11 August 2014

Relocation - how to deal with culture shock.

When people ask me where I am from I find it almost impossible to answer.  Readers may have noticed that rather than mention a nationality as such I call myself a global soul or perpetual expat.  In essence I am a true TCK (third culture kid) although I dislike that term. 

Being an expat means life can change, very dramatically from year to year.

With so many international and intra-national moves under my belt I should deal with the emotional upheaval with no problems at all.  I have found, however, that this is simply not the case.  As a child I must have caused my parents endless heartache and annoyance at moving time.  I usually got an unexplained stomach ache about three weeks before we moved.  It did not matter whether I was excited or nervous about the move, my stomach would start to ache. 

Culture shock is a common and acknowledged expat phenomenon and there has even been research on how people adapt to their new home.  Expats tend to identify five stages of relocation (after Olberg).
  • Honeymoon
  • Irritation/Anger
  • Rejection/Regression
  • Intergration/Assimilation
  • Re-entry

I usually find stages 1-3 combine in the early days of a new posting to give rise to a maelstrom of emotions.  Exploring new places is exciting, finding out what there is to do and what is new and different is a heady experience.  We go to all the local attractions, research what flights are available, dreaming of the exotic holidays we can take and I trawl round shops and supermarkets getting excited about what is on the shelves.  Irritation usually creeps in early for me and I know I have to nip it in the bud so that I don’t reject our new life and the opportunities on offer.  

I tend to assimilate and integrate quickly and easily (I have had so much practice and it helps that I have no real geographic ties) so when I move somewhere new I get frustrated that I am not learning things more quickly.  I am my own worst critic, of course it is not unreasonable, after just two weeks, to not know how to contact the city council, pay a bill, hold a conversation on local pension arrangements in the local language.  I have to make myself remember that, although I could do all this in our previous posting some of it took me a little time to get my head around. Sometimes simple moves can be the most confusing.  I will always remember my very capable mother (who could talk down armed militia in the middle of the African bush) getting very stressed at the thought that she might have missed the registration deadline with the local council in the UK - she was working to Dutch bureaucratic rules!

It helps, when relocating to be aware of the stages set out above and how they might apply to your character.  If you know and understand you can deal more easily.  Like me some people find the second and third stages last a very short time, others may take months to work through them.  Processes and times are also different for each location and it is not always a linear progression.  Sometimes an expat might sail through all the stages and start to integrate well, enjoying their life only for something to set them back and for the realities of their situation to overwhelm them.  This can often be triggered by bereavement in the home country or children moving back 'home' to boarding school but there are many reasons.  It is vital, therefore, to build up support networks early on, find friends, get involved in activities that you enjoy.  It is also important to keep a close eye on other expats around you, has someone started to withdraw, are they quieter than normal, are they struggling but hiding it for some reason? It is a delicate balance between offering help and interfering, however, so let people go at their own pace.  Be aware that once someone has been helped they may be embarrassed and may not wish to speak with you again (unless the problem re-occurs).  This is perfectly normal – try to understand even if you are hurt.

Working expats are often more insulated from culture and relocation shock than the trailing family.  Life changes little, you get up, go to the office, do your job and come home.  Of course the new job will have work related stresses, particularly if a promotion is involved or you now have to work in another language but this is separate from the country specific stress.  The lives of the trailing family are more affected, the children have to adapt to a new school, the other spouse to making life work in a completely different environment.  Sometimes a trailing spouse has to remake their whole identity – this is particularly true if they have left behind a career and are now defined, by default as the “husband or wife of X”.  Finding a job in the host country can be challenging and frustrating – I am a highly qualified financial litigator but I have not worked in the law for years.  I have, however, had a range of different jobs including a stint as a school librarian! 

Family members should be kind to one another at this time – look out for signs of upset or worry.  Just because one child is settling well does not mean that siblings are as happy.  Just because you had a wonderful day at the office does not mean that your spouse enjoyed miming the problems with the pipes to the plumber who was sent around to fix them.  Just because you had a dreadful day registering with the local doctors does not mean your spouse does not need to get work stress off their chest.  In the home country the support of family and close friends is near at hand – in the host country, particularly in the early days, the nuclear family is the only support.  Be aware of this, make a special effort.  Most expat families find that they become very close and have extremely strong bonds because of exactly these experiences but sadly some can find themselves riven – the constituent parts dealing with emotional problems in a vacuum of support. 

How to deal with culture shock – top tips.
  • Spend time before your move understanding what you will and won’t miss. This helps you process your emotions about leaving and help you concentrate on your new home when you get there.
  • Make contact with people in your new home ahead of time where possible.  This means you can identify potentially challenging aspects of your new life and start to prepare for them.  It also gives you some potential friends and a proto support network.
  • Be open and honest with children about changes to their lives.  Ask them what would help them feel secure in the move.  This may be something physical (a toy, a reminder of their old home/school) or not (an arrangement allowing them to speak to an old friend once a week on skype etc).  If you can make it happen do.  If you can’t be honest, never make promises you cannot keep but do help them identify viable alternatives.
  • Watch out for each other.  You and your family know (or should know) each other better than anyone else.  Keep an eye out for changed behaviour that might be a symptom of struggling with something. 
  • Be kind to yourself, no one expects you to be adept at dealing with all aspects of your new life straight away.  You are allowed to ask for help with things.
  • Be positive but honest.  There is good in every situation – try to look at things in a positive light even if it is only that you will have a good laugh and an amazing story to tell one day.  Do not, however, be relentlessly and unrealistically positive.  Sometimes bad things happen and if you do not acknowledge it now you may find it harder to deal with later. 
  • Find ways to keep traditions that are important to you and your family.  If Christmas, Eid, Diwali, your national day etc, are something that you always celebrate make sure that you manage this.  You may need to make some changes but these links with your old life are important.
  • Learn as much as you can about local customs before you arrive.  Most cultures are very forgiving of solecisms perpetrated by accident but you will feel happier in yourself if you know what behaviour is acceptable.  Similarly try to learn as much language as you can – even a few words and phrases can help.
  • Accept every invite you get for the first three months at least.  Expat communities are often small and new arrivals are exciting, everyone wants to get to know you.  Receive an invite to the local tennis club?  It does not matter if tennis is not your thing – go and socialise and get to know people, you will get more invitations from people you meet there.  Random invitations tend to start to dry up after three-six months as people assume you have become settled and found your niche and friendship group.  Make the most of the opportunities you are offered in the early days. 
  • As you become more established in your new home keep an eye out for new arrivals.
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  1. Interesting that you don't like the term TCK, I love it! Ever since I came across it a few years ago I felt I finally belonged to something and that there were others out there like me. I'd love to know why you don't like it.

  2. Hi Phoebe, I can't quite put my finger on it. A number of reasons and they probably make me sound very 'up myself'.

    I think firstly the term kid, firstly kid always seems to me to be every so slightly passively aggressively pejorative, implying a lack of judgement and emotional development. To be fair I was never a kid as I was always horrendously mature for my age, our son is the same - he is 8 going on 38.

    Secondly in my case at least the theory of a third culture just does not fly, there are so many more national cultural influences floating around inside me. Add to that the influences of literature, politics, level and mode of education etc etc

    Finally when I was young (a kid I suppose) the catch all term was Expat Brat, while I knew many expat brats with whom I got along with well some of whom are still friends today there were a lot who had a completely different outlook on life and I would not ever have wanted to be associated with them in other people's minds.

    So now that I have made myself sound incredibly precious and spoiled. I will say however, that this is a very personal take on the term and I can understand why it is popular as it is very descriptive.

  3. Culture shock is something that first time expats really under estimate. I didn't even know it was a thing until I had been in the Netherlands for some time and then I could retrospectively put the puzzle pieces together and understand why I felt like I did.

    When someone made a comment on an article I wrote about adapting to life in the Netherlands I was disheartened to say the least - the gist was that NL was so like England there was no adapting to be done..... and how short sighted such a comment is!!

    1. I hope that comment was not me. If it was I apologise deeply! Because I spent so much time in the Netherlands I find it normal and when I first moved to the UK as a child my life did not change much. It is only as I have grew older and became more immersed in British life that I realised how different it was.

      The Netherlands seems strange to me now, partially because I lived there from time to time in the 70,80 and 90s and spent most of that time with my mother, who left in 1970 and her parents who lived life as though it were still 1950s so I have an old fashioned view of life there that does not match with today.