Culture Shock, and the Unhappy Expat

We were told of the possible difficulties in adjusting to a different country and culture. We have encountered unhappy expats. I have been curious about other people’s experiences, finding neither adjustment problems or causes of unhappiness myself.

My husband shared an interesting blog post HERE and I had one of those ah ha moments. This writer has traveled a lot and lived in other countries, and was surprised to find herself suffering from culture shock. Many of the symptoms reminded me of unhappy expats we’ve met so I decided to do some research on the subject.

What is culture shock? It is the discomfort of finding yourself in a different environment where you can no longer rely on the usual social cues, language, customs, and ways of doing things.

What are the symptoms? 

  • Loneliness, sadness, longing for family and familiar environment
  • Obsession with cleanliness (what is new and strange is “dirty”)
  • Preoccupation with health, aches and pains, allergies, skin problems
  • Irritability, frustration, anxiety, confusion, insecurity, inability to concentrate
  • Delay or refusal to learn the language
  • Developing negative feelings and stereotypes about the people and culture of the new country
  • Withdrawal, avoiding the local people,  spending excessive time alone or with fellow expats, excessive dependence on fellow expats
  • Feeling overlooked, exploited, or abused, or fear of being cheated, robbed or injured
  • Irritation over minor frustrations out of proportion to the causes

What do you do about culture shock?

  • Learn as much as you can about your new country
  • Learn the language so you can communicate. Even a few phrases can be very helpful.
  • Get to know the people in your new country. Get involved with activities. Learn their behavior and customs
  • Take care of yourself – good diet, exercise, relaxation, adequate sleep, alcohol in moderation
  • Maintain contact with friends and family. Connect with other expats in your new country and use resources that are available
  • Keep a journal
  • Be patient with yourself, and understand these feelings are normal. Give yourself time to adjust.

What are the stages of culture shock?

  • Honeymoon phase (first few weeks) – everything is new, wonderful, fascinating
  • Difficulties (3-12 months) – adjustment problems arise, problems with being understood, understanding how things are done, different social cues, unfamiliar locations. People withdraw, or surround themselves with other foreigners. Irritations become impossible situations.
  • Adjustment (12+ months) – the person gains understanding of the new culture, gains an increased sense of belonging, and life starts to feel more normal.

Whew! I feel like I’ve been writing a term paper. This is the condensed version of a number of articles I found on the subject.

There are expats who have been here for many years but they still unhappy, unable to speak the language, and spend the majority of their time with other expats. We went to an expat gathering when we first arrived and another expat warned me about the Panamanian people who can’t be trusted, and about boredom that will lead to excessive drinking, and about lack of safety of people and property in this country. I have seen a surprisingly large amount of bickering and complaining on internet forums.  I’ve encountered expats in stores who either refuse to acknowledge a greeting, or see it as an invitation to complain about something. I know culture shock can’t account for all of these unhappy people, but maybe it is a factor?

For me personally, my biggest experience with culture shock was moving from New York City to Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was used to the 24/7 activity, noise, lights, multicultural population, and availability of everything you can imagine. I went to Arkansas and couldn’t sleep. It was dark and quiet at night – very creepy. People talked differently and couldn’t understand me either. Everyone was white. There was no Jewish deli or bagels.  The Klu Klux Klan was not just something in a history book. We were asked – what are you yankees doing down here? I felt like I had been dropped into another world. I think the worst part of it was the surprise. I had given no thought to this part of the country being so different. Yes, in time, I adjusted. I was a new nurse and had my first job. I was pregnant and had my first child. There were happy times but those first few months were a bit rough.

Here, it has actually gone much better. We visited, we read, we talked to people, we did all the research we could. I had already learned some Spanish, and then I seriously studied Spanish with an on line teacher  for months. My teacher is a native so she is also able to teach me a lot about the culture and people. My husband also studied every night with his books. This transition has been far easier than others I’ve had made within the US, and I think the preparation is a big part of it, and looking forward to the differences.

The blog post my husband shared with me had some good advice. “Whenever you’re frustrated about something, rather than judge people, think about and ask yourself why they might do things that way” We couldn’t figure out why people drive towards the center of the road, which looks very disconcerting when they are coming towards you. Then we realized that there are so many pedestrians and bicycles on the road, and the vehicles are only trying to share the road safely. It’s better to stay toward the center and move over when you need to.

So, these are my thoughts on this subject for the moment. Some of the Zemanta links highlight another related idea. Returning to your home country can bring a whole new set of similar challenges as you readjust to the culture there! I’m traveling to the US soon and it will be very interesting to see how that feels after all these months here.

These are some articles I read for information – Worldwide Classroom, San Diego State University, Government of Canada, University of Toronto, Wikipedia

Enhanced by Zemanta
Advertisements

About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
This entry was posted in expat, expatriate, Panama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Culture Shock, and the Unhappy Expat

  1. Very nice post, and yes, you did your homework well! z

    Like

  2. Annelised says:

    Nicely done! When are you coming back?

    Like

  3. Excellent post! We lived in Arkansas for a little over a decade (Mountain View). Believe it or not, we find many similarities with Arkansas and Nicaragua. We were always called the people from off by the locals. Although many ‘back to the landers’ moved to the Ozarks, we tried hard to assimilate to the culture and become members of our local community. Others sequestered themselves into little “Yankee” compounds and wanted to change everything. They complained about the locals and wanted to start their own schools for their children. This is just one example of how Arkansas reminds us of Nicaragua. Do you find similarities as well? You sound like you are adjusting perfectly! My humble advice is to stay far, far away from the negative expats. They have a tendency to spread doom and gloom. Personally, I’d rather be culturally immersed with the vivacious local people. Our lives are so much better because of the local people who have gently helped us understand their culture.

    Like

    • Kris says:

      Interesting, never thought about it but you are right about AR. I think I hung out the ‘back to the landers’ more than the locals so avoided some of it, though as a nurse my work threw me in with everybody.
      Negative expats? You have them too? What is up with them??
      I totally agree about the wonderful local people. This has been our experience also.

      Like

  4. indacampo says:

    “Feeling overlooked, exploited, or abused, or fear of being cheated, robbed or injured” We call them the “Negative Nellys”. Everything in Panama is done wrong and everyone in Panama is out to get them. Now that I know who they are I try to walk the opposite way or pretend I haven’t seen them! Check, check! I think we’ve passed the test! Great post Kris!

    Like

    • Kris says:

      Negative Nellys? you too? Are they everywhere? If it’s so bad, why stay? I just don’t get it. Some have been here for ages, yet all they do is complain and fret.

      Like

  5. Thanks for the Pingback! I was interested to read that you had more of a shock going from New York to Arkansas than to Panama because you were not expecting any differences. That exactly fits the ‘psychic distance paradox’ idea: you underestimate cultural differences, and this lack of awareness could cause difficulties.

    Like

    • Kris says:

      Psychic distance paradox? Yes, interesting and true. You think you’re in your own country so how different could it be? (I found out!) My pleasure about the pingback. You were talking about Europe but it was interesting to see how it’s similar to my experience in the US. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far to find unexpected differences.

      Like

  6. Great post! Living abroad, I meet quite a few people who are long-term expats but don’t seem to be able to get out of the culture shock phase (and some who just don’t want to). I think they just build up the challenge so much that it starts to seem impossible. It happens lots with language learning. Yeah, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible!

    Like

    • Kris says:

      What an interesting blog, and interesting life you have! Maybe you are right, the negative expats don’t want to, or see it as too impossible to try. I know I get frustrated, especially on the days when my brain doesn’t function. But then I look at all the words I know that I didn’t know a month ago, and keep moving forward. It’s so worth it to be able to communicate!
      Thanks for stopping by my blog and sending me your comments 🙂

      Like

  7. Prior research is really the key and having a good attitude is essential. Good job identifying the problem, but the really negative types will not heed the advise because they seem to actually enjoy being miserable. Best to give that type wide berth and hang with some happy locals!

    Like

  8. Pingback: The Liebster Award | So You Think You Can Think

  9. Amba says:

    I nominated you for the Liebster award 🙂

    Like

  10. Angela says:

    I’m glad you liked my husbands advice! I found it really helped me, although we did give up and move back to Amsterdam after all 🙂

    Nice blog you have here, I look forward to reading more!

    Like

    • Kris says:

      Yes for sure, and it started me down a whole path of thinking about what such a transition means to a lot of people. Thanks, glad you enjoyed my blog too, and best wishes in Amsterdam! 🙂

      Like

  11. Loca Gringa says:

    Great article Kris! I experience a lot of the same in Dominican Republic. I’m fortunate, as a loner “ish” the culture shock isn’t so big. This country reminds me a lot of my childhood growing up around extended family. The language has been a challenge but I’m getting there. I am fortunate that in DR, the locals are very happy when you start learning their language. Very few have turned their backs on me for “butchering” their language. Now that I’m used to the way things are done here, I don’t get cheated nearly as much, but this loca gringa is always on the watch. Here, I’ll always be the Gringa.

    Like

    • Kris says:

      Thanks 🙂 Same here, and everyone has been so nice and never complained about my Spanish, even when they should. I know I’m a gringa too but it’s fine. I’m happy they welcome me like they do. What a story you have! I just started reading a bit of it.

      Like

  12. Pingback: The Expat Experience | Orange Pekoe Reviews

Comments are closed.