Taking the big step of moving abroad is a hard and important decision: we leave our friends, our families, and in some cases our work, all for living in a new, and perhaps unknown destination where we don’t know yet whether we’ll fit in or not.
But once we do it, we can’t help thinking “I can’t believe I’m here, I actually did it,” bringing us an amazing feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, and although we are accompanied by fears and doubts, we look forward to starting our new life in our new home.
There might be a lot of different reasons why people decide to move abroad, but we all face the big inevitable: cultural shock, the effect from the struggles faced during the cultural transition. Cultural shock has its process and usually turns out like this:
We first find everything very fascinating
Everything is new. We find everything around us fascinating.
During the first weeks of living with a German family, I found it so interesting to see how organized they were and how they systemized daily activities. That didn’t last too long. I even appreciated the great view of winter trees on my way to dropping off the kids at school at 7 am. Typical honeymoon feeling.
But it is normal. We tend to be enthusiastic about almost everything, we feel young and adventurous and are eager to learn about the city and its people, discover nice eating spots and walking roads. We are constantly happy and motivated, and we are completely satisfied with our decisions of moving abroad.
But eventually, we start feeling rejected.
After some time we start getting used to the new setting and falling back to routine. Some details start to annoy us, and almost everything gets harder provoking at times an unstable emotional state in which even simple activities like grocery shopping can turn out a nightmare.
And after constantly having a hard time interacting with locals, not only because of cultural differences but also because of language barriers, we begin feeling like outsiders and that we don’t fit in. We get the impression we are not accepted and get resentful and angry.
So we turn to regression and isolation.
We feel lonely, frustrated, and homesick. And since we look for things that we don’t like, we start to compare and say in what ways our home is better.
Coming from Honduras, where all people are warm and welcoming, and love giving hugs, made me notice the big contrast in how people treated each other in Germany. I got a handshake as birthday congratulation from my host parents, people I see in their pajamas every day. Not getting a hug was a bit surprising and gave me an impression that that made me miss my country and its people more.
Sooner or later, we accept and move on
After some self-encounter, illuminating thoughts, mind-opening lessons, and not-so-bad-after-all experiences our new home away from home grows in our hearts. We realize that our lives don’t really suck as we thought they did, we appreciate how far we have gone and how much we have grown. We accept this new place that is now our home.
However, the level in which we let ourselves be influenced and marked by these two middle stages can define how our acceptance phase turns out. It is fair to say that they are the most dangerous ones due to the potential of having us stuck in them. The rejection and regression and isolation stages can last from very little to very long and their lengths vary with each person and experience.
So how can we survive this troubling cultural shock?
By taking real effort for understanding and integrating into the host culture.
And that means actually learning the local language, socializing with locals – and not only internationals or like-cultured communities, genuinely participating in their traditions, and being open to trying their food without showing much skepticism.
It is not easy but it turned out to be more fun than I expected it. You learn to accept the people and how they are and built a meaningful relationship from that.