Insufficient attention has been given to the role of cultural differences in feedback communication with the UK’s increasingly internationalised student body. This issue is particularly significant for international students taking short – one-year – postgraduate taught courses and we illustrate this in a study of Chinese students at a UK university. We draw on Holliday’s notion of ‘small cultures’ and Berry’s model of cultural adaptation to analyse how they perceive, react to and gradually adapt to the provision of formative feedback as a key aspect of the new academic culture. Our data reveal that such feedback presents the students with cognitive challenges and psychological and emotional struggles, especially in the early months of their courses. Avoiding culturally essentialist explanations for this, we focus on differences in the ‘small cultures’ of academia in China and the UK. Feedback is not only a part of the new academic culture itself, but can act as a bridge between norms, rules and practices of the two cultures. This bridge is often poorly constructed. Tutors need to be more aware of the nature and sources of stress that such students face and to which feedback may often be adding rather than contributing to enhanced learning.