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.