It often happens that other people rush us into something that we are not ready to do or admit, they expect more from us that we can give or they compare us to others. And it is very often not with bad intentions! However, the simplifications that we hear may affect our pace of adaptation as well as the quality of the everyday life.
Here are the three common misconceptions I keep hearing from people about moving and living abroad. Actually, I probably should say ‘simplifications’ rather than ‘misconceptions’, because these simplifications are not entirely incorrect. They are just very dependent on the aspect of the move and the lens you are looking through.
Number 1: It is easier to move to a country nearby than to the other side of the world
Well, logistically it might be. But in other aspects – not necessarily. It doesn’t have to be easier to move from Spain to Germany than from Spain to Japan just because it’s closer. It really depends on the aspects that you are looking at and that are most important to you.
If you’re looking for a country that speaks the same language, it might actually be easier to move from Spain to Argentina rather than to Germany. There are probably more similarities between the two Spanish-speaking countries and it might be easier to get a job there.
What if you look at the adaptation process? That one on the other hand would really depend on the individual. Sometimes it can be tricky to think that if you are a Spanish person going to Argentina you obviously will adapt quickly as you speak the language and all. The reality is that even within the same language, there are noticeable differences. It might be a weird feeling to try to look as a local and fit in, but seeing all the surprised and condescending looks of the locals clearly showing that “you are not yet one of them”. It’s easier to take, say, in Japan, where you a 100% know that you look different, behave different, speak different and potentially there are more things that you can forgiven. In Japan it might be more obvious that you are required to make more effort to adapt.
Number 2: Everyone has to go through the culture shock and its four phases before they adjust and adjusting takes about a year
Culture adaptation process exists, indeed. There is multiple research saying about the different phases and how long they might take. Such research is very important of course, but it does work on averages. The reality is that each situation is different, each person brings their own world of experiences to the situation. And each person struggles with something else at different pace.
We might certainly say that most of the phases are just exactly that – a phase – meaning that they will pass and they will not last forever. We can’t say that they won’t mix or come back. In whatever order they come, it is completely fine.
Culture shock is more than you think. It is not just one behaviour that you are changing and you’re done. It is a process. It is a process that links to ingrained behaviours, beliefs and values, which are suddenly not working in a new location. This is why it can be so unpredictable and so hard sometimes, especially when we initially don’t even realize which of the values are so dear to us.
There are people who just go with it, they have a couple surprises here and there, but generally adjust relatively quickly. There are people however for whom the change of location is the change of their whole lives and it’s not easy. Whichever person you are, you have to know that neither is more normal than the other is. You are perfectly normal and you simply need to figure out your own way to deal with your challenges.
Number 3: You have to know the local language to live abroad
Simple answer is – you do not. Which I guess is the good news if that was stopping you from going abroad and getting the experience. However, I’d say that knowing English these days is super helpful in most places in the world and would be a nice-to-have as a starter. If you don’t know the local language, it is worth knowing someone locally though.
The truth is that you can get by with just English in many places in the world. See how I used the phrase ‘get by’? That’s pretty much what it is though, unless the city is truly international and expat-heavy. Even then however, I feel like you are in the expat bubble and are not fully experiencing the local culture to the roots of it. You see various behaviours, you celebrate local holidays. But you always are a foreigner.
If you are planning to stay in a given location more long-term I can’t imagine at least trying to learn a little bit of the local language. It’s different of course if you are the kind of expat who is moving every 2 years, which makes things a lot harder. But even then, a couple of basic phrases always come in handy and make you more independent! The independence is what a lot of us seek to re-discover after moving abroad. Finally being able to do things yourself without relying on Google, friends or partner is a good feeling, isn’t it?
Do you agree with the above? What are the other misconceptions or oversimplifications that you have heard about expat life?