Unshock the Culture Shocks: An International Student’s Journey

Toto, a first-year IEDP student from Thailand, is interested in curriculum development and implementation. (You can find an introduction directly from Toto here!)


Under many circumstances, there is no right or wrong; it’s just that our ways of conducting ourselves are different.

The above quote is a lesson I have learned so far in life. I am not Chinese; I am from Bangkok, Thailand, a country in Southeast Asia resembling a shape of an ax. Walking into Penn GSE, I, like many others, carry a bunch of labels on my shoulder. But here at Penn GSE, we are – above all – IEDPers.

The purpose of this piece is to share my experiences – not to generalize, instruct, or dictate in any way.

Here are a few of the cultural quirks that I’ve experienced so far during my time in the U.S. Reader shock levels may vary, depending on where you’re reading this.

“How are you?” as a greeting

Let’s start with the language: English. I feel comfortable using English to communicate. However, I’ve noticed certain nuances to American English that can make us (international students) feel slightly awkward.

For example, in Thai or Chinese, we usually don’t ask “how are you?” We are often out of adjectives to respond to the question and end up responding either “I’m fine” or “I’m good.”

Americans, on the other hand, frequently greet you by saying “how are you?” without stopping for you to answer the question. For those of us speaking English as a foreign language, this may take some time to get used to. It’s more of a package deal where someone will say “Hey! How are you?” and then immediately segue into something else.

Also, brace yourself for hugs. They are contagious here.

$2.00 plastic water bottles

On my first day in Philadelphia, after a $6.00 luggage trolley incident at the airport (yes, prepare some cash to travel with!), I stood in front of the fridge in a supermarket trying to gather the courage to purchase a $2.00 bottle of water.

This was unexpected – a water bottle costs about $0.30 in Thailand. $2.00 can often pay for a decent meal back home – maybe in yours, too.

My advice: bring at least one reusable water bottle with you. Brita sells popular water filters, which makes it easy to fill up your water bottle at home before heading to class. That said, the tap water here is generally safe to drink – but take a sip first before gulping it down.

Restaurant bills – $15 worth of food will not cost you $15.

A bill from my favorite Chinese place. Do the math.

The next adjustment: tipping in the U.S. How do you tip waiters/waitresses back home? After five months in the States, I’m still moderately shocked by the tipping culture here.

When you eat out at a restaurant, you’ll be expected to pay both taxes and a tip on top of the cost of your food.

Back home, regardless of the size of the bill, we tip $2.00 at most. Here, gratuity is typically 18%. A meal itself might cost $15.00, but with tax and tip, it could quickly jump to more than $20.00.

There are, of course, reasons for this, but it’s something you’ll need to understand and get used to.

Many international students chose to cook at home in order to save money. Unfortunately for me, setting the kitchen on fire would cost much more than dining out.

My biggest cultural shock: Shoes in the home

One of my roommate’s shoes. Guess where the other one is.

Wearing shoes in the house is a hard no in my culture. The first time I realized that someone was wearing shoes inside their home, my eyes were wide with shock (not unlike you might have looked if someone had told you that COVID-19 would actually turn out to be COVID-19-20-21-22).

Perplexed would be a huge understatement for this: Learning that it is considered normal for people to wear their shoes inside their home is complete and total culture shock.

I’m doing my best to understand this, but having grown up in Thailand I will never, ever be able to condone this practice. I’ve learned to always take my shoes off before stepping a foot inside the house – If I don’t, my mom will shout reminders at me.

Here, people often wear shoes in their home – from their doorstep all the way to bed.

If you are like me and have a roommate who wears their shoes in your shared space, this may be a topic of negotiation.

The City of Brotherly Love

The world is full of differences – including here in Philadelphia (nicknamed the City of Brotherly Love). We share sidewalks, buses, and subways with people from across the world with diverse perspectives and opinions. Conversations can happen with anybody, anywhere, at any time.

This is not to alarm you my dear readers: In fact, this is one of the benefits of living in the city. It’s also important to be mindful of where you are and to be vigilant at all times, particularly as you’re learning your way around your new home.

As the title suggests, the cultural shocks that I am describing are things that are practiced and perceived differently than the practices in my home country. What I’ve described may not be shocking to some readers, depending on your context.

And while I have definitely experienced cultural shocks during my first five months in the U.S., these should not be perceived as blocks or barriers to living here.

After all: In differences, we coexist.

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