Adjustment & Culture Shock

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.

We’re new here! Can you tell?

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.

In the astute words of The Clash…”This indecision’s buggin’ me…”

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.

Po-faced cow…

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.

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Homesickness
  • 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
  • Depression

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.

There are popularly believed to be four phases to Culture-shock, as proposed by Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg:

 

    1. 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!

 

    1. 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.

 

    1. 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.

 

    1. 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!

BEFORE & AFTER

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…

 

Read more at Suite101: What is Culture Shock?

 

18 Comments

  1. Haha..loved your post…and both your long and short reddish hair…just in case you’re not sure, all those symptoms you mentioned above are the same whether you’re an expat or not…it could be SAD seasonal affective disorder, pms or life in general, so not to worry, it comes and goes..And as most people in a cold, very bitter cold climate would say..it’s cabin fever…

    Reply
    • Thanks Asha, wondered when I’d elicit a comment from you! At least if everyone is suffering with Cabin Fever, I won’t stand out like a sore thumb! There’s nothing like everyone being dysfunctional together!!!

      Reply
  2. I agree with Asha – most of us go through those sypmtoms no matter WHERE we live! I know I’ll be experiencing some of them again once our Canadian winter arrives again! At least this year you won’t be envious of “those people with cars”! XOXO

    Reply
    • This is true Monica! Though I’ll probably be too terrified of having an accident on the ice and making our insurance unaffordable to actually go out in the damn thing!
      One thing I found that helped me keep my difficulties in perspective was remembering, like you and Asha say, that other people have their own issues going on. No-one lives a fairy-tale life. But I have to say that although I know what depression is like, having experienced it for a number of years, when I moved to Canada, it was the first time since my treatment ended that I seriously began to wonder if I should be seeking out some help again. I made my GP aware of my situation and history and she urged me to make an appointment if I ever needed to talk. Somehow, just knowing I had that lifeline was enough. I got through without having to take her up on it. Although I was prepared for feeling homesick, the culture-shock was a more difficult experience than I had imagined…

      Reply
  3. Lovely post which accurately describes the feelings of alienation and – simultaneously – the feelings of contentment with a new life.

    Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  4. So, I’ve been an expat six times. And each and ever time I experienced feelings like the ones you described, and each time I was all, Culture shock, WUT? I do not haz it.
    Ha haha ha. The moral of this comment is that I am dumb.
    But also, I feel like for the next, I’ll be much better prepared. I’ll expect culture shock, recognize it, and accept it. Hopefully that’ll make it easier to manage. And then I’ll work on staying positive. Because regardless of where we live, there are always wonderful things to find in all the corners of this great wide world.
    Btw LOVE the hair. Gorge.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the hair compliment, Erica. God knows I need every confidence boost I can get! I figure by the end of the hat-wearing season that is now upon us, it will be starting to look halfway decent again.
      As for culture shock, I’m sure being aware of it helps to quell the urge to reach for the phone and call the men in white coats, but it still doesn’t make it any easier to get through. However prepared for it we think we are it will always manage to side-swipe all our defences. Like you say, we just have to concentrate on the positives, or change our perception. And we’re not dumb, we just manage to remain open and sensitive to the unbearable lightness of being in a new place rather than becoming closed and rigid in our world-view. Change is like childbirth. The process is painful, but the result alters us so that we could never go back to how we were before. There is always something to be gained :-)

      Reply
  5. It’s so interesting reading things from a ‘new’ expat’s point of view! I never really thought of it like that, so your article was a good eye opener. I’m the opposite. Because I grew up my entire life as an expat, I actually find it hard settling down within one culture! I used to ‘look down’ on the expats I lived with in Dubai as they tended to stick together within their own cultures (the Brits only socialised with other Brits, the Swedes with Swedes, Canadians with Canadians, etc), and I used to unjustly label them as “closed” or “narrow-minded”. But then I noticed something about myself: I am exactly like them, but on the other side of the fence! I always tend to have international friends. I find it really hard settling into a ‘homogenous’ society, and no matter what country I’ve lived in, have always sought out other expats and we formed our own little group of expats from different nationalities. Even now in the UK, I sadly have no British friends. My circle of friends here are Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, Iranian, Canadian, Italian and South African. And I’m sure that when we make the big move to Australia, I will probably seek out the expats there too!

    Reply
    • Hi Alma, thanks for the reply. I suppose we tend to gravitate towards those we share something in common with. Sometimes expat life can get you down and the only people who can really know what you’re going through are other expats. But I’ve heard it said, many times, that those who settle most successfully are the ones who embrace and engage with the host culture, so I never wanted to be the expat who only hung out with British expats, sourced all my British products here and became a walking, talking personification of British patriotism! But despite my best efforts, I know I did a fair amount of making unfavorable comparisons between Canada and the UK during my first year – all I can say in my defense is culture-shock’s a bitch!

      Reply
  6. I sometimes find the culture shock of moving to Portugal too much to bear. I’m so homesick for familiar things and family. The language is a real problem for us. I’ve tried and tried but I still can’t seem to join the dots. Perhaps, retiring abroad is different to accepting a contract for work and you can an end date. This just seems endless. We can’t even sell up and return home due to the property market.

    Great article!

    Reply
    • My heart goes out to you. I was reading a piece you wrote for Expat Focus yesterday, about the difficulties of learning a language. I especially related to the part where you spoke of how isolating it is when you are surrounded by an unknown language and never hear your own language spoken. It reminded me of when my husband and I would go and visit my in-laws in Edinburgh. They speak Punjabi and very little English. All conversation would be in Punjabi, which I, with my limited Urdu, would struggle vainly to follow. All TV programmes were in Urdu…Nobody seemed to understand me when I spoke Urdu, which eroded my confidence in my ability and made me contribute less and less. It used to be a relief to go to the supermarket and speak a few English words with the cashier! It is very lonely and draining.
      I find embracing the role of “odd British lady” helps, when I’m feeling out of place. It’s a difficult lifepath, because, as expats, we’ll never belong anywhere, but at the same time, think of all we have experienced! I hope something comes along to remind you of the positives in your life soon. xxx

      Reply
      • You also tried and failed re the language so you know what I mean :) “Draining” is a good word :) My problem is compounded by the fact our daugher lives in France and the inlaws only have a smattering of English and us, even less French. AFter a while all talk reverts to French. I am also terrified our baby granddaughter will not be able to communicate with us. So you see I get double wammy on two fronts Portuguese and French.

        I’ve always been very positive and upbeat person and the one to motivate my English friends here. I was even nicknamed Mrs “postive” because they were always moaning and groaning and I shivvy them along. This feeling of isolation has hit me like an avalanche . It’s difficult to put into words. To my firends I am the same, but inside I feel despair and loneliness. I live in paradise near beaches and stunning countryside so should consider myself lucky.

        It’s funny how I can share these thoughts with a stranger the otherside of the world byt I can’t tell my own family and friends my true feelings :(

        Hey ho…

        Reply
        • Hmmmm, well I did succeed in learning Urdu, it just didn’t help that the very people who told me to, conversed in Punjabi!
          Those feelings will pass. When everything else seems bleak, just remember, “it’s just a phase”, nothing lasts forever and that includes the negative feelings. The day will come when you’ll find yourself on the other side of them. Hang in there ;-)

          Reply
  7. Very insightful piece! I am a Brit who has lived in USA for the last eleven years and I think I am now acclimatized. I even finally have the green card. I did not feel that nostalgic for UK because the weather is just so depressing. Of course I missed the beer and the sense of humour and I don’t feel 100 great in my new home but I think I’d rather be here than there right now!

    Reply
    • Hi Emma, thanks for dropping by. You’ve hit the nail on the head – when you weigh up the pros and cons it’s all about what you’re prepared to live with/without. I get nostalgic too, but I know I’d rather be here than there!

      Reply
  8. Great blog post Aisha, I have moved 13 times in 20 years between Japan,US, Europe, and just moved to Russia. I have not lived in France, where I grew up, for the last 16 years in a row and each time it is the same story.. Being a serial expat is not like accumulating mileages on your frequent flyer card, there is no free ride on this emotional roller coaster! Everything you described are so true ! thanks for sharing

    Reply

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