Monic Ann Tan Santos

Reminiscing her life in the Philippines – Monic was dependent of others – sheltered and pampered. In her own words, she described her lifestyle in the Philippines as “hyper-dependent” – not obliged to decide for herself, surrounded by people who will do things for her, and misunderstood that the beliefs of those around her is also hers.

The influence of growing up in an extended family and hyper-dependency caused her challenges in becoming self-sufficient. Monic admitted that the first few months for her was filled with tears, hence overwhelmed. Adapting to the culture and environment was not difficult for Monic but getting out of the routine and habits that shaped her life and finding the balance to keep up with the fast-paced life in Melbourne was difficult.

Having a positive mindset and outlook – Monic acknowledged that she no longer lives in the same bubble, accepting the reality that the moment she decided to set foot in Australia – she is now responsible of shaping her life moving forward. 

Despite the challenges she faced while juggling work, studies, and personal life – Monic only stood strong and challenged herself to be aware of her character and attitude towards her new environment. Monic took a moment to reflect on how much personal growth she has achieved as she marked her first anniversary in the land down under. 

“Back in the Philippines, my lifestyle wasn’t as active. In Australia, due to hectic schedule juggling work and studies – I got used to keeping myself busy and I enjoy the time I spend at work because it keeps me occupied. I like going out – visiting parks and walking around the city rather than staying at home all day.

Monic Ann Tan Santos

Back then, I thought that I had a solid foundation of my own set of values because I grew up surrounded by people with strong beliefs. But when I came here, I’ve found that those sets of values weren’t really mine. I had to relearn and create my own identity.

I know that I haven’t fully bloomed yet to be the person I want to be – in the word WOMAN, I am just ‘WO’. I’m still discovering what my own set of values and principles are – I just keep going. I think of it as playing a competitive game – there’s always going to be a whole lot of voices, but it’s yours that will matter. It’s your actions that will decide on the outcome. Either win or lose, what really matters is the step you take afterwards”. 

Quoting her brother, “You shouldn’t be the cup of your life, but you should think of yourself like the water that can adapt in any space”.

This is just the beginning of her story. The journey is long, but Monic is ready to face them, fuelled with determination and enthusiasm. 

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Ivan Lee 

Citing the Australian Government Centre for Population, there are many factors why people move or migrate – environment, security, services, stability, and economy.

Ivan’s journey is a testament to a migrant’s sacrifice, resilience, and hard work to build a life they dreamt and aspired to have. It wasn’t easy for Ivan to leave his home and family, but Ivan got bigger dreams and took a step for the change that is within his hands. 

Ivan Lee
Ivan Lee

“Na-inspire ako nung kaibigan ko. Nung dinalaw niya ako dati sa probinsya ko sabi niya pupunta siya ng Australia, tinanong ko siya kung paano yun. Noong mga panahong yun din kasi nag-iisip ako kung pupunta ba ako ng Middle East, Canada, o New Zealand – yung mga tipikal na pinupuntahan ng mga Nurse kagaya ko. Hindi talaga dumating sa isip ko yung Australia.” (“I was inspired by my friend. When he visited me before in my province, he said he was going to Australia, and I asked him how. During those times, I was also contemplating whether I should go to the Middle East, Canada, or New Zealand – the typical destinations for nurses like me. Australia never really crossed my mind.”)

Arrived in Australia back in 2018 initially as a tourist – this visit sparked a life-changing decision for Ivan to further his studies. 

Ivan Lee

The beginning is not always easy after he left his professional career in the Philippines as a Nurse but for Ivan… 

“Kailangan magtiyaga lang talaga. Lahat ng opportunity na dumating kinuha ko. Meron din talagang mga oras tsaka panahon noon na napapa isip ako kung tama bang andito ako [Australia] pero laban lang. (“I really need to persevere. I took every opportunity that came my way. There were really times and moments back then when I would wonder if it was right for me to be here [Australia], but I just kept fighting.”)

Dati hindi ako marunong magluto, maglinis, pero dito matututnan mo talagang maging independent. Iba talaga kapag mag-isa ka na lang, kapag hindi ka na komportable kasi malayo ka na sa pamilya mo.” (“Before, I didn’t know how to cook or clean, but here you’ll really learn to be independent. It’s really different when you’re on your own, when you’re not comfortable anymore because you’re far from your family.”)

Dito makikita mo talaga yun tatag ng mga Pilipino, sa trabaho ko nililinis din naming yung mga pods (sa ospital), sa atin hindi kailangan gawin yun kasi may mga kamag-anak tayo” (“Here, you really see the resilience of Filipinos. In my job, we also clean the pods (in the hospital); back home, we don’t need to do that because we have relatives.”)

Officially Calling Australia His Home

Manifesting his dream to become a reality – Ivan was granted Australian citizenship and finally took oath last 30 August 2023, marking a significant milestone in his life.

“Noong 2021, sabi ko in 2023 dapat Australian citizen na ako. Ayun na nga!

Ivan Lee
Ivan Lee

Noong nag oath-taking na ako, sinabi ni Lord Mayor na magiging emotional ‘tong araw na ‘to. Tapos naisip ko oo nga ‘no, doon na biglang nag sink in lahat ng pinagdaanan ko, nag flashback lahat. Dati nagpa-plano pa lang ako kung paano tapos ngayon ito na.”

Staying humble and not forgetting how he started, Ivan has an advise to newcomers… 

“Para doon sa mga bagong dating, minsan talaga hindi mo agad makukuha yung trabaho na gusto mo – magsisimula ka talaga minsan mag trabaho as cleaner, waiter sa restaurant, o kaya sa retail. May frustrations talaga. Okay lang yun, yung mga maiipon mo dun, gamitin mo yun para sa kung ano man yung susunod mo na goal. Ang mahalaga andito ka na sa Australia dahil hindi lahat nagkaka opportunity na pumunta dito. Mag pray lang and have faith.”

Indeed, each person has their own unique journey to tell and diskarte in pursuit of a better future. For whatever situation you are in at this moment – take each lesson and value with you, and trust that each step of the way is a preparation for the greater things that you are yet to achieve.

Kimberly Mitchiko
Kimberly Mitchiko
Kimberly Mitchiko is the recipient of the International Student of the Year (Vocational Education) at the Victorian International Education Awards 2020. Connect with her on Instagram @kimbrlymitchiko for food and life in Melbourne.

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