Home Culture Shock: How to Beat the Overseas Blues

Culture Shock: How to Beat the Overseas Blues

Posted by on July 24th, 2018.

Feeling the blues when you first move abroad is probably more common than you think. It can be so common, in fact, that it’s often cited as one of the main reasons people return to their country of origin.

But what exactly causes these feelings? Are they just fleeting, or can you expect them to get worse as time goes by? And how can you combat them?

Read on to find out how you can beat those dreaded overseas blues …

The Science and Psychology of Culture Shock

When planning your move it’s important to be aware that you will likely experience some degree of culture shock when you arrive. The term ‘culture shock’ was coined by Canadian anthropologist Kalerov Oberg to describe the state of anxiety and frustration that can occur when one is immersed in a culture different to one’s own.

Although you might not think it will affect you, the average person who moves to a new country goes through four distinct phases of cultural adjustment on the road to full psychological acceptance of their new home. These stages are as follows:

The ‘Honeymoon’ Phase

You’ve just moved to the place you’ve been dreaming about for so long and life is brilliant and full of wonder. Fresh sights, sounds, foods and experiences flood your senses, boosting dopamine levels and making you feel on a permanent high.

During the honeymoon phase it can feel like you are walking on air. You’ll probably feel full of energy and anything seems possible in your new life.

But these feelings don’t usually last forever.

The ‘Comparison’ Phase

As the initial excitement of the move subsides, you begin to notice the differences between your old and new lives. Your more critical faculties begin to click and whirr into action as the everyday reality of your situation starts to dawn on you. Perhaps you’re settling into a new job and the initial ‘newness’ of everything has worn off. There are bills to pay, and getting to grips with the language is proving frustrating.

Seemingly small things might begin to niggle:

‘Did that woman really just push in front of me in this queue?’

‘Why can’t people drive properly here?’

During the comparison phase, stark differences between the new and old become apparent. It could be a language barrier, incomprehensible bureaucracy, ‘annoying’ national traits, or something as simple as missing a familiar food. These niggles can then give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and moments of guilty longing for the mundane-but-familiar ways of your old life. Irritation about your situation builds up inside you.

After this comes …

The ‘Adjustment’ Phase

This usually kicks in after 6 – 12 months, depending on where you’ve moved to, when you find yourself growing accustomed to the ‘odd’ ways of your new culture. What was previously different or even bizarre, starts to become the norm for you.

Although customs, mannerisms, body language and other things may be markedly different to what you previously regarded as ‘normal’, you begin to accept them, and may even experiment with adopting these new ways yourself. When friends come and visit you, things they may remark on as ‘odd’ no longer seem unusual to you.

Yes, you’ve started to ‘go native’.

The ‘Adaptation’ Phase

When you feel fully comfortable in your adopted culture you can be said to have accepted the change in your life and adapted to the circumstances. Any sense of homesickness or culture shock will now have passed – after all this is your home, this is your adopted culture.

If you’re aware of this process of cultural adaptation then you can consciously recognise each stage and be aware that those feelings you’re experiencing are quite normal.

Dealing with Culture Shock

Even the best laid plans can come apart, and so even the best preparations for your new life can seem insufficient when you find yourself living in a different country. Maintaining a sunny disposition and hoping any feelings of culture shock and homesickness will go away might not be the best way of dealing with them. Instead, you may need to take a more ‘hands-on’ approach to banishing those blues. Ways to do so could include the following:

Get out and Explore

Moving abroad involves dealing with things that are unfamiliar to you – whether it’s on a cultural, culinary, or linguistic level – and one of the best ways to feel more settled is simply get to know the local environment and meet the people who live there.

This can start even before you move: try to learn as much as possible about the place you’re going to live. You could do this by reading books, watching documentaries and movies, joining groups on social media that are centred on your new destination, or seeking out restaurants that serve the cuisine of your new host country. Be inventive in your explorations.

When you arrive, after you’ve got your bearings, try not to just stick to the spot you’ve landed on. Get in a car, train or bus, and explore the surrounding area. Walk around your neighbourhood and browse the local shops. Go into different cafes and restaurants and pluck up the courage to try foods you wouldn’t normally dare to. Be mindful of the fact you’re stepping outside your comfort zone, and accept it.

The point of this is that, day by day, your new surroundings will become less alien to you. It’s even better if you can strike up conversations with people and get involved with local clubs and groups that make you feel a part of the community.

Connect with Other Expats

The internet is a great tool – now you can connect with people in a similar situation to yourself without even having to leave your armchair. If you find yourself living in a foreign country or city and you don’t know anyone at all except for, perhaps, your partner, then all you need to do is log on and search for local groups.

There are many expat community groups and websites – and these are a great way of finding people who know exactly how you’re feeling because they themselves have likely been through the same experience. What’s more, they can help you gently ease yourself into your host culture, and they’ll be there to listen to (and perhaps chime in with) your moans and frustrations as you grapple with the daily realities of life in your adopted home.

Establish a Routine

Another great way of fighting the blues when abroad is by working to establish a routine. Usually, when you move, your old routine will go out of the window. Try to re-establish it.

Routines can foster predictability and a sense of security, making them a useful tool when your existence in a new city or locale is feeling chaotic and disordered.

This likely won’t be a problem if you’re moving to a new country for a job, or if you’re studying abroad, but in any case it doesn’t harm to get into some kind of rhythm in your new life.

Keep in Close Contact with Friends and Loved Ones

How do you feel if you hop on a flight and go back for a few days? Do you feel sad at the prospect of returning, tearful at the prospect of saying goodbye again to close friends and relatives?

If so, then don’t worry, these are perfectly natural feelings and are experienced by the majority of people who move abroad. Usually they’re only temporary, although if it’s particular people you’re missing, rather than just life in general in your old country, there are ways you can stay in touch more closely, such as by using video chat.

Why not go further and invite friends and relatives out to visit you? Being forced to act as a tour guide, showing them around the sights, can really reinforce to yourself why you moved there in the first place.

If all Else Fails …

At the end of it all, you might do well to accept that, sometimes, moving to a certain place will never meet your expectations. It could be that you just don’t feel you fit in there, and that you’ll never be able to call the place home. Perhaps you’ve given it your best shot but that tantalising ‘adaptation phase’ always seems just beyond your reach.

If this happens to you then don’t be too hard on yourself. Life, after all, is a journey to be enjoyed, and we all learn from our mistakes. Many expats move two or even three times before they find their ‘forever home’ – and they end up all the happier for having tried out living in different places along the way.

So, the best advice for moving abroad is: prepare yourself; accept that your feelings might change; don’t be too hard on yourself … and be willing to move on if you decide that where you’ve settled isn’t for you!

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