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?

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?