Culture Shock: 6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Australia

When I first arrived in Australia in July 2014 for a one-year study program, I was exposed to a new culture and way of life. It felt exciting at first, but the longer I stayed, the more often I had moments when I felt lost and unsure.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of what culture shock was. It was only when I returned in July 2019 and encountered more international students throughout my three-and-a-half-year PhD, when I discovered the various aspects of culture shock.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is the feeling of being disoriented while being exposed to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. Often, there are four culture shock stages: the honeymoon stage (euphoria/excitement); culture shock/crisis (frustration); adjustment stage (recovery); mastery (comfortable, acceptance, biculturalism).

Culture shock is not always negative—the feeling of experiencing new and unexpected things in a new country can be great—however, it can help you adapt to the ups and downs when you know what to expect. Here are six things I wish I knew before moving to Australia, and some tips to help overcome culture shock if you experience it too.

1. An informal way of addressing people

One of the biggest and earliest culture shock moments that I experienced was not having to address my seniors with titles. In my home country, we are expected to call our elders and seniors by their titles, and not having to do that in Australia felt strange . I addressed my lecturers and professors by their titles at first, but they eventually asked me to call them by their first names. I recommend doing that from the beginning and not feeling awkward about it. Remember that you don’t need to seek permission before calling people by their first names in Australia.

2. Drinking culture

While I was staying on campus during my undergraduate study, there used to be a lot of house parties. With that came a lot of alcohol consumptionsomething I was not used to. As a whole, Australians are responsible drinkers – they avoid driving while doing so, and they tend not to impose their drinking habits on you. So, if you are not a drinker, it’s okay and you don ‘t need to feel the pressure of doing so.

3. Weather extremes

Coming from a tropical country, I initially found the weather in Australia quite shocking, and it didn’t help that I arrived in winter. One piece of advice I would share is to make sure that you have one good windcheater and a jumper to stay warm. Waterproof boots are also a fantastic investment. In contrast, in the summer it gets extremely hot.

However, the weather can be very different in each state. For instance, in Victoria and Tasmania, it’s very common to experience four seasons in a day, while in the far north it is more tropical. So be prepared for all kinds of weather and make sure you have the right clothes.

4. Learning culture

Australia’s learning culture also has a few key differences compared to other parts of the world. In general, you are expected to think independently, which encourages critical and creative thinking. The assessment is also different, with more assignments rather than exams or group assignments. Plagiarism policies are also very strict and as a result, there is a strong emphasis on referencing. If you find this culture of learning hard to adapt to, seek support from your educational institutions, as they often have services, such as learning centres and writing centres.

5. Dating and sex culture

Another contrast I found in Australian culture is the way dating and relationships work. Dating in Australia is almost as casual as everything else. Going out with someone could be something as simple as getting a coffee or going to the pub together. It’s also worth knowing that the Australian dating culture is very progressive, accepting and inclusive. If you find certain things unsuitable for you, you should express your views to the person you are dating.

I found out early on that sex is not a taboo topic in Australia. People commonly speak to their close friends about sex, and there is a lot of awareness about sexuality and consent. I was quite surprised at first, but then I came to appreciate it, as sex education and open conversations about one’s sexual development and safe practices seem to be lacking where I am from. This is probably a good example of reverse culture shock, as normalising this conversation is important.

6. Food culture

The most common foods in Australia include barbecues, meat pies, and pub food such as fish and chips, burgers, and chicken parmigiana. There’s also a lot of tomato sauce involved!

I was most taken aback by many of the strange names. Once, a local asked me if I wanted to have a ‘melting moment’. I refused, as I was not in the mood to cry, but the local laughed and pointed at a cookie. Australia has a lot of food with names that seem uncanny, like Vegemite (a salty savoury spread), Fairy Bread (colourful sugar sprinkles on buttered white bread), and Frog in a Pond (chocolate frog in green jelly). But once you get used to the names, it can be fun to try something new!

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Jorge Oliveira

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