I recently came across an article on the 4 stages of cultural adjustment when moving abroad. As an expat who has lived and worked in 7 different countries I couldn’t relate more! While each time can be slightly different, there is definitely a repeating pattern every time you make that move. Being aware of these emotional phases and learning how to overcome difficulties during expat relocation helps to take a step towards understanding the culture of your new expat home. Here’s how to immerse yourself in a new country:
Phase 1: The Honeymoon
You recently arrived at a new expat country and you most likely love the idea of living there! Euphoria and excitement about the unknown and its opportunities are quite common. Nothing is set, everything is open and you are motivated to get to know and shape your new life. Living at a superficial tourist level is mostly fun, until you find there’s a catch…
>>> Enjoy this phase as much as you can and make the most of feeling “on holiday”. The more you know about the location beforehand the longer this phase will last 😉 it’s all about expectation and preparation.
Do your homework and prepare well in advance. Study the language before moving, research and explore the neighbourhoods to get your bearings and learn how to navigate. Which areas should you avoid? Which are not safe? Learn about local laws, dress code, women’s rights and health cover … even before setting foot in your new country of choice.
Phase 2: Culture shock
This is when frustration and cultural confrontation hits. Some local customs or behaviour may be rude to you, irritating or even distressing. Quite naturally we tend to reject what we don’t like or what we don’t know how to deal with. We’ll do anything to avoid it having an impact on our life. These are the moments when homesickness is at its worst or when we may refuse speaking the local language in our spare time.
Moving country can be very exhausting because you:
- Learn a new language and might not be able to express yourself properly,
- Find your way around a new town and
- Every country and mentality handles things differently – from administration to school systems or even celebrating birthdays.
- You may feel like a child who needs to check back how to do things ALL THE TIME.
- Go through emotional ups and downs and maybe feel lonely
- Subconsciously you are constantly learning and seeing new things, which takes a lot of energy and consequently will leave you with less energy and patience to cope with the stuff you dislike.
>>> Be patient with yourself and save your energy. We are animals of habit and moving country changes about everything in your life. Try to keep up a routine and continue with what you used to do at home like going for a run. Eat well and allow yourself to take a break from adjusting. Practice positive thinking; meet people. If your language skills aren’t up to speed yet other expats may be a lifesaver. Ask how and where they find the stuff you’re still searching for. Expat meetup or Facebook groups can be a great source of information.
Phase 3: Gradual adjustment
Gradually you will develop an understanding of how and why things are done differently and start to cope with it. Well done, this is the first step towards integration!
This often goes along with meeting likeminded people, making friends and feeling part of a local community. By now you’ll have figured out most of the organisational stuff of moving abroad. You’ll more or less know how and where to find what you need to get by. This will definitely free up energy to work around the day-to-day hurdles.
>>> Be open and watch how the locals cope and do things a certain way. Can you learn something from them or their attitude towards life? Take a step towards them and actively mix and socialize with locals. Engage with them at work. Get out and about to build a social life. Look for natives that have lived in other countries as an expat before, they will be more understanding. Embrace the place and its people. Explore local festivals and celebrations.
Phase 4: Feeling at home
The goal of every expat should be to accept biculturalism. By now you’ll be completely independent and autonomous. You’ll have found your crowd and community and maybe even call it home. To get there will take time and some places will feel more home than others.
>>> Needless to say: Live like a local. Eat local food. Keep that curiosity and an open mind to engage with your neighbours and your community. It’s a never-ending process to explore customs and tradition.
Of course, transition will be fluid and you may find yourself going back and forwards between culture shock and euphoric moments in that new life. A classic example is speaking a foreign language: there are moments when your brain is tired, you can’t express yourself and you start to hold a grudge against having to speak that language (and feel like a child babbling simple words)… A week or two later your brain suddenly made a connection and words flow more naturally. I believe there’s a lot of subconscious learning we do.
What expat relocation stage are you in right now?