Moving countries at any age is difficult. Many of us have travelled in our twenties, oh our glorious twenties where many of us ‘spread our wings’ (*erhm*) in another country, free from expectations of family, friends and the pressure of people knowing you. For sure, aspects of that are difficult – many of us were living hand to mouth in filthy backpacker situations or longing for the comforts of home.
But now you’re in your thirties, generally, you’ve got more money and a touch more sense. Moving overseas can be a really rewarding experience both personally and professionally, but is not without its ups and downs.
Whilst I’ve lived overseas twice at length, I have to say both times it was under pretty dreamy circumstances, I wasn’t exactly situated in the middle of nowhere or living on 2-minute noodles. Never-the-less, both times I experienced culture shock, homesickness and had to re-evaluate my views of myself and others.
Culture shock comes in four stages, of course as individuals we can experience these stages differently and the impact and order can vary. It can also be very difficult to have that perspective when you’re in the situation and pull yourself out of where you might find yourself at the time.
The Honeymoon Stage – You’re loving getting to know your new culture, environment, people, language and food. You’re excited, you’re learning and your rose coloured glasses are spectacularly helpful at helping you navigate your new environment.
The Frustration Stage – Eventually having stayed long enough this stage eventually finds you. Fatigue sets in from the use of other languages, you have frustration for the cultural differences and rules, miss home comforts such as familiar food and long for the ease of your old relationships.
The Adjustment Stage – By this phase you have pulled yourself out of the frustration in the day-to-day sense and are able to find positives again and some compromise in your views. You find shortcuts in navigating your new environment and settle into some routines.
Acceptance and Assimilation – You’re able to navigate those compromises and can accept some of those elements as your own. You move about your environment with ease and confidence and can integrate into the social and cultural fabric. Whilst full assimilation is rare, most people can combine elements of their previous culture to find happiness in their new surrounds. You stop the comparisons and accept the present.
So what can you do to survive your next adventure?
Purpose and Expectation – I think it depends on why you’re there to start with. Are you there to find yourself and explore the world? Or are you there to start a new life, or a new job or support someone else. Being conscious of my purpose has helped me along the way, as soon as I lost that I lost myself in the noise. Be prepared to take stock at multiple points in time, find perspective and make a new plan.
Just as your purpose needs redefining sometimes, so does your expectations. Are your expectations holding you back? Were you thinking this trip of self discovery was going to be full of Instagram highlights and lightening bolt moments of spirituality? Expectations are a funny thing, these visualisations can be both helpful and hindering – which are yours? Those learning moments don’t always come in a conveniently packaged ‘ah-ha’ but are revealed as you reflect back over a longer period of time.
Network – I can’t stress this enough. You may be an outgoing person and think you’re putting yourself out there, but can find to your dismay it’s not enough, especially if there is a language barrier. The backpacking days of drunken friendships in hostels may be behind some of us, so putting yourself out there can be difficult in a big city.
You need to be strategic, prepared and brave and then some. This isn’t just relevant in a professional sense, networking in a personal sense is also important. I’ve found making new friends and networks is a bit like blind dating, you have to be prepared for hits and misses and wear your heart on your sleeve. Join clubs, volunteers, meet-ups, Alumni groups, play a sport, go to events in your interests, listen and ask questions. There are some great groups for expats around both online and organised events, and whilst surrounding yourself in an expat bubble isn’t necessarily the best way to assimilate to your new surrounds, they can be a wealth of information on many topics. There are so many options, so start researching!
For those looking to develop a professional network, develop a detailed plan with key bodies, key groups, events and people you wish to meet and work out when and how you will approach these interests. Be genuine, listen and be willing to share your expertise without strings attached.
Stay Connected – It goes without saying, Skype, WhatsApp groups, Facebook and other forms of social media are a great way of connecting with friends and family around the world. A good conversation with family or friends can make you feel like you’re back at home, why not make a fun date of it with a coffee or wine? But be careful with how you use Facebook, a feed full of summer photos whilst you’re suffering through a wet winter is a sure fire way to misery (believe me).
Mindfulness – Pondering on the present (when things aren’t perfect) may seem counter intuitive, however meditation or other ways of being mindful can help calm the never ending conversations in your head. Or why not try a diary per week or day, this can be a great way to express and record the ups and downs and a nice personal keepsake.
Try and Learn – Being exposed to a variety cultural differences can be overwhelming, particularly if they feel very far removed from your own. Arm yourself with understanding. Learn why things are the way they are and try to see the world from other’s shoes, perhaps you might like what you find. Try new things, wide and far. Ask people to show you new things, the best sights, new food and read local websites and publications if you can. Remember, not understanding or agreeing with everything you encounter is ok – it’s what you do with those feelings that count.
Talk it Out – If you’re moving with a partner, then culture shock can be tough on your relationship. One person may find their groove quicker than the other and experience the stages differently. Being prepared for this is key, knowing that culture shock comes in stages and that this may bring up issues or put pressure on your relationship is far better than going in blind. Set some special time aside for your both and talk through what is going on for you and how you may support each other. Simple techniques such as using the questions below can help.
- ‘The best thing this week was…’
- ‘The worst thing this week was…’
- ‘What I learnt this week was…’
- ‘What do you need from me?’
- ‘What help I would like from you is…’
So now you’re prepared for your next adventure! As my next international move approaches, I have started my planning and research to hit the ground running with a little more panache than my last and have spoken with my partner on various topics of expectations, fears and purpose and how to deal with certain issues.
Enjoy, explore and learn to love the ups and downs. As you will look back in no time and think wow look how far have I come!
Written by Melanie Rayment
A strategist, social and experience designer, storyteller, advocate, mother of two and occasional dreamer.
Melanie is a native Sydney-sider, having lived and worked in the UK and Japan, learning from many amazing people along the way. She has worked with global companies in delivering brand experiences and has applied her design skills to multiple social issues, something she never dreamt even possible in her twenties.
She believes in the power of design to effect positive change across organisations, systems and nations and has hope that we can continue to find new and innovative ways to approach the problems we face in society.
She can be often found analysing life over a G & T, suffers FOMO when it comes to her passions and is now staring down the start of a PhD with trepidation whilst patching holes in the super mummy cape that her beautiful girls bestow upon her.