Life Abroad

Dealing with Culture Shock

When people relocate to an other country, preparing for, or dealing with, culture shock is not usually the first thing on their mind. But as experienced as you may feel with traveling, settling down for a daily life abroad is as huge a leap of faith as moving from dating life to married life.

This analogy may surprise you, but like with dating, when you travel, anything that doesn’t appeal to you is short term. If you do not enjoy a place, a dish, an atmosphere, you can just easily step away. In full contrast, an expatriation implies a much higher level of commitment, one that binds you, and one where routine prevails.

Colourful urban jungle in Bangkok

Experiencing culture shock is not something you have much control over. It just happens, regardless of how many books you read, how much you learn the language. It happens regardless of your country of origin or destination, your education or the comfort of your new life. It is not necessarily an issue with your host country, but will invariably be linked to you and your country of origin, the way you grew up there, as this sets your default perception and standards.

So what is culture shock exactly? To give you a simplified definition, it is a feeling of disorientation, a set of strong and unsettling emotions that one may experience when encountering or being surrounded by unfamiliar cultures, attitudes, social standards, or contrasting lifestyles. It is, therefore, possible to have a culture shock in one’s own country, by changing location, social environment, integrating a new group. Culture shock can affect you when joining a new company or a new school, when moving from a large city to the countryside or vice versa. This sense of change is, of course, greatly heightened when moving to a foreign country, even more so in a country that is fundamentally different from yours.

Who wouldn’t dream to move to Australia? What sort of culture shock could someone expect there?

In the specific cases of expatriation and immigration, people face change at multiple levels: new home, modified family life/dynamic, different environment, often different climate, change of food, work place and work patterns. You can top this with the culture difference of the country of relocation: different life style, different social standards, different behaviours.

Once the excitement of the novelty fades slowly into a routine, and the reality of your new life sinks in, comes the moments of uncertainty and the phase of culture shock. The turning point can be a specific moment in time or an accumulation of small factors which, if taken individually, may seem fairly unimportant. It could appear after an encounter, a disagreement, the difficulty to overcome a daily complication (public transport). It may translate through various sets of emotions, anger, frustration, distrust. Among other things, sociologists associate the signs of culture shock with issues such as:

  • sleep problems
  • feeling of insecurity – including for minor problems
  • a struggle to resolve problems
  • spikes of irritability
  • obsession over minor things (smells, tastes, recurring attitudes)
  • an excessive urge to clean everything
  • loss or increase of appetite

Can culture shock be averted? At best, can it be minimised? The answer is a flat yes, but just like the major cause of the shock is within us, so are the solutions.

Blocks of buildings in one of China’s industrial cities

One’s own capacity to adjust, to find solutions, to distance ourselves or seek help and advice is key to making the adjustment smoother. At first, make sure to settle into a home as rapidly as possible. Play your favourite music, buy a plant or flowers, plug in your Xbox, fill your kitchen with food you like, display a few familiar objects that you packed in yowursuitcase or your air freight. You have plenty of time to adapt to your new host country, but no one said you had to adapt or taken it all in within just a few days. Developing a little evening ritual during the first few weeks, will bring comfort and help ground you. As weeks pass, this nest will slowly open to guests, you will invite new friends, cook for colleagues or neighbours.

During the first few weeks you may want to seek the company of other expatriates, as they will often relate to your problems, your doubts, and many will have already found some solutions and be able to bring you some support. Their experience will help you overcome certain cultural complications or help you bypass the ones that you may struggle to reconciliate with. A similar culture shock can affect people from different origins, while people coming from the same country as you may not necessarily relate to your emotions or your doubts.

Making local friends goes also a long way, just like having a language teacher who can in many small cases assist you and make some of your daily complications feel a little lighter. Making friends, in and from the country you have move to, is a turning point to adapt and integrate country and culture. A neighbour, a teacher, or someone met during a common activity (gym, class, children’s school)

Ultimately, cultivating a sense of humour and taking a step back (via a little holiday, or a trip to your home country) will go a long way in helping you resettle the balance.

What you need the most to combat culture shock, is a solid sense of humour, the capacity to start most things with a smile (as it is a universal sign, understood by all), and somehow manage to distance yourself from a lot of things happening to you, no matter how odd they may seem to you. And perhaps you should take a couple hours to watch Lost in Translation.

Moving Abroad: How to prepare your air shipment

Your moving date has been confirmed, your visa is being processed, time has come for you to prepare your air shipment. It is time for you and your family to pack boxes, prepare the air shipment that will be flown to your country of destination. If you have ever moved before, you know a company will come and pack the things you are planning to take with you. But is it JUST that simple?

Most expatriation contracts will include a plane ticket, and a shipment. Depending on your contract, expected length of the stay, and wether you are moving alone or accompanied by your family, you will be allowed sea freight or air freight. The air shipment is the most commonly used option, as many expats find themselves living in foreign countries in furnished housing or serviced residences.

A shipment cannot be sent abroad without an address of destination, not just for delivery, mostly for customs reasons. Therefore, most relocating families or employees have already decided on a new home before they start packing their boxes.

Fully furnished apartment, when you are lucky

Unless you move to an other part of the country (which then does not apply to this article) or to a border country within the Schengen area, your shipment will have to follow certain criteria of security, and be within the import regulations of your country of destination. This explains why a moving company will pack for you, not simply to make the workload lighter. Besides moving boxes, their job is to know the rules listed by the customs service and prepare the import declaration.

Here are a few simple things you may want to do in order to:

  • maximise your space allowance,
  • pick the best and most useful items
  • not find your items rejected last minute by the movers who have to apply a set of rules.

Ready, go!

The Shipping Company

The shipping company will provide you with a list of forbidden or limited items. Your country of destination regulates what they allow for import. Not following those rules can result in inspection of the freight, delays, and sometimes items that break the rules will be seized. If some items are prohibited for freight import, but legal to transport, then place them in your suitcase. One easy example is cosmetics. Rules also usually apply to medicine, alcohol, food. Beyond that, some countries have restriction that can appear unusual, or difficult to understand. If you move to China for example, you cannot take more than 10 books with you. If you relocate to Mexico, you cannot import new (less than 6 months) objects.

List your needs

A little research goes a long way in helping you decide what you should be taking with you. If you cannot take certain useful or practical objects with you, how easily can you replace them in your country of destination? Is there an Ikea there? How about DIY shops and home stores? Try to get an inventory, photos or details of the place you are moving to: beddings, cutlery, cooking appliances. If you pack electrical or electronically items, better get adaptor plugs in your home country before leaving. Do not wait to be on the other side of the world, in a country you do not speak the language of.

Research your destination

Research your destination for its general environment, to help you assess your daily needs. Is it hot, cold, dry, humid. Will you have air conditioning? Heating? A garden? Make sure you check the electric current in case you are moving from 220V to 110V, or vice versa. Taking your hairdryer will then be pointless and you will have to replace it once you get there.

Your clothes matter more than you may think

Pack most of your clothes and shoes. It is surprising how sizes vary from one country to another. If you have lived all your life in the same place, you may not realise that your shoe size or your bra size do not exist in the country you are moving to. This also applies to seasonal items. Will a winter coat bought in Greece or Spain keep you warm in Sweden? Stay on the safer side and have enough for all seasons.

Make space, gain space

Maximise the space in your container by putting all clothes and linens in zipped vacuum-sealed bags. For not only you will gain a lot of space, but you will also keep them clean and fresh, as your shipment can remain stored for days or weeks in a warehouse. Last but not least, the condensed bags work as shock absorbers in your boxes, helping you secure many more fragile items.

Those things that matter

Do not forget the little things that matter. Starting a new life very far from your home country can be very unsettling, especially in the first few weeks. A few familiar objects will help you settle and feel at home more rapidly. Take your favourite throw for the sofa, your biscuit box, a photo album, a couple cushions, your kids favourite toys, a calendar of your hometown to keep track of the local holidays and remember the birthdays.

Fully furnished does not always mean ready to move in

Last but not least, your shipment is a lot smaller than you imagine. No matter the cubic meter you are given, it is often hard to leave familiar objects behind. Between necessity and apprehension, we tend to want to take it all. One small piece of advice: categorise. Prepare the things you think you want or need, and prioritise, the absolutely necessary, the essentials, the “useful if we can take them”, and finally the wish list of non-essentials that will go in the shipment IF there is still some space.

Expatriation: From expectations to adjustment

Moving abroad is not for the faint-hearted. And although each case of expatriation or immigration is as unique as each expatriate, most will agree on a simple fact: they were never quite ready for it.

Whatever perception you had of your home country, and of the country you were moving to, the end result is never what you had planned and prepared for.

China is one of the main destinations for expatriates

 Replacing one inconvenience with an other

If you thought you were leaving unpleasantness behind in order to walk into the light, you may be in for a big surprise.

Try and remember all those things you expected to miss, and those you were so excited to leave behind? Now think again. What truly happened to them? Heavy street traffic and sirens have replaced your neighbours’ yapping dog. You finally said good bye to a gossipy colleague, but you now work with a foreign management you do not always understand, leaving you feeling somehow isolated and confused. You now have 2 guest rooms to welcome family and friends… but you realise none of them will come and visit you, because, you know, they are not sure they will like the food. in short, you

Regardless of where we come from, the amount of things we take for granted is far greater than any of us realises. From social standards to food, climate, hygiene, or customs, culture shock leaves us speechless, facing small nothings we never thought were even a thing.

Say good bye to the old life

Generally speaking, the first few weeks abroad are a shock. Exhilarating for some, scary for others, but unsettling for most people. The sounds, the smells, the light, it all feels different. And there is little to no way around it. It is not a holiday, you are not going back home next week!

As weeks pass, you adjust to the essentials, slowly becoming aware of more subtle differences. The things that used to make your daily life no longer exist in this brand new life. You suddenly miss the less likely things, some of which you were not aware you liked in the first place. But since you moved to a place where they are rare, non existent or impossible, you suddenly miss them. Say good bye to ordering pizza at midnight, having a kids sleepover in the garden or sleeping with the windows open.

Istanbul view from the Galata tower. Embracing a new culture and a new life.

Embrace your new life

You miss small and big nothings, although you have replaced a lot of comfortable habits by others just as interesting, possibly more memorable. In my new life, I take a taxi like some light up a cigarette, easily, casually, frequently. I never had that before and I love it. But in my new life I have realised how much I like nature. My new home is an ultra urban environment and I had never experienced living with so little trees, and no bird singing in the morning. I miss the bird that used to annoy me by starting to sing at 5am on Sundays.

The surprising upside to this though, beyond the stress of adjustment, is how young one suddenly feels. Moving to a new country implies learning all codes anew, adapting to a million new ways, accepting to let go of the adult in control we once were, to allow ourselves to start again. The simple action of going to a supermarket in your “new life” will bring back memories of being 10 or 12 years old, and being sent to the shop by your parents for the first time. What if I don’t find the items on the list? Who can I ask? Do I have enough money?