29.09.2021, 17:14

When Studying Abroad Doesn’t Turn Out The Way You’d Hoped

Away From Home compiles meaningful little reflections close to the heart of the international student experience. 

With the expansion of globalization, traveling has become easier than ever. More and more students now dream of studying abroad. For them, it is a chance for them to live an independent life, make new friends, learn new cultures and perspectives and think outside the box. 

Generally, the whole process sounds like a dream come true. However, as every coin has its two sides, studying abroad is no exception. There are many Vietnamese students who came to new countries, were mentally unprepared, and thus decided to go back to Vietnam because they couldn’t fit into the host cultures. 

Don’t get me wrong, studying abroad is a fantastic way for self-development and to explore the world around you while earning a university degree. Most universities offer a wide variety of programs that can take you almost anywhere around the globe. The months leading up to your departure are filled with preparation, excitement and overpacking. But no matter how much you prepare, there will always be the dark side of studying abroad that you can only experience once setting foot in the new country. 

As international students are those who know the most about how it feels to adjust to a new destination, or suffer from cultural shock and homesickness when away from home, Viecetera sought an insider perspective from Gia Linh, a 21-year-old senior at Monash University, Melbourne. 

The transition from excitement to homesickness is commonly experienced by international students. | Source: Shutterstock

“What could possibly go wrong?”

Gia Linh started her journey as an international student in 2019. Months before Linh’s departure, she was given much advice and many suggestions on how to be aware of culture shock and how to manage it. “I arrived at Tullamarine Airport in February, with a clear culture shock model in my head. I was supposed to go through a six-month honeymoon phase where everything would look cool, interesting and exciting. After that, the frustration phase would come when I have to face the conflict between values internally. If this stage were handled successfully, I would have accepted diversity and integrated it properly. I had a model, what could possibly go wrong?” Linh says. 

Just like any international student, she had been living for the departure day for months, counting down for weeks to start a new life in Melbourne, one of the world’s most livable cities. For her, the nauseating mix of emotions, the concerns and excitements when she was at Tan Son Nhat International Airport were still very vivid. “I still remember very clearly how emotional I was saying goodbye to my friends and giving my family one last hug before I headed to the check-in area. I was sad to leave home but that feeling was mostly swamped by the joy that I was finally going,” said Linh. 

Yet, it wasn’t long until her excitement and curiosity turned into actual feelings of homesickness. “A month after my arrival, I started to miss my family, my previous connections. Even worse, I missed everything that I once complained about Saigon, the streets filled with motorbikes during rush hours, the noisiness of people singing karaoke in the middle of the night, the rustling way of living and the extreme heat became something I longed for in the freeze of Australian July,” she says. 

The feeling that the host culture is very different from home makes international students feel “out of place” and have difficulties with integration. | Source: Shutterstock

“I feel like I’m an outsider”

While the causes for homesickness vary, many researchers have indicated that it is related to societal cultures in the host location. The feeling that the host culture is very distant and different from home makes international students feel “out of place” and have difficulties with integration. Another reason would be the loss of reference points - the absence of familiar uses and faces, which can lead to a conflict of identity, disorientation, misunderstanding and interpersonal conflict. Naturally, these all lead to missing the home country with its comfortable and understandable practices. 

“Never have I thought that the cultural differences between one country and another could have a huge influence when I tried to adapt to Melbourne,” Linh says. “Born and raised in Vietnam, I have learned about non-verbal communication and collectivistic values that prioritize relationships. With Vietnamese people, I think it is easier to develop interpersonal relationships. With the locals, their individualistic values, assumptions and direct communication are so different that I found it almost impossible to overcome.”

“On reflection, I also faced a conflict of values as I was trying too hard to be open and appreciative to the local culture so that I could make new friends during my first months in Melbourne. There were so many things I didn’t like but had to pretend that I like them. The more I try, the more I feel like I’m an outsider.”

Homesickness doesn't only occur in the first months after Linh came to Australia. “Even when I have lived here for almost three years now, I constantly found myself homesick whenever I’m on my way home from work, walking through the silent streets during those cold nights, or when I was stressing out while studying for my final exams right at the middle of New Year Eve’s, a time when you are supposed to be gathering around your family,” said Linh. 

“The recent lockdown in Melbourne and Saigon makes my homesickness worse. After months of seemingly normal life, I’m not quite expected to go back into another lockdown,” Linh says. “I’m generally an over-thinker. More time at home means that I have more time to read the news and then overthink what could possibly happen to my parents as Saigon is badly hit by the Delta variant.”

Making friends with different cultural backgrounds allows student to expand their worldviews, which in turn strengthen their ability to adapt. | Source: Shutterstock

“Resilience is the key to overcoming homesickness”

For young people who dream of studying abroad, Linh suggests that “as rewarding as it was to study abroad, it’s better to be mentally prepared that the journey would be no easy. Every individual will face homesickness or culture shock differently and the impact it has on feelings is highly unpredictable.” 

“Resilience is key to overcoming homesickness,” Linh says. “The most important elements in my journey were developing friendships in my area, staying in touch with family and friends back home, and traveling to get to know places better.”

“I made good friends along the journey, who were there when I was in my bad days and cheered me up. The blessing of knowing people from many cultural backgrounds taught me some of the ways of thinking in this new society, thus strengthening my adaptation and communication skills,” said Linh. 

“I also found great local supermarkets and shops, explored the beaches, and even discovered my favorite brunch spot,” she says with excitement. “The more I go, the more open I am towards different perspectives. There’s no point justifying the cultural context or people’s backgrounds, you just have to be willing to accept the cultural differences around you.”

“Being a local in Vietnam for most of my life taught me some great skills of complaining, and thinking that the grass would be greener in other countries,” said Linh. “Being abroad has given me the chance to see that no country is perfect. Both Vietnam and Australia have different positive angles that could enrich my perspectives, and I’m proud to be a part of.”

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