It’s not all bad – I have lived in different countries before and absolutely plan to move again, so don’t be discouraged! Think of all the friends, cultural understanding, language skills, food and general joy that will be added to your life from this experience.
But let’s not be too flippant about this – we need to have realistic expectations. Be kind to yourself, because humans do struggle with uprooting and replanting in totally unknown territory. It’s confusing and overwhelming and a little scary.
So these are my tips for making that process a little easier for yourself.
Build a routine. Depending on your reasons for moving, this might be harder for some people than others! But how about setting aside every Saturday morning for a cooked breakfast, or Sunday afternoon for an outdoors walk? Could you honour a simple routine – like watching a movie once a week, or meeting a friend for coffee – that would give your crazy schedule some structure, or at least a little treat to look forward to? You can’t be stressed every waking moment of your day, or you will be miserable. Commit to a routine that includes rest and recuperation.
Eat familiar food. Not all the time – your host country probably has amazing dishes on offer that you definitely don’t want to miss out on! But don’t feel bad about eating something you’re comfortable with every once in a while. Make yourself feel at home, and find that balance between cultural immersion and your comfort zone. When I lived in China, I loved the food! Chinese people are so proud of their cuisine, and rightly so. I tried new things, and braved unusual delicacies, from raw pig’s cheek to barbecued duck’s tongue. Did I also go to McDonalds every week for some oh-so-familiar fries? Absolutely.
Find people you trust. You’re going through a huge, emotional transition, and you shouldn’t try and do it alone. Find other ex-pats who know your struggles, and who can help you straighten out your confusions. Talk to locals who have lived abroad; ask them what they found hard, or helpful, and how they dealt with it. No one can fix your homesickness or culture shock for you, but it will help enormously if you have people you can vent to!
Stay healthy. Maybe this is obvious, but eating a balanced diet, getting outside, exercising, and drinking plenty of water will make you feel good, and improve your mood. Don’t let those things slip just because everything else around you is changing. You are only human, and you need to look after yourself holistically if you want to make a healthy adjustment to your new life.
Be brave. Try the things you’re nervous to do (within reason!) Talk to locals. Try out your language skills on shopkeepers. Figure out the public transport. Set yourself little, achievable challenges that will keep you learning and engaging with the host country.
Sleep. You’re body needs sleep, so let it sleep! You might be jet-lagged, or overwhelmed, and in need of a little extra rest – so rest! Have a nap. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little more time to sleep when you’re in a new place. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Bonus tip: It’s going to be okay. Keep going – you’re doing great.
How have you dealt with culture shock in the past? What would your advice be for people moving to a new country?
‘Culture shock’ is a word we use quite liberally these days – “moving to that part of town was a bit of a culture shock!” or “there was quite a bit of culture shock when I changed schools’. And all of these things are valid – change isn’t easy!
That said, when we throw that term around as much as we do, we can forget just how profound the experience of culture shock can be in a completely different country.
Culture shock can rear its head in the form of loneliness, tiredness, isolation, homesickness, withdrawal, irritability…the list goes on. You might find yourself missing a food you never even liked that much before – it just reminds you of home. You might find yourself getting emotional because of a smell that reminds you of your family’s cooking. You might even find yourself lacking the energy to leave the house, because being surrounded by all the new sounds, accents, and maybe languages, is draining.
4 Phases of Culture Shock
We commonly think about culture shock in four phases, and these phases will last different lengths of time and manifest themselves a little differently in every person.
We start with the Honeymoon Phase: these are the golden weeks where everything seems new and exciting. The locals seem charming and the food is delicious and the weather is beautiful. This was the best choice you’ve ever made.
If you’re on a quick holiday, you might find that you never get past the Honeymoon Phase! If you stick around a little longer though, you’re going to run into some difficulties. Next up is the Frustration Phase (also known as the Anxiety Phase.)
This is the part where you start to realise all the things you don’t know about this country, and the list of things that make no sense to you is probably growing with every minute you’re there! Why do they talk to me like that? Why can’t they just eat normal food? What do those signs mean?
It might feel like you are notoriously different, chronically out-of-the-loop. It might feel like there’s no hope for you to ever feel at home here.
But there is hope, because all of these things become easier with time. That’s what the Adjustment Phase is about.
You’ll start to learn your way around, and gain independence. You’ll be doing your own shopping, maybe even chatting away in a new language. You’ll start growing friendships and building community around you, and you might start finding answers to some of those niggling cultural questions.
And then, after all the hassle, frustration, and learning, there’s one final stage. It might take months, it might even take years, but it exists: the Acceptance Phase.
This doesn’t mean you fully understand your host country, or are necessarily fluent in the language. But it means you’ve found your place there: you’re settled, and that’s where your life is now. You’re thriving, or at least, at ease in this culture that used to be so strange to you.
These phases aren’t clear-cut or prescriptive, but they are a really helpful guideline to give you an idea of what to expect, and to justify what you might be feeling. You can prepare yourself before you leave: know that there will be difficulties, and that that is completely normal.
Nobody ever said crossing cultures would be easy. It takes time and patience – both with your host country and with yourself! But it is possible, and it will get better.
What elements of culture shock have taken you by surprise on your travels?
What are your tips for dealing with culture shock?
“Oh, Malawi,” he replies with a genuine smile. “British, huh? You are our colonial masters!”
This is a real conversation that I’ve actually had multiple times, with people from different African countries. Every time it has been said with a smile, and every time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I didn’t even know that Malawi was a British colony. The truth is, I didn’t learn a thing about British colonial history at school. I had to start learning the hard way – from the people who almost exclusively learn about the shadier British/European exploits in history class, because they bore the brunt of it.
What is Colonialism?
The ancients, by their system of colonization, made themselves friends all over the known world; the moderns have sought to make subjects, and therefore have made enemies.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what do we mean by colonialism? National Geographic puts it like this: “One nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”
Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.
Now, building empires and taking over other peoples’ land is not a modern phenomenon – think of the Ancient Romans! But what we think of as modern colonialism kicked off in around the fourteenth century with the Age of Discovery. Basically, a number of European countries (notably Portugal, France, Spain and England) began discovering new trade routes around the coasts of Africa and the Americas. They found that a lot of these countries were rich in materials not found in Europe – so they took what they wanted.
So by the time the twentieth century swung around, the majority of the world’s countries had at some point been colonised by Europeans.
This may all seem a long time ago, but let me put this in perspective: Macau belonged to Portugal for 400 years. It was ‘returned’ to China in 1999 – that’s only 20 years ago! Comoros only gained independence from France in 1975. Seychelles got independence from Britain a year later.
There is a widespread view in many of the former colonies that decolonisation has not brought about significant economic or cultural independence.
Maja Mikula, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies
The fact is that a lot of decolonisation – that is, the ‘conquering’ state withdrawing to let the colony become independent – is not distant, long-forgotten history. It has happened in peoples’ lifetimes, or their parent’s lifetimes. And hundreds of years of history leave their mark.
Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome … It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices.
Facing Today in the Light of History
How can I, as a pale-skinned Brit, respectfully and thoughtfully travel to and befriend people from countries that my ancestors oppressed?
Ignoring or downplaying colonial atrocities is the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.
I don’t go out looking for conversations about how my country went out and built an empire. It makes me so uncomfortable and angry to think that my ancestors ever thought that they were superior to their ‘exotic’ friends, or that they had any right to kill, destroy, and take control in the way that they did. I hate that that’s what history looks like. But I also can’t ignore it.
That said, what I’ve found is that many people would never accuse me of those crimes. I remember walking around the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a Chinese friend:
“It’s so sad that this beautiful place got destroyed,” I said, as we wandered through the marble ruins. “It…it was the British, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, well,” she said. “I think the French helped too.”
“No need to be sorry,” she chuckled. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn’t you.”
So if my friends aren’t too bothered – if my Kenyan friend likes to joke that things went downhill after ‘my grandparents’ left, and my Hong Kong friend cheerfully shows me around the British-built police station – do I still need to think about this? It’s all in the past, forgiven, right?
First of all, if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t get to decide when they forgive me. So although in general, my travels to previously colonised countries have been completely pleasant, I know that there may still be people who don’t look kindly on Europeans. It’s hurtful, but it’s understandable.
Secondly, in a horrible, subliminal way, colonialism affects how we view ourselves as a nation. We’ve grown into ugly habits of seeing ourselves as the helpers, the teachers, and just generally doing things the right way. Everyone else is ‘the other‘. Can you see how this kind of deep-rooted false assumption – even if we’re not aware that we’re thinking it – will make us seem arrogant and patronising as soon as we leave our own countries?
Imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.
So…can British people still go to places like India and Egypt and Papua New Guinea? Of course!
Here are a few points I like to remind myself of when I travel to countries like that.
I am not at fault, but I represent a country that is. That means that although I had no part in what happened, I acknowledge that they did, and that they were wrong.
Cultural superiority is a lie. My country is not better than yours, our art/language/food/philosophy is not to superior to yours. We are different, developing and working things out at different rates. I do not go to other countries to educate them on the ‘Western way’.
We are equals. We are humans of equal value, and I will treat you as such. Your story is as important as mine, so I’ll listen.
Visiting previously colonised countries is not necessarily awkward. Be aware that there have been past hurts, but that your friendships can transcend them. We remember history so that it doesn’t happen again – maybe your next friendship can be a symbol of a more united, more loving world.
Can we be a generation that doesn’t shy away from past suffering, but tries to heal relationships, and build a better world learning from past mistakes?
I think so. I hope so.
Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.
T’Challa, Black Panther (don’t judge, it’s a great quote)
These are issues with no easy answers. What’s your take?
How important is it to keep wrestling with these concepts, and addressing the past? How do you do that in a respectful and humble way?
We’re all people, we all have (pretty much) the same survival needs, internal organs, emotions…when we have so much in common, why is it so hard to fit into a different country or community?
The answer, my friends, is culture. (Usually.)
Culture is more than creative expression: maybe when you think of culture, you think of paintings, or traditional crafts, or national music. And you’re not wrong: the arts are a big part of culture, but culture is not the arts. Are you following?
If you’re picturing ancient Chinese paintings, or African tribal masks, or ancient Greek statues, then again, you’re not wrong. Those belong under the ‘culture’ umbrella. But don’t let a colonial superiority complex make you think you or your country are “above culture”, just because you don’t see it manifested in the way you might expect. You have it, because you are human and you are surrounded by humans.
In fact, some would argue that culture is not what we make, but what makes us.
“Society or culture or whatever you might want to call it, has created us all solely and wholly for the purpose of maintaining its continuity and status quo.” – U.G. Krishnamurti
Our cultures shape our language, our manners, our humour, our relationships, our values, our beliefs… In a weird, brain-twisting paradox, we are forming culture as culture forms us.
The uncomfortable part is that a lot of cultural indicators are subliminal: you might not even realise that you think or behave in a certain way, because it is so deeply ingrained in your experience of life.
Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of. – Ellen Goodman
So it’s no wonder moving to a new country, or working in an international company, or marrying into another culture is so hard! We are all human, we are all valuable, and we all function more or less the same way, but we are all wired a little differently. Out cultures have gifted us with different perspectives and traditions and ways of being, and sometimes those cultures contradict.
Maybe your Brazilian coworker wants to hug everyone, but that makes your Japanese office buddy uncomfortable. Maybe your female Muslim neighbour won’t shake your hand, or your Jewish uncle won’t eat the bacon sandwich you made him. (These are all quite black and white examples, I’m sure you’ll come across much more confusing and subversive ones!)
But here’s the key. Your culture is not right. It’s not wrong, by any means, but it is human and that means it’s complex. It means it’s changing, evolving, and adapting to the circumstances around it. The same goes for other peoples’ cultures.
Your culture(s) almost definitely played a big role in defining who you are today, even if you were fighting against it! But what’s a culture without a people to subscribe to it? You are still free to question the things you have always been taught. The more you travel, and the more people you meet who are different to you, the more you will realise what you are like. You’ll notice quirks about your own country: things you love, and things you wish were better.
So…what do we do with this knowledge? We have all this terminology to think about people groups and how humans function socially, but what, practically, needs to happen now?
You tell me. Would thinking about culture explain that conflict with your foreign neighbour? Would a deeper awareness of your own culture help you settle as an ex-patriate in a new country? Or, would an understanding of different cultures give you a more balanced view of your country’s place in the world?
Again, you tell me.
What do you think are some defining features of your culture?
If you have lived abroad, what did that experience teach you about yourself?
Do you have an awkward culture-clash story to share? (Please do. It makes us all feel better.)