Learning ‘Home’: 6 Ways to Settle into Life Abroad

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.

George Santayana, The Philosophy of Travel

We’ve talked about this before: culture shock is hard. Making friends is hard. Moving abroad is so, so hard.

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.

Love, Dani

  • How have you dealt with culture shock in the past? What would your advice be for people moving to a new country?

Culture Shock Blues

‘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.

I like this illustration from the Swedish for Professionals website

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.

Love, Dani

  • What elements of culture shock have taken you by surprise on your travels?
  • What are your tips for dealing with culture shock?

Jude: Human Amongst Robots (Poem)

Jude was born in Brazil, and moved to Italy when he was 11 years old. He moved to England as a young adult, before later returning to his beloved Italy.

When I was 24, I decided to leave Italy and have a ‘London experience’. I arrived there alone, and I had to start from zero – that meant a new job, new house, new friends, and a new culture. It was the most wonderful, painful experience I’ve ever had.

London is amazing – loads of culture, hundreds of things to do…but mostly you are alone. And when you come from a Latino/Mediterranean culture, you are taught to expect a ‘mi casa es tu casa‘ welcome. In the UK, I had to face the fact that ‘mi casa es tu casa…if I want you here.’ I was living with deep depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

For the first three years, I had a love-hate relationship with the country.

I didn’t share my experience with other immigrants that were in my position. It was only after I published my poetry book ‘Words/Wars’ that a few people reached out to me: “I thought I was the only one that lived in that loneliness.”

I would say this: this might not be the last place you live in. Give yourself the opportunity to live more experiences and see more places. Don’t build boundaries; be open, because life changes, and you will change with it.

LND
The fog is in town and
my heart is gone.
I am drinking a hot cappuccino
in Starbucks,
and voices are all around me.
Memories of my life get
louder in here
because this place is so empty,
and people
look like crazy robots.
I don’t miss being a robot.
I am real now.
A human amongst robots.
I have a heart that pulses hard.

Jude tweets at @JsaintJude, and his debut poetry book is for sale on Amazon.

5 Ways to Make Friends in a New Place

Whether you’ve moved to a new city or a new country, being the ‘new kid’ can be so lonely. It can be hard to know how to relate to these people, and you might be left feeling very foreign, and out-of-sync with everyone else.

You do need friends, though. You need community. So I promise you, all of the awkwardness and miscommunications are worth it in the end.

For the first few weeks or months, your friendship-building might just look like forced friendliness and slightly stilted interactions. And you know what? That’s ok! Persevere through the awkwardness. Take the time to get to know the people around you: what their interests are, how they spend free time, what their lives are like. And give them a chance to get used to you, too!

Making friends looks a little different from culture to culture, but I wanted to share my tips for finding people to connect with when you’re new to a place. I moved to Scotland just last month, and forcing myself to do these things not only helped me meet more people, but feel settled much faster!

  1. Smile at your neighbours. Chat, be friendly, ask for and offer practical help. Don’t become known as the person in your building/on your street who doesn’t interact with anyone! In some communities, neighbours are practically family. Don’t forget that in some cultures it’s polite to give your neighbour a small gift when you first move in, or at least knock on their door and introduce yourself. Try and find out what might be expected of you in that culture. If in doubt, do what you would do in your culture (don’t forget to explain that to your neighbour!), and let that be a talking point to break the ice. Your neighbours will be invaluable sources of information, too – they know the area, the landlord, and the language, so they might be willing to help you out if you have any problems!
  2. Find a hobby. It doesn’t matter what it is – rock climbing, choir, calligraphy…do something that will both help you relax, and let you meet people with similar interests! It will not only make you a more interesting person to talk with, but having some ‘scheduled fun’ will do wonders for your mental health, and help you feel much more settled.
  3. Be a good colleague/coursemate. When I’m the new person, I get nervous and tend to withdraw from people. Because I know that that is my first reaction, I try to catch myself in that habit, and reject those negative actions. These people are often very willing for you to join in their community, they just need to figure out who you are and what you’re like! The sooner you can build good relationships with the people who are naturally around you on a day to day basis, the better an experience your work/school will be.
  4. ‘Take me to church’. Are you religious? Get stuck into a mosque/church/synagogue etc as soon as you possibly can! Visiting your place of worship in a new place might just be the key to discovering these people aren’t so different from you after all. These places can also be incredibly welcoming, so get stuck into that community and enjoy your family away from home.
  5. Volunteer. In my opinion, the best way to integrate into a community is to serve it. So, what’s going on in yours? Is there a soup kitchen for the homeless, or an after-school club for disadvantaged kids? Is there a litter-picking group, or English classes for refugees? Find something you can help with. You’ll not only feel the sense of community, but you’ll know you’ve used your time in a really worthwhile way!

Making friends cross-culturally is hard, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if things start off slowly. Persevere, be patient, and keep smiling! It will happen.

“If you want a friend, be a friend.”

Love, Dani

  • What has your experience of building cross-cultural friendships been?
  • What other tips would you give to people who feel lonely in their new home?

5 Ways to Look After Yourself When You Move Abroad

So you’ve just moved, or are about to move, to a different country? Great – what a wonderful, enriching experience for you! Also, it’s going to be super hard.

The thing is, we all have different personalities, and we’ll all deal with country moves in a slightly different way. So although I’m planning to give some pointers today, you can take everything with a pinch of salt. You’ll have your own, unique needs. I hope this helps anyway.

I moved to China in 2018, and I heard all sorts of methods to integrate with the culture. “Open-door policy” was one – the idea was that your apartment would always be open and available to your friends and neighbours, at any time. That idea stressed me out so much that I didn’t even try, but I know it really worked for the family who suggested it.

“Avoid having too many ex-pat friends” was another philosophy. I do understand the thought behind this one: if you want to really get involved in and learn about China, of course you need to invest in some Chinese friends! But I also learned a lot from my ex-pat friends, because they were also looking at Chinese culture from the outside, and they could see and articulate mannerisms, values, and habits within the culture that someone who had never left China probably couldn’t. Also…my Chinese isn’t very fluent. I really appreciated being able to relax and speak English occasionally!

So that’s what didn’t work for me. Here’s what really did:

  1. Take naps. Seriously, take naps. Be kind to your brain. Moving to a new place can be so emotional and overstimulating that your energy levels will be a little lower than usual. For the first month (or three), make sure you have times in the day to let your brain rest. You were never going to feel comfortable in that culture straight away, so why get worked up about it?
  2. Indulge in home comforts. To clarify, I’m not suggesting you become one of those ex-pats that won’t touch local food. I’m just saying you don’t need to deny yourself things that bring that little sense of home. For me, I ate Chinese food every day, but brought a little stash of Galaxy chocolate and Yorkshire Tea from the UK. Find your own balance.
  3. Don’t call home too much. Your parents might not be thrilled about this, but hear me out! You need to be fully present in your new country. Your home and your family are incredibly important, of course, but they don’t need you to call them every day – not in the first couple of weeks, at least. You need space to build up your new life and let yourself start cultivating new routines and relationships. Call your parents more once you’re settled, maybe.
  4. Learn to laugh at yourself. You will make language mistakes. You might get confused in the supermarket, or get on the wrong bus, or have a misunderstanding with a stranger. No new ex-patriate ever has a completely smooth run, so learn to laugh it off! The challenges are all part of the experience, and you’ll probably learn a lot more about the country because of them!
  5. Look after other people. Does your neighbour need a hand with those heavy bags? Could you hold the door for that older lady? Does your ex-pat friend need a friend to moan about homesickness with? When you keep an eye out for other peoples’ needs, not only do you become a more integrated and appreciated part of the community, but you forget about your own problems! Moving countries is hard, there’s no doubt about it, but remember that everyone has struggles. Make friends, be helpful, be hospitable, and you’ll find that sense of community much faster.

Love, Dani

  • What would your tips for moving to a new country be?
  • Do you have any stories about your mistakes in a new place?

Piroska: First Days in Vancouver (Poem)

Piroska was born in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and a Hungarian father, with whom she moved to Canada as a child. She was a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and now as an ’empty-nester’ is exploring her creative side.

Being an immigrant to Canada changed my life, even though I was young when we moved. My dad’s perception of “us vs. them” came up often – in his eyes, European was often ‘better’. He looked down on his neighbours. Maybe it was his way of compensating for what he thought he lacked.

First Days in Vancouver

I could feel my mother’s sadness– 
it filled the room like a thick fog.

I stared out the hotel window 
and saw nothing but gloom and grey;
the rain ran in rivulets down the pane,
like the tears on my mother’s face.

Vancouver was an ugly city,
to my five-year old eyes.
The buildings were huge concrete monsters,
and the constant sounds terrified me.

Horns beeped incessantly; police sirens shrieked.
The sound of people rushing about–
the buzzing of busy-ness.

My parents would take us for walks,
but it was hard not to get soaked,
dodging huge puddles,
and I couldn’t get the stench
of worms out of my head.

I wanted to hear the pealing of church bells,
feel the rounded cobblestones
beneath my feet.

I missed the green meadows,
alpen wildflowers,
and going for walks with my granny.

I missed…
my old life.

Piroska posts her writing at Creative Journeys, and you can find her on Twitter @pippirose77.

What’s ‘culture’, anyway?

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.

Love, Dani

  • 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.)