You’ve packed up your house, sent your dog ahead in a crate, changed the name on your utilities (you hope) and schlepped half-way across the world to start a new life.
- How brave are you?
- Who knew the kids would cope so well?
- And how amazing is your new home?
You are well and truly in your honeymoon period. Enjoy! But when the vacation feel of your first few weeks wears off, you may start to feel some frustration with your new home. As time goes on you might feel a whole range of emotions, from euphoria to debilitating homesickness. Don’t worry. You are not alone. What you are feeling is “culture shock” and it’s completely normal.
Just like grief, culture shock has well-documented stages and for some people, it’s worse than others. Take a look through these stories about how expats just like you coped.
And hang in there. It’s so worth it!
Culture shock stage 1: The honeymoon period
Your first few weeks in a new location are likely to be sunny (metaphorically speaking) and fun. This is your honeymoon period, where everything is exciting, charming and fresh. Enjoy!
Katie remembers her “honeymoon period” when she moved to Singapore.
“I was so nervous. Our house wasn’t ready yet, so we moved into a service apartment. I was really worried about coping with small kids in a glorified hotel room with very few toys. I was also worried about the climate, finding food the kids would eat and being so far away from home.
Looking back, those first few weeks felt like we’d landed in paradise. We might not have had many toys, but the kids played in the pool all day, which helped with the humidity too. All housework was handled by the apartment staff, and there was a big eating out culture, which we embraced wholeheartedly!
Everyone was friendly and helpful. I remember feeling stunned about how well everyone looked after us.
Taxis were cheap, and we were so central it was easy to explore. We loved the food, the parks, the pool. It was amazing! The whole period in the apartment felt like an extended holiday.”
Tips for the honeymoon period
Just enjoy it! Say Yes! to every invitation and opportunity. Get out and about and explore. Try everything!
Culture shock stage 2: Frustration
After a few weeks of bliss, however, you might start to feel frustrated by small things. This usually occurs at the point where if you were on vacation you’d be going home. It’s often the time when you start to live a real life.
Once you begin to get into a routine and cope with everyday needs, you might find you start to get annoyed by how unfamiliar everything is. Tasks that you would have completed at home without thinking seem really complicated and time-consuming.
When Jill moved to Amsterdam, she remembers feeling really positive at first.
“I remember laughing to myself as I cycled my box bike containing 2 kids, 2 tricycles and all manner of toys to the park. Our new home seemed so child-friendly and fun. I really loved it.
When the kids started school, though, and we had to get into a normal routine, small things started to bug me. I got really bored of food shopping because there was so little choice. And whereas cycling everywhere had been great when we were “on holiday”, when you have to be somewhere in a hurry in the rain it suddenly didn’t seem so charming.
After a few weeks, I got a really bad chest infection and I remember bursting into tears in the Doctor’s surgery because everyone seemed so unsympathetic. I really missed the ease of home, knowing where to go when I needed something and having the backup of my friends and family.”
Tips for the frustration period
Jill advises, “It’s really important to reach out and ask for help. Make sure you take every opportunity to meet people and make friends. Getting to know other expats is a lifesaver because they have all the local info. They’ve also been exactly where you are, so they understand how you feel.”
Culture shock stage 3: Adjustment
Be reassured, this frustration will not last for ever. As you find out more about your new home, you’ll start to adjust. You’ll work out where to find the stuff you need. You’ll find friends to laugh with and share your frustration, and you’ll start to slip into a routine.
On the surface, at least, you have adjusted. You have the mechanics of normal life running smoothly.
Advice for coping with the adjustment period
Jill advises, “Get busy! Make friends, visit local attractions, explore! Gather as much knowledge as you can about your new home. Make every effort to grow your tribe. This is where you have the space to start making the most of expat life!”
Culture shock stage 4: Frustration (part 2)
The period of adjustment is almost like a mini-honeymoon period. Unfortunately, as you start to feel in control of everyday life, you may start to realise how much you still don’t understand about the bigger stuff. People’s views might take you by surprise. Traditions that seem normal to one culture, might appear outlandish or even offensive to another.
At this stage, it’s perfectly normal to have another dip into frustration. Although you have the mechanics of everyday life sorted, you might feel even more like an emotional alien.
After 6 months in Dubai, Sam was coping really well.
“Although it had been a massive shock at first, the friends I’d made in my apartment building really helped me to make sense of it all. We quickly got into a school/work routine and were starting to have a social life.
But even after I felt like we’d settled in and started to belong, things still took me by surprise by how “foreign” they were. Sometimes I’d meet people who seemed perfectly normal, and then their views on politics or even everyday stuff like bringing up kids would shock me.
We were having some work done in the apartment, and it was really frustrating that people were polite to me in person, but were endlessly letting me down and not showing up. I got really paranoid they thought I was a useless expat wife they could take advantage of. I felt like we were going through the motions of real life, without even scratching the surface of our new home.
Although I’d made some friends, I really missed talking to people who really knew me, because we had a shared history. And I missed being with people who knew my kids really well. Sometimes I felt like other parents were judging me, about how my kids behaved or how we lived.
I began to feel like although we could live well in Dubai, we were marking time. Would I ever relax and feel at home?”
Tips for the frustration period (take 2!)
Sam says, “Find out as much as you can about your new country and your new friends’ countries and their cultures. Read, explore but most of all talk to people, both expats and locals. Culturally you might feel poles apart, but if you understand what is behind their attitudes and beliefs it will help you accept and adjust.”
Also, remember this is a stage like any other, it will pass. In the meantime, keep busy. Make a list of things you want to do, and places you want to travel to.
If you aren’t working and are starting to feel unfulfilled, consider your options. Although it might not feel like it, once your everyday routine is organised this is a good time to start thinking about what you want to do with your expat posting.
Are you in a position to go back to work? If not, could you do a course, or consider voluntary work? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to run a marathon or learn a musical instrument. Is this the perfect time to pursue your dream? Finding other people who share your passions, might also make you feel more like yourself.
Keeping busy and being productive is the best antidote to “marking time”.
Culture shock stage 5: Acceptance or assimilation
It might take a while, but you’ll find at some stage you’ll accept the differences of your new home and even start to celebrate them.
You’re culturally different and have a different history so don’t expect to accept everything. Part of the joy of living an expat life is assimilating the parts of the culture that appeal to you into your own values and traditions and learning to accept there are bits that aren’t for you.
After living in Seoul for 2 years, Kim had a trip to her home country with her family. On her return, she realized she’d changed her opinion of where “home” was.
“When I’d returned on previous occasions, I didn’t consciously think it didn’t feel like home, but I always felt a little bit like I was starting again. This time I realised it felt different. I’d missed Seoul and it felt more familiar to me than my home country did. I was looking forward to getting back to real life, after being on holiday. But the real life was my new country and the holiday was the home of my birth.”
Tips for the acceptance period
Kim says, “Enjoy! You’ve been in your new country for long enough to live a full life. Expect to have some ups and downs, moments of frustration and pangs of homesickness. But make the most of the here and now.”
Who knows when you’ll be starting the culture shock journey once more!