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Students urge others to withhold judgment when they encounter culture shock and be open to learning about cultural differences

landscape shot of girl wearing white BYUH seasider shirt with red lettering; she is sitting on the grass with the blue sky and palm trees behind her. Her arm is extended with a spam musubi in her hand and a frown on her face.
Lydia Wilson demonstrating how one might be unfamiliar with Spam musubi.

On a campus with students representing more than 70 countries, BYU–Hawaii students said they are no strangers to experiencing culture shock, but acknowledging differences, embracing practices and finding similarities are essential to getting over the shock.

An article from Brown University says most people who move to a new country or new location within a country experience some form of difficulty adjusting to the new culture. This discomfort is commonly referred to as “culture shock,” explains the article.

Acknowledge differences

Siwoo Park, a sophomore from Gwangju, Korea, majoring in vocal performance, said Americans’ courteous phrases surprised her when she arrived in Hawaii. “Everybody blessed me when I sneezed,” she explained with a smile, emphasizing how because Koreans don’t typically do that, she didn’t know how to react.

She said she was also confused when people in Hawaii would apologize for small things like passing by her or when she told them an unfortunate story about herself, such as when she was late to class. At first, when people would casually apologize to her, she said she would emphatically assure them, “Oh no, it’s not your fault!”

Park explained, “In Korea, [they] don’t have those phrases” and added people only say they’re sorry when they sincerely mean it.

Living in Libya as a child also brought some cultured shock, Park said. While she was there, she explained the town celebrated Eid Al-Adha, which Andrew Webb on Culture Trip says is a Muslim Festival to celebrate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Families butcher a sheep and use it for a big feast later that week, Webb explains.

Park said she watched the sheep’s head be cut off when she was only 10 years old. “I saw the blood and [the sheep was] screaming,” she described. “It was really, truly a culture shock.” Although the sheep was delicious to eat, she said she still hasn’t quite gotten over the shock, even after all these years.

She said she knew the culture in the United States would be different than what she was used to, so she prepared by watching the American sitcom “Friends.”

Once she acknowledges cultural differences, she said she tries not to question or get upset over how people behave. “If I face culture shock, I think, ‘[People] are different. [They] all have different personalities.’”

landscape photo of woman with curly black hair wearing a white t-shirt with red lettering that reads "BYUH Seasider" and sitting on the green grass with blue sky and palm trees in the background as she takes a bite into a spam musubi
Wilson demonstrating trying to eat Spam musubi despite unfamiliarity.

Embrace practices

Lydia Wilson, a sophomore from Suva, Fiji, majoring in business management, said she experienced culture shock when serving a full-time mission in the Marshall Islands because she expected the Marshallese island life to be similar to what she was accustomed to in Fiji. Instead, she said she found the culture and mannerisms of the people she served were far from what she expected.

To get over the shock, Wilson said, “I told myself I needed to be like them, to think like them and to try to understand them.” Though it was against her nature, she said she started to talk like the Marshallese people, sit like them and make rice balls with her hands.

She stopped questioning why they acted the way they did and mirrored it instead, she said. As she adopted Marshallese mannerisms, she said the people she served accepted her and she became a crowd favorite.

Wilson said to overcome culture shock, people need to accept themselves and their culture and then accept and respect the culture around them. “Be aware of the people around and accept them for who they are,” she suggested.

Williams said students should be careful to not let themselves be victims of culture shock by not letting it stop them from accepting and learning the culture around them. “[I] can’t be a Fijian in Hawaii without becoming aware of Hawaiian traditions and culture,” she explained.

Find similarities

Hadlee Charlton, a freshman from Mountain Green, Utah, majoring in elementary education, said when she first came to BYUH, she was shocked by the high concentration of different cultures she had never been exposed to before.

She said she expected to experience different cultures on campus, but explained, “I don’t think [people] can really predict how it’s going to affect [them]. [They’re] thrown into it and immersed in it all at once.”

landscape shot of woman in white shirt with curly black hair sitting on the green lawn of BYUH campus and smiling after taking a bite into a spam musubi which she is holding in both of her hands
Wilson enjoying a Spam musubi.

She said one day a classmate spoke about an American mannerism that is offensive in his culture, which triggered a moment for her to recognize her limited perspective and acknowledge how big the world is.

Though it was shocking at first, she said she appreciates the culture she’s experienced since coming to BYUH. “I’ve learned so much about other people, the world and myself. It’s caused me to reflect on my own culture and see the world with a bigger perspective than what I was limited to before I came here.”

She said students can find peace amidst culture shock by embracing their situation and being curious. “If [they] hear something that is a little bit of a shocker,” she advised students to “ask questions and try to understand.”

Charlton said if students worry about their differences from others, they will just stress themselves out. She recommended students try to focus on their similarities rather than their differences. She said she believes it is possible to find at least one similarity with every person they meet. •