There are a lot of noticeable differences when coming to a country that is not your own for the first time. There are different languages to adjust to, different currency to deal with, and even the different ways of conducting day-to-day activities has to be accounted for. Among these major differences, sometimes the subtle ones are the most interesting to observe. For our first semester students at the Intensive English Institute (IEI), it’s the little things in their daily lives here that stick out most from life back in their home countries.
Jungwon Shin and her friend, Juyoung Park from Korea, explain the “strange” things they’ve encountered in America in their time here so far. These things range from how school is conducted to how American grocery stores work.
“Here, if I go to the market, they give free plastic bags, but in Korea, we pay for the plastic bags,” she said.
Juyoung also mentioned that the Americans he has interacted with so far are much more touchy than Koreans when they first meet. When he met his brother’s acquaintance for the first time, the girl immediately gave Juyoung a hug, which is generally uncommon in his Korean background.
“I have two people to hug in Korea: my girlfriend and my grandma—that’s all,” Park said.
The eager greetings of Americans stuck out to Renata Zakirova of Russia, as well. She noticed right away that Americans she’s encountered typically smile often, even to strangers.
“One of the first things I noticed is that Americans always smile in different situations. When you go to the market, or [go] shopping, or visit the doctor, they always smile,” Zakirova said.
These little differences might not amount to much, but for culture shock, big or small, the IEI creates programs to ease this adjustment of living in America for the first time.
The first week before classes begin, new students are required to go through an orientation at the IEI. During orientation, faculty inform students about what their experience studying at the IEI, and in America in general, might look like. Here, some cultural differences are explained, too, so that these subtle differences will be easier to detect for the students. For example, there was a brief seminar at this year’s orientation about what appropriate distances look like while having simple conversations. Through this, students were able to engage in other people’s cultures by seeing what appropriate speaking distances are like among men and women in Kazakhstan, China, and Korea, to name a few.
As the semester progresses, activities held by the IEI interns have also aided in the cultural transition. Interns host things like volunteering and cooking nights so that students have a chance to engage in new experiences. They learn from others in fun and creative ways.
One thing that helped generate conversation about the culture shock students encountered was the first IEI ChitChat. ChitChats are monthly events where students practice their English through discussing certain topics. The first ChitChat topic of the year was about the cultural differences students experienced so far in their time here. They had a safe space to discuss their time here and how they were feeling so far, as well.
“It seemed like an appropriate first topic because they had been in the States for a few weeks. Just to be able to answer any questions they might have had about weird cultural things they might have seen seemed helpful,” Matt Koch, an IEI intern said when referring to why he helped choose this topic as the initial ChitChat theme.
Answering questions and engaging in a new culture around them has been quite an experience so far for the new IEI students. Throughout the rest of the semester, continuing to learn from each other is just an added benefit to studying English in the United States.
As Renata says, “Studying [here at the IEI] has helped me. I get to meet different people from different countries and different cultures.” Hopefully throughout the rest of the semester, students can continue immersing themselves in these new cultures and experiences around them. English won’t be the only thing they learn here at the IEI.
Written by IEI Intern Maria Rubin De Celis