One of the most isolating, frustrating things that an expat can experience is culture shock. Culture shock happens to us all–and what some people don’t know (or realise) is that culture shock can also happen when we return from a visit to the homeland, not just when we first move to a new country.
An American expat emailed me recently, ‘you seem to love living in England so much, don’t you miss the States? I don’t know how you can like living here so much. It seems whatever I do, it’s wrong. I try to be positive when I start the day but I just want to cry myself to sleep every night.’
I felt her pain and said I haven’t always loved living in England and I don’t always now, but that I have strategies I try to use for enjoying my life wherever I am. I gave some suggestions. I told her she isn’t alone. And I asked if I could use some of her email but not her name to write a blog post that might help a few others. She agreed. I look forward to hearing her progress (Good luck, A!).
Easy tips for dealing with culture shock might help you lessen the pain and move through it more quickly.
1. Remember that everyone gets culture shock.
The difference is how different people deal with it. It is one of the most alienating things to experience–the knowledge that there is so much new stuff you don’t know where to begin, sudden realisation that everyone else is in on the joke apart from you, the feeling that this is a party that you weren’t invited to, or the anxiety that if you try you’ll only be knocked back down again.
2. Address your most basic needs first.
Focus on getting a place to stay, knowing where where to get food, being aware of the dangers in your new environment and how to protect yourself and your property, and understanding basic routes–to and from work or school, the hospital, your GP, the police.
Make a list of important phone numbers–both here and at home and put it where everyone in your house has access to it.
Get a map of the local area, mark important landmarks.
Building this solid base you can then start to learn more about your new surroundings.
3. Learn what you need to know.
The more you know the more in control you’ll feel. A lot of culture shock is not knowing what the heck is going on and getting really fed up with that status.
Watch what the locals do–is the weather too hot to function mid-afternoon? If so, how do locals cope? Do businesses have strange opening hours? How do the locals schedule their day?
Learn local laws about parking, driving, crossing the street, walking your dog, and alcohol consumption. Also learn about local ordinances or cultural norms about what to do with your trash/rubbish, dress codes, opening times for shops and restaurants, noise levels, sunbathing and queuing.
Most countries have excellent guides written by expats. A great one for Britain is, Rules, Britannia by Toni Hargis.
Remind yourself that different doesn’t always mean wrong.
4. Adjust your expectations.
Don’t ever expect the locals to make adjustments for you. It’s a bonus if they do.
‘When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.’ Clifton Fadiman
5. Take a tour. Or two.
Does your (or your partner’s) company offer orientations for employees and families? Use them. These are usually well thought out and can be really useful.
Does a local tourist company offer walking or bus tours in your area? Go on as many as you can. This will help you learn about the interesting parts of the area while also learning the routes and landmarks.
6. Find a routine.
Routines will add to your sense of control. Especially if you are the accompanying partner as you will not have as much of a routine as the partner who is at work.
7. Stay organised.
Your life will feel slightly less chaotic if you know where important documents are, if you can find where you put the pens, if you know where to look for your address book, if you have an easy place to keep maps of the area, if you have the kids’ schedule on the wall so everyone can refer to it, etc.
8. Find new favourites.
Your local shop doesn’t have the foods you loved at home? Make it a mission to search for new favouties here. Find a favourite candy bar, park, coffee shop, restaurant, route to work, time of day…
9. Make your home a sanctuary.
If you have a safe, comfortable place where you can go to escape the relentless challenges, you will be able to recharge and go back out into this new world again. It’s okay to take a weekend off and hang out at home with your DVDs, food that someone sent from home, and long Skype conversations with friends and family back home.
10. Nurture your self esteem.
Moving to a new country and dealing with a constant bombardment of new stimuli will inevitably lead to some knock-backs and over time that may lower your confidence. Find ways to maintain and boost your confidence and you will keep bouncing back with plenty of energy to face new challenges.
Set goals and work towards them. When you achieve them, reward yourself to emphasise your success. Goals can include learning to drive in the new country, learning a week of local dishes, setting up a regular coffee morning for other new arrivals, or start learning the local language. (Actually, doing something that helps others, like setting up the coffee morning for new arrivals is always a great self esteem booster.)
You can also volunteer, or depending on your visa status, you can get a job. Both of these occupations often have opportunities to boost your self esteem by providing projects for you to complete well.
Exercise helps our bodies get rid of stress hormones that contribute to fatigue, illness and disease. It also gives us endorphins that help us feel amazing!
12. Avoid negative people.
There’s always some people who just don’t want to enjoy life. Surround yourself with the positive people who understand what you’re going through, but who are loving their adventure. Let them influence you.
If you are overseas with a partner, talk about your frustrations with them and they will understand why you might be more sensitive than normal. If you are alone, talk to other expats. Try not to talk to people back home because they will worry, and try not to complain to locals because they may not understand.
Another fantastic place to share is online forums and blogs–there’s hundreds of blogs of people going through exactly what you’re going through.
Ask your partner and children how they’re feeling. Help them understand the stages of culture shock.
Set aside regular time for you to spend with your family and/or partner. If you are overseas alone, seek out friends and make time to spend with them.
If these tips help you, please feel free to share them with others!