If there is one thing that all expats have in common, it is the experience of culture shock. Put two displaced people together and they will soon be commiserating and bonding over some funny story from their first few months in the country. Culture shock is an unavoidable and necessary aspect of moving abroad. Let’s face it, we are talking about a major life change, as significant and stressful as moving house or getting married. It should come as no surprise that it takes time to deal with change, both good and bad, and that this process can on occasion be painful.
When I was day-dreaming this post up late at night, I figured sharing 4 phases every homesick person goes through would be a good idea simply because 4 seemed like a friendly round number. I was therefore gratified to learn I wasn’t just making them up; existing research on the subject shows there are broadly 4 stages of culture shock. How convenient! Here’s how it was for me:
1. ‘OMG I’m in another country, isn’t everything wonderful?’ a.k.a. The Honeymoon stage
Everything was indeed wonderful.
- I found a job within a month of arrival by just talking to people in shops and handing them my CV (unheard of in France, seriously).
- All the books were so cheap and I would spend entire afternoons alone with a book and a hefty dictionary.
- I was strongly encouraged to watch the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice and for the first time, I actually got the jokes.
- I had lessons at the dinner table on how to pronounce ‘sauce’ (not as easy as you’d think), rough and ploughman, and I learnt the British had many synonyms for ‘cold’. After about three or four months, one person declared I was officially getting there when I described the weather as ‘a bit nippy’. My year-long trip was turning out great!
2. The ‘Everything was so much better at home’ stage, also known as Raging Homesickness, the Crisis
This stage can be made even worse if you are learning a new language. Withdrawal and anxiety doesn’t begin to describe the experience; think alienation. If you don’t understand half of what people are saying and when you’re at the pub you can’t get a word in edgeways before the conversation moves on, it goes downhill very quickly. Communication is key to feeling accepted; being unable to express yourself beyond the basics can scramble your sense of identity in ways that are difficult to explain. Don’t be surprised if there is a lot of crying involved.
You notice every little thing that is different and your first reaction is ‘this is totally useless and stupid, why would you do it this way?’. First you can’t open a bank account because you don’t have a passport. You didn’t need one to get over the border because ‘EU’ but now you have to hide your cash-in-hand job money under your mattress like you’re a freakin’ refugee.
This is even more true when you go to the weekly outdoors market in the town centre and here’s one bloke selling mattresses (outside? Really?), another chap is selling cheap phone covers, and here’s a fishmonger handing out little polystyrene pots full of cold jellied eels or cockles. To eat there and then. Yep, that’s an actual thing. You spend your days comparing your home country to this strange new place and finding it wanting. It has nothing to do with the actual culture though, it’s just your brain and emotions processing change and trying to adapt.
3. The ‘I’m starting to get the hang of this but you’re still stupid’ stage – Adjustment
You’re adjusting! You might even appreciate that some things are much better than in your own country. Like fish and chips and Indian food! Vaguely unbiased press! Decent TV (TOWIE notwithstanding, it really really is decent. The BBC rocks, you have no idea how deprived France is).
You can even have conversations with people: the Essex habit of dropping the end of each word is starting to enter your system so you can understand whole sentences! You have a job you don’t suck at, you’re no longer scared when people speak to you and you have friends. You can laugh at your misfortunes instead of simply drowning in them. Things are looking up.
4. The ‘I could totally pass for a native’ stage – Acceptance
You are bi-cultural, how amazing is that! Also known as total wishful thinking on my part but I once nurtured the fanciful notion that like Charlotte Gray, my English would become so good that I could be taken for a native and be hired by MI6 or whatever the French equivalent is and become a spy in wartime. Except for the fact that I would now prefer to spy for the English so yep, maybe I swung too far the other way. Anyhoo…
This is the stage when you regain your enthusiasm for your new home and may even adopt habits and preferences because of it. You may still moan about the things that you don’t like but you do so as a fully immersed participant, no longer as an outsider.
Even with the culture shock and homesickness, living abroad is an amazingly rich experience. I can’t stress enough how wonderful if is to broaden your horizons in this way and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to gain a better understanding of the world and all that is in it.
Now your turn: What’s your culture shock story?