When I agreed to become a “Trailing Spouse“, “Expat Wife” etc. I let my natural optimism carry me. I looked forward to change, new opportunities, seeing more of the world. I was excited. I knew there would be homesickness to deal with. This was not the first time I had left one country for another, but this time it was my decision and I had clear-cut reasons to recall in times of difficulty, to remind myself why I was here and what the alternative was.
Oh yes! You could say I am the Queen of Naive Thinking!
K had worked abroad before, while the children and I stayed behind in the UK. I could never get away from the feeling that we should all be together while we could. No one knows what the future holds and I didn’t want to squander our time living apart in a funk of melancholy. This time we were staying together, even if things got tougher as a result.
The first three or four months in our new surroundings were great, we enjoyed the end of a beautiful summer, swimming in the lake and exploring the trails around where we lived. All the differences we encountered were entertaining (Ooooh, those funny Canadians!) and the learning experience was invigorating. We were in the honeymoon period.
With winters approach came the mood swings – feelings of insignificance, questions of purpose. I’m sure I must have driven my new friends up the wall with my constant comparisons with things “back home”. You develop an “us and them” mentality. It almost feels like you’re under siege – I know it sounds stupid but that’s the best way to describe it, especially when I used to look out the window and see all those lucky b******s with cars!
Or, conversely, it’s like being on the outside, looking in. If culture is the shared reality of a group of people, then the expat inhabits a parallel reality, they’re in the same place but see everything differently. There are so many subtle differences in communication, the way things are said, implied or referred to. Vocal inflections and body-language are different, even though the language may be the same. We often found ourselves wishing Canadians would just say it straight. Browsing through expat forums has shown me that this is a common feeling among expats whichever country they’re in. It takes time to re-learn how to “read” people.
I never regretted my decision but I sorely missed my home and my place in that home. I hung on to packaging from the UK, a Birds Custard box, a box from a brand of baby milk we couldn’t get here, and read the phone numbers and addresses on the back, relishing the familiar formula of postcodes and numbers.
I felt as though I were in limbo; how could I live here not knowing if we would still be here in 3 yrs time? How could I suspend living my life fully until we had truly settled somewhere? I’m an all-or-nothing person, and I wished I could either put down roots or decide where we were going in the coming years, so I had a plan to work to, one way or the other. This “flying by the seat of your pants” thing was difficult! I yearned for the (rose-tinted?) certainties and familiarities of home, at the same time, knowing full well that if I was there I wouldn’t feel the scope for potential that I felt in Canada. Instead I knew I would feel disappointed. It seemed there was no pleasing me.
I remained a po-faced, contrary cow until spring. Then I started to feel more positive. This summer, following our Canniversary in July/August, I finally confided to my husband with certainty, that I didn’t want to go back to Britain. Well, you can’t live somewhere just because they have a huge Sainsbury’s, can you! I had just emerged into the last stage of Culture-shock. What relief for me, my friends and family!
Culture-shock is the name given to the difficulty people have adjusting to a new culture. It often masquerades as homesickness, but there’s more to it than that. The adjustments occurring on so many levels, resemble the layers of an onion. Below is a list of symptoms. Most expatriates will suffer from one or more in various forms during their first few months in a new country.
- Idealizing the home culture
- Stereotyping host culture nationals
- Dissatisfaction with life in general
- Loss of sense of humour
- Sense of isolation, withdrawal from society
- Overwhelming and irrational fears related to the host country
- Irritability, resentment
- Family conflict
- Loss of identity
- Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
- Negative self-image
- Developing obsessions (health, cleanliness)
- Cognitive fogginess, lack of concentration
This assault on a person’s emotional defences is not surprising when you consider that when you move abroad you lose everything that seemed to distinguish you as a person, family, friends, community, and, often for expat wives, career. You become unknown, anonymous, rootless. The connections you had to the world around you have all been severed because the cultural environment has changed. You are in a period of transition and disorientation.
- Honeymoon: In this stage, the expatriate views the new surroundings with a tourist’s perspective. There is a sense of euphoria because everything is new and exciting. All the differences are either quaint or funny – not annoying……YET!
- Rejection: Oberg referred to this as the “crisis” stage. The expat begins to notice things in the new culture that don’t make sense. (Hahaha, how long was my list!) This disorientation leads to hostility toward the culture and its people, because nothing is the way it “should” be, and the expat feels confused and helpless.
- Regression: Once the host culture is rejected, the expat reverts to the familiar comfort of the home culture, which is now seen through rose-coloured glasses. (That conversation you have with your spouse, where you list the improvements from your home country that the new country should implement to become better!) The expatriate complains constantly, and chooses to remain isolated from the host culture.
- Recovery: Finally, the feelings of isolation begin to decrease. The expat feels more comfortable and in control of life in the new environment. With equilibrium restored, acceptance of the situation is now possible. (And also, retrospective appreciation of what a patronising, insufferable, pain in the arse you’ve been over the past few months!)
Obviously, one person’s experience will differ from another’s, but, broadly speaking, that’s what it’s all about! Part of my struggle to make sense of who I was in this new place involved cutting off my hair – a decision I quickly regretted, having spent years growing it, but, it showed my husband I had the minerals to go through with it – he didn’t think I would! Plus it gave me something else to grieve over, so the bigger stuff passed by while I was agonising over my hair!
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of grief, some people find that the Kubler Ross model of the 5 Stages of Grief is a good reflection of the emotional rollercoaster immigration induces. So, there you go – the lowdown on the flipside of expat life! And to think, some people spend a lifetime doing this…
- Square peg in a round hole? Get used to it… you’re an expat. (expatlog.com)
- Culture shock or honeymoon? (tulipanmalaga.com)