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Advice and support for your academic journey.

Are you studying for a PhD abroad? Are you worried about integrating meaningfully into your PhD life in a different country? In this article, Dai Wenqi explores how to socialise and adapt to a new culture during your PhD abroad, providing advice from her lived experiences to help you enjoy your doctoral life to the fullest. This includes respecting and engaging with the culture of your host country, learning the language (but forgo the pressure of perfect fluency), and leaning into your unique personal charm.

Many people nowadays choose to study overseas, including myself: I am a Chinese national doing my PhD in Malaysia 

For those who pursue a PhD in another country, we face several concerns, including worrying about whether you will be able to integrate into local life, and worrying about the difficulties you will encounter in getting along with people in a foreign country. This worry is not a solitary experience, and I know what it is like to be anxious. While studying for a PhD abroad in a foreign country, you will cross paths with people from different cultures. This intermingling of different cultures – while full of exciting opportunities – can also lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication due to different cultural backgrounds and differences in values. In this article, I offer suggestions from my own lived experiences on how to effectively socialize with people from different cultures.  

Respect the Host Culture

Respecting the culture of the country you are studying in is a crucial part of cross-cultural communication. Each country has its own unique cultural practices, including religious beliefs, customs, taboos and etiquette, which form an important part of local people’s lives. Therefore, we should avoid ridiculing, belittling, or ignoring the other person’s cultural background when interacting with them. For example, if you are studying in Japan, you may find that in Japanese social situations, people place a great deal of importance on courtesy and modesty. In this case, if you belittle these norms of etiquette, you may give others the impression that you do not respect the local culture. In Muslim countries, Islamic beliefs and practices form the center of daily life. If you don’t respect their religious beliefs, it can cause serious misunderstandings and conflicts and prevent you from building good relationships with others. 

It is also important to avoid imposing your cultural ideas on other people or trying to force them to change their cultural beliefs, ideas, or habits. Let go of old prejudices and respect the uniqueness of different cultures. For example, if you are studying for a PhD in China, you may find that Chinese people place great importance on family and social relationships. Based on that context, if you try to force the other person to accept concepts of individualism, it may adversely affect positive communication and learning. If you are planning to study in Korea, then you should be aware that in Korean culture it is very important to respect older people, and you should avoid addressing older people directly by name, and use honorifics where appropriate. You should also try to avoid direct contact with the head, as the head is considered the noblest part of the body in Korea. 

In the context of PhD supervision meetings where we might deal with mistakes or errors in our work, be aware that there is usually an open and direct approach in European countries that encourage you to openly admit mistakes and find solutions to problems, whereas in some Asian countries there may be a preference for private communication and a more tactful approach to problem-solving. Respect the culture wherever you are.

Engage with the Host Culture

As well as respecting the host country’s culture at the macro level, it is equally important to involve yourself in the host culture. Remember that there are often common values and beliefs that lie beneath the surface of the culture. Looking for these commonalities and following basic cultural norms can help us to better integrate into the social environment of our host country. 

At the same time, don’t just be a bystander. Before deciding to do a PhD in another country, knowing the culture of the other country in advance can help us integrate into the local life better and ‘do as the Romans do’. 

Experiencing the local culture by participating in collective community activities is an important way to understand and integrate into the culture of the country you are studying in, by participating in local festivals and celebrations, folklore events, or social gatherings. You can participate in traditional holiday celebrations and activities in your host country to experience the local traditional culture. You can participate in community volunteer work to contribute to the local community, or take part in art or sports activities that interest you and meet like-minded people. Participate in international student organizations or workshops and lectures at your school/faculty. Interacting with your local friends gives you a deeper understanding of other people’s lifestyles and values, and helps you to build closer and more harmonious relationships with them. 

Learn the Language of the Host Country

Although English is a universal language that plays an important role in cross-cultural communication, it is still necessary for us to learn the language of the host country we’re living in. Even learning enough to have a simple conversation makes it is easier to bring people closer to each other. Knowledge of the local language facilitates integration into local life and promotes understanding and contact. In the learning process, it is important to adapt communication styles to be friendly and easy to understand, sometimes forgoing flamboyant vocabulary in favour of simple and clear expressions. Effective communication ultimately lies in expressing oneself clearly. Even when verbal communication barriers arise, non-verbal communication methods such as gestures and facial expressions can be used to convey messages, as can a calm, courteous, and humble attitude. 

I remember that the first obstacle I encountered when I came to Malaysia for my PhD was due to the language. I clearly remember that one of the lectures that I was very interested in was in Malay (the national language of Malaysia), and even though modern translation softwares could help me partially, I still had a hard time trying to keep up with the instructor‘s pace of speech, not to mention some of the academic terms and concepts in that language. Even though I knew that the lecturer could speak English and that I could communicate with him in English, I was still hesitant to raise my hand; I wanted to strive for perfection, to speak to the instructor in smooth and fluent Malay, and I was afraid that people would look at me differently if my language wasn’t perfect. This was the first time I felt frustrated with myself since I was studying overseas. As the discussion progressed, I felt that I was becoming more and more distant from the students around me and my mood began deteriorating.

Because I really wanted to overcome this, I joined the school’s Malay language program, joined a group to learn Malay, and practiced with native speakers as much as possible. Although I may still not be fluent in Malay, my confidence has increased. This is because I realized that as a foreigner, even if you only greet people in simple language, the locals will still express surprise and appreciation at your attempts to speak the native language.

Be Confident in Your Unique Personal Charm

In intercultural communication, we should make use of our unique personal charms. Everyone has his or her unique characteristics and advantages. Maybe you are funny, brave, cheerful, or kind. These characteristics are what make us attractive in communicating with others. Therefore, we should be self-assured and express our thoughts and feelings confidently.  

One of the more significant cultural differences I encountered as a Chinese student doing a PhD in Malaysia was the hierarchical structure, or lack thereof, of supervisors and students. In China, the academic environment usually places a strong emphasis on respecting authority and deferring to senior scholars. Therefore, as a first-year PhD student, I was very formal when communicating with my advisor, sometimes I did not dare to contradict his views, and even if I had some of my own views, I did not dare take the initiative to express them. Later, I realized that the environment here is not the same as in China, where postgraduate students here in Malaysia are encouraged to have open discussions and debates with their supervisors, regardless of seniority and level. Over time, I gradually became more comfortable sharing my views, while still respecting the senior expertise of my advisor. And when I was able to be bold in expressing my ideas, my advisor was more positive about me and thought I was doing “better than he thought I would”. 

Each person is an individual with their own personality and characteristics. We need to avoid making generalizations about a group of people. We should not judge or categorize others based on stereotypes or prejudices. Even if they are positive, stereotypes are undesirable. We need to accept and understand the uniqueness of each person with an open mind so that we can build deeper and better relationships.  

Final Thoughts

When we arrive in a new country and enter a new cultural environment, our lives will inevitably change. This can bring both excitement and a sense of frustration or loss. Adapting to a new environment is a process that takes time and effort, but being proactive in intercultural communication can help us get through this period and reduce feelings of discouragement. Through keeping a positive attitude and making an effort, we will gradually increase our trust and sense of belonging in this new environment, and thus enjoy our overseas postgraduate life more. In this process, we will continue to learn and grow, we will become more resilient, and our ability to adapt will increase, which will prepare us for our doctoral life and beyond. Don’t worry, don’t be afraid to face difficulties, be brave and confident, and believe in your ability to overcome all obstacles. 

Let’s traverse a wider world together, communicate freely with friends from different countries, experience the richness and color of culture, and enjoy our doctoral life to the fullest. 

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