Navigating Culture Shocks as an International Student

By Samirah Jaigirdar, MTS ’24

Editor’s Note: In this post, HDS Admissions Graduate Assistant, Samirah Jaigirdar shares her experiences navigating cultural differences between the places she’s lived in the United States, eSwatini, and Bangladesh. Samirah also gives advice to international students who might be navigating a similar position.

When I came to the US for my undergraduate degree at Connecticut College in 2018, I was convinced that I would not experience culture shock. Previously, I had attended an international boarding school in eSwatini, in Southern Africa, so I had plenty of experience living far away from home. I am from Dhaka, Bangladesh and moving to Mbabane, eSwatini was quite the adjustment. In particular, adjusting to from a Bangladeshi food palate to an emaSwati one was difficult, but it helped that I love sampling new types of food! This resulted in me learning to love braai (South African style BBQ) and pap, a traditional porridge/polenta made from mielie-meal. I had heard from prior graduates of my high school in Eswatini that most international students take some time to adjust to the new kinds of food when they first arrive in the US. I assumed that I’d be prepared, given my move from Bangladesh, but it was admittedly still a huge adventure discovering ranch (which in my unashamed opinion is the best condiment) and brussel sprouts.  

Before moving to Connecticut, I thought my experience living abroad compounded by hours of consuming American movies and TV shows had well-prepared me to handle anything and everything “different” the US could throw at me. Wow was I wrong. This is my fifth year in the US, and sometimes I am still shocked by the cultural differences between Bangladesh, eSwatini, and the US.

So, what surprised me the most? When I think of “major culture shock moments” three things immediately come to mind: dialectical differences, sidewalks, and credit scores.  

I’m always most shocked to learn about the ways that the English lexicon are different here in the US from what I heard growing up. I grew up in Bangladesh, where the English dialect we learn is highly influenced by British English, due to the Indian subcontinent’s colonial legacy. For example, I grew up using words like “anti-clockwise” instead of “counterclockwise,” “fire brigade” instead of the “fire department,” and “pavement” instead of the “sidewalk.” Also, there are several phrases that Bangladeshis specifically have incorporated into their English dialect, such as “upside-down” which I found out (after much confusion) means “inside-out” here.  

An amusing incident that happened a couple of days ago was when I was discussing how I visited the ED (emergency department) with my friend, and fellow GA, Kat. She was extremely confused about what I was talking about till I clarified that “the ED” is slang back home for the emergency room. I’m always surprised by how frequently these small but significant lexical differences come up in conversation! While many lexical differences bring laughter to a light-hearted moment, not all culture shock moments are as amusing. There have been numerous times when I have struggled to get my point across, or I’ve forgotten a word mid-sentence. These moments are disheartening, but I feel incredibly accomplished once I break through the barrier. 

I was also extremely shocked to find out that people walk on the other side of the street here! This one still trips me up, literally and figuratively. Everyone walks on the right side here, but at home we all walk on the left. I believe this is related to the direction one drives in. In Bangladesh, we drive on the right side, so we walk on the left, and it is the opposite here. My first year, I bumped into many people as I charged down the sidewalk on the wrong side. Sometimes, I still do! On the sidewalk, it is manageable as I can easily move when I notice I’m on the wrong side, but it’s gotten a little tricky when I am running down the stairs, completely disoriented, to catch the T and the local Bostonians are befuddled!  

My most recent jarring moment occurred when I found out what a credit score is and how it affects any substantial financial decision I take here. I am incredibly lucky that Harvard has a housing option for graduate students as otherwise, trying to find a place to rent without a credit score would have been a nightmare. Generally, landlords prefer people to have high credit scores, so that it can be assured that the potential renter can pay the monthly rent throughout the length of their lease. Unfortunately, most international students do not have a credit score as we are not eligible for credit cards in the US (unless you previously had a full-time job). So having the option of Harvard Housing was extremely useful for me and my roommate, who is also an international student. Because I avoided having to utilize a credit score for housing, I’m still not confident that I understand exactly what a credit score is. But I’m planning to figure that out as soon as this semester’s finals are over!  

Although being an international student often means navigating language barriers and unfamiliar processes, I ultimately wouldn’t trade my experience for anything – The lighthearted moments where things get lost in translation break up the monotonous pace of academics, and the more difficult moments serve as an opportunity to learn about a culture different from the one I grew up in. I’d tell prospective international students to prepare themselves, as these culture shock moments can be jarring. However, they have been a meaningful part of shaping my experience as an international student making my way through New England and the US. 

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