I recently got a message from a younger former colleague, asking for pointers on moving to a new country. Weirdly, my first thought was “Don’t do it, it’s not as easy as it seems!”. Memories of the months preceeding my move came floating back and I smiled remembering that happy, excited individual; brimming with plans, ideas, and new opportunities. Forty-eight plus months later, I’m much more sedate, lol.
What I had not reckoned with was what experts call Culture Shock. In my mind, culture shock is a phenomenon that occurrs when one moved to vastly differing communities. As my husband, his family, and our friends (both German & Austrian) didn’t seem so different, it hadn’t occurred to me what a major change I was in for.
A recent article I read outlined culture shock as a multi-stage process that everyone living in a new country feels to varying degrees. I think I’ve gone through them all and sometimes feel like I reverberate continuously through the last two (depending on the day and experiences).
- The Honeymoon Stage: this is when everything’s just exciting, perfect, wonderful. You feel like you’ve won the Life Lottery and being in your new country is like being on vacation. Yup, this is when I was running around, going everywhere, doing everything, writing tons in my blog, and everything seemed like an opportunity! Infamous quote: “It’s like NYC, just with German!”.
- The Honeymoon Is Over Stage: just as the name states, all those ‘happy happy, joy joy’ feelings come crashing down. Everything is frustrating, irritating, annoying, and depending on the personality, there may be doubt, loss of confidence/esteem, depression, and tons of tears. It’s obvious in my blogging; I just stopped writing, along with going anywhere, doing anything, or being around anyone. I lost my voice and myself. Infamous quote: “What was I thinking?!!!!”
- Rejection/Alienation/Indifference: at some point, I got tired of being depressed, feeling like I didn’t belong, and worrying that I’d never regain my independence and would spend the rest of my days being a burden to my husband. Entering (and sustaining) this stage, according to experts, requires a concerted decision to either succumb to negativity or negotiate past it. It’s not easy to break but my fears of remaining depressed spurred me to seek external motivators and to apply some of the goal-achieving skills I’d learned for my profession. So I’d force myself to get up & dressed, make plans/small goals & keep/achieve them, be personable & ignore irrations, and most importantly, smile & laugh. It was (and still is, sometimes) exhausting. Infamous quote: With a wry smile, “Ehh, what do you expect? It’s Austria!”
- Recovery/Adaptation/Integration: this is when the clouds begin to part and one starts to feel more ‘at home’. Things become easier to manage and each success builds confidence and self-esteem. I get an incredible sense of pride at managing here what were once mundane tasks back home – things I never even considered; like opening a new account or dealing with a customer service rep. Also, I hardly notice now the things that used to bother me so much at first; like folks staring or poor customer service. Infamous quote: “You know, Austria’s pretty cool!”
Moving through these stages depends on personality, countries of origin and destination, and outside influences (friends – both back home and in your destination country, job/school, other support systems). According to studies, up to 24% of expats never reach intergration and head home early. As mentioned earlier, I frequently move back and forth through indifference and integration – often within the same day; as do many of my expat friends. I’ve found if I paste on a smile and give them another perspective to see the issue at, or sometimes, just listen; we all feel better about today. Tomorrow will have to take care of its self.
Bloom where you’re planted loves!