Lost in Translation: Culture Shock while Studying Abroad


Tottori, Japan where Jerome Couture spent most of the year studying abroad.


Jerome Couture’s eight months abroad in Japan didn’t end up being as delightful as he expected them to be.

After months of planning and thousands of dollars spent in tuition, travel and lodging fees, Couture is returning home to Toronto disappointed with his time spent overseas.

Mostly because of the extreme culture shock and language barrier he was challenged with.

“When you’re in a country that does not have English, or whatever your native language is, it’s really difficult to adjust,” Couture said. “It’s kind of lonely.”

Culture shock, is defined as the disorientation a person might feel when immersed in new environments that are unfamiliar to them. It’s something that happens in varying degree to most students who go abroad. And in cases like Couture’s, it can be enough to ruin the traveling abroad experience.

A portion of his time was spent at Tottori University, which is located in the country side. The city is known for being one of the last populous cities in Japan. Not many residents spoke English. Because of this, Couture found it difficult to make friends. Of the people he did make friends with, most of them were English speaking international students like himself.

Once he started his internship, Couture found another difference in work culture. In Japan, most businesses practice hou-ren-sou, which, when translated, is short for “reporting, informing and consulting”. Essentially, it means that an employee has to check in with his peers and superiors on any and all tasks he takes on.

“You have to be communicating with everyone all the time about what you’re doing,” Couture said. “Whereas in the west you just sit down, do your work and meet your deadline.”

He wasn’t able to communicate as effectively because of the language barrier, and as a result, ended up feeling alienated at work.

While Couture’s case might be an extreme example, culture shock is something almost every student who goes abroad encounters. It’s something Martin Chochinov, an international exchange adviser at Ryerson, sees time and time again.

“Everybody I talk to sort of laughs it off and they think it’s not going to happen,” he said. “But it happens to almost every student I talk to and they’re always really surprised it happens.”

Chochinov says that most students who choose to study abroad are experienced travellers. But there’s a huge difference between a vacation and a semester overseas.

“The difference is that you’re not there on vacation for two weeks you’re moving to a different country and immersing yourself in a culture for close to six months,” Chochinov said.

“If I sat and talked to you about what it’s like to live in Newport, Wales we could sit and talk for two hours,” he said. “I’ve been there a number of times but I don’t know what the day-to-day is. I don’t know what good it would do.”

Chochinov said that it’s difficult to prepare for culture shock. Research helps, but won’t prepare you completely for the experience. But even if you do experience it, Chochinov offers the comfort that most students are able to work through it.

“You’re on your own. You’re out there in the world and you’re dealing with the day-to-day things,” he said. “[Culture shock] is short lived. Students adapt. It’s human nature to adapt.”