So you’ve spent a couple of weeks, maybe even months enjoying yourself and saying all the good things about your new home. There’s a high chance you will go back to those feelings. Really! Before that happens though you might need to face the downside of moving abroad: Da Culture Shock.
As I was writing this post various memes started coming to my mind so I allowed myself to include them as a way of illustrating the frustration phase of culture shock*.
As you might remember from the previous weeks, where we mentioned the honeymoon phase, there is no clear cut-off point for any of those phases. Well, there is even no guarantee that all of them will actually appear in your case. However, given the years of research on how people adjust to living in various places in the world we might at least want to learn a bit about what might happen to us after we move. It’s better to be prepared. Regardless of how various researchers name these experiences.
The frustration phase is basically the point where the little things that were so interestingly different become the biggest frustrations. Say, in my case it might have been the British dinners for example. At first I thought it is so great that people can go out for dinners so often, that it’s rather affordable and such a great way to catch up with friends. This was the point where I was more like “England’s awesome! I’m staying here forever!”. After a while though it has become a pain point as I realised how much I’m missing my Polish suppers with just a simple sandwich. The problem was – it was hard to find a real proper bread in my area. I mean, there were various shops of course, it’s just it wasn’t a real bakery with a real wholemeal bread with some seeds etc. As silly as it might sound, being given a choice of white rolls and toast bread only was an actual challenge at the time which was making me emotional about going home. (By the way, during that frustration stage I was so determined to find a good bakery that I ended up even finding two nearby! 🙂 )
Emotions that might accompany the frustration stage take almost the whole spectrum. It might go from “Oh, I finally understood what it meant!, wohoo!” to “Kill me, kill me now.” You might find yourself bursting in tears suddenly or just shutting down completely or being overly enthusiastic when trying to adjust your behaviours to the new environment. All of that equally possible. All of it is normal. Very likely you’ll experience it all within one week.
Culture shock is not about the big things. The big things like a different language or driving on the left you can more easily prepare for. It’s mostly the matter of expanding the knowledge and doing some reading. The culture shock is usually mostly about the small things that people rarely talk about. The cultural nuances of communication or making decisions in a multinational environment. It’s very much a psychological phenomenon. At some point it turns out that there is just too many of these small things. Too many things that we don’t quite understand, too many things that make us feel unsure. These little things then make us burst out with frustration when we simply can’t take it anymore.
Going abroad is a time of very intense self-discovery – discovering who you really are, what your values are, what is important, what you are ok to let go and what is just so engrained in you that will likely never change. Why is it so important to understand and explore? Because the things that you feel emotional about or the values that are at your core will most likely be the ones that will be most challenged when you move abroad.
An example of mine that I can give you might be calling people by their first names. In Poland (also very much reflected in Polish language) it is a sign of respect to call a more senior person per Ms/Mr (I wrote more about this here as well). For me transitioning to an English speaking environment when I needed to address a senior director by their first name was a true challenge as it was conflicting my very deeply rooted value – respect for older/more senior people. What made the transition hard is that whenever I even tried to adjust and fit in by simply calling them by their first name as everyone else, it felt uncomfortable, I felt stupid, I felt like I was disrespectful. After a while I found a way to reframe my thinking and find other ways I can put at the core of the idea of “expressing respect” for people and only then it stopped being weird. Although for the external people struggles like that might not be so obvious, it is a hard work on your side to discover the reasons for your feelings and behaviours and trying to reframe the thinking to incorporate a new reality into your old schemes.
Remember, you’re never alone with all those feelings. You’ve got your close ones (although far away they’re still there!) and you’ve got other expats around the world who you might share your struggles with 🙂
It will get better soon, you’ll work through it!
* On that note, there is a really cool Instagram account I found recently called ExpatMemes which is just a mine of expat meme ideas. So funny! Check it out!