Big change = big challenge. Upping sticks to live and work in another country is probably one of the biggest changes you can make to your life, and exciting as it is, it can be tough on the ol’ soul.
No matter how cosmopolitan and urbane and magnanimous you might think you are, you probably won’t be able to avoid at least some mild form of culture shock. When you swap your familiar, comfortable surroundings for new pastures, new adventures, new people and a new type of dreaded bureaucracy, it’s natural to hit a few bumps along the way.
What you should expect:
It’s time for a little romance. During the first few weeks of arriving in your new country, you’ll probably spend a lot of time in sensory overload. You’ll be hearing new languages and music, you’ll be tasting new cuisine, exploring new places, navigating as-yet-undiscovered streets and neighbourhoods and getting used to cultural norms that are different from back home. Stimulated and exhilarated by all the novelty, you’ll experience a lovely period of starry-eyed adventure.
Negotiation Phase (Hint: Honeymoon’s Over!)
Information overload! Sometime in the first three months or so, cultural, linguistic or social differences may end up causing you a little anxiety or distress. Differences in standards of hygiene, traffic safety, cultural norms, or food accessibility might make you feel disconnected from your new surroundings and wishing for home. Language barriers and an absence of shared cultural references can make it difficult to create friendships like the ones you had back home. You may miss out on conversational or gestural nuances, and misunderstandings may leave you feeling like you’ve constantly got a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease! Differences in foods, medications, air quality etc. may also leave you feeling physically ill while your body adjusts.
Yeah… so this part isn’t fun at all. But never fear – it’s normal and you’ll get through it!
Once you’ve been somewhere for about 6 months, you will probably have gotten used to all the major changes and new situations it can throw at you. You’ll have started to gain a basic command of the language, and will have developed routines that will make things feel a little more ‘normal’. Any negative, defensive feelings that you might have felt towards your new country should dissipate.
Also referred to as the ‘mastery’ or ‘bicultural’ stage, you will eventually start to participate fully and feel more comfortable in your adopted home. This doesn’t mean that you’ll entirely convert to new behaviours, languages, accents or norms but you should be able to find a pleasant happy medium.
But that’s not the hard part. The hard part is stage two. How can you manage it? Well, I’m glad you asked…
How to deal with it:
Go easy on yourself
You may be a magnificently complex creature made of star stuff, but you are still only human. Being kind to yourself during this phase will make it a lot easier for other people to be kind to you too.
Know that it’s normal
Give yourself a break and realise that you’re going through a normal phase that many people experience. You’re not going mad, and you don’t need to rethink your decision to move. Just ride the wave for a little while. It’ll bring you to calmer waters.
Information is your best ally, so find out as much as you can about your new stomping ground. Look up customs, sayings, rituals and activities and try to figure out the new rhythm of life that’s beating around you. Try out things that you hear the locals are into and try to take on some of their enthusiasm for them, no matter how odd they seem to you.
There will probably be moments when every fibre of your being will scream ‘Reverse!’, and you’ll be tempted to book a flight home, but don’t. Remember that you’re just going through a difficult time, and that everything will start to balance out. Go out and meet people, accept invitations, and try not to ghettoise yourself into an ‘expat bubble’ because it’s easier. People are infinitely fascinating and surprising – go find them!
Do stuff you love
When you’re not feeling like yourself, it’s easy to lose sight of who you are, and what you like to do. Try to ground yourself a little by doing things that make you happy, whether that’s simply going for a run, or playing music, or sitting under a tree for a bit. Whatever you like to do, make sure you do lots of it.
Stay in touch with home…
Calling home can make many people feel more homesick, but if you’re feeling isolated, it’s good to check in on the homestead and see what’s happening. Stay in touch with friend groups via Whatsapp or email, but make sure not to pine too much. You’ve got amazing new friends awaiting you too.
…but don’t talk about it too much
It’s natural to compare your new surroundings to your old ones, but dwelling on the differences might stop you from seeing the benefits. Also, it’s not generally very interesting for people if you’re constantly talking about ‘back home we <insert point of difference here>’. Unless that’s specifically the topic of conversation, nobody really cares. They’re being polite. Don’t push it.
Create a positive environment
Surround yourself with positive people who can help you fully experience this new adventure, instead of people who’ll dwell and mull over how much everything sucks. It doesn’t. Remember that. Create a home that makes you happy in any way that you can, and make an effort to experience everything as positively as possible. Focus on what you love about your new corner of the universe, and try to minimise the impact of the difficult stuff.
When you move to a new place, you have such a wonderful opportunity to discover aspects of yourself, of your personality, and of your abilities that might have lain dormant had you never moved. Accept invitations to do things you wouldn’t normally agree to, and be open to ideas, people and opinions as much as you can. You’ll never know what you might discover!
Mens sana in corpore sano, as they say. A healthy mind in a healthy body. When you’re a little overwhelmed by life, simply staying active, sleeping well, and eating healthily can be a struggle. Make an effort to look after yourself. I’m not saying you have to practice Gwyneth Paltrow-style discipline, but just remember you need to nourish yourself in every way that you can.
“When in Rome…
…do as the Romans”. In other words, just go with it. Accept what you dislike, embrace what you love, and try to get into the flow of the new city or country that you’re living in. It will always be hard, but this is an opportunity like no other and you’ll be all the better for it!
Eventually you’ll pass through the tough stuff, and you’ll come out the other end a changed, happier person. Just always remember to practice a little self-empathy and treat yourself like you would a good friend. As a human you’re a naturally versatile, adaptable creature. Just give yourself a little time to make the transition. Before you know it, you’ll feel right at home!