Lately I’ve just felt exhausted. Weary. Tired to the very recesses of my soul.
My load has been full since we’ve moved, and we’re all still trying to adjust to new schedules, new places, new languages, new cultures, new people.
It’s the kind of soul weariness where all you want is some time with your dearest friends, a comfy outfit and a warm beverage. But it’s a new place with new friends, our tried and true friends are scattered across the globe.
So we do what we can. We make new friends and try not to compare them to the people who’ve filled our communities in the places we’ve been. We spend time with new friends. We make time to write, Skype, FaceTime, message, and maintain relationships with old friends
It’s times like these when nostalgia becomes a double edged sword. When you look back and become lost in memories and forget to continue the forward progression of adapting to a new place.
Each of us is adjusting in their own way, sometimes gracefully, sometimes fighting it every step of the way.
For me, this is the most difficult and painful part of any move. After the nonstop action of the actual move, after the initial newness wears off, when real life takes over and you enter the cycle of adapting to a new culture.
Most everyone is familiar with the term culture shock. Most sources will tell you there are four stages, the honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and accepting. You’ll find them referred to by different names, and some sources include more stages, but they are generally similar. You won’t necessarily reach them in order, and not everyone spends the same amount of time in each. Being familiar with what to expect is important – especially when you find yourself breaking into tears for something insignificant. The stress of a new culture can be tough.
The first stage of culture shock is the honeymoon stage. This is the time when you find yourself enamored with everything in your new hometown. This is the stage you experience during a vacation or trip, when everything is an adventure and you aren’t there long enough to move into the next stage of culture shock.
The second stage of culture shock is the frustration stage. I think it depends on the individual as to how long each stage takes, and it is possible to vacillate continually through them. Three months in, and this is the stage where I currently find myself. For me, this is the time when you are trying to live your everyday life, and you just can’t do it alone. It is the loss of independence, the loss of being able to navigate things, from the grocery store to doctors appointments without intervention from someone. This is the time when you are still building a community and still yearning to spend time with the friends you’ve left behind. This is the most difficult part of a move.
So how do you move past the frustration stage? Recognize that you are going through a stage. Most likely a stage that everyone will experience sooner or later.
It’s important to get out. Grab a coffee with new friends. Engage with your neighbors. Try to learn the new language, the new customs, the new celebrations. Find something to get involved in. The new friends you make will become the ones you miss when you leave, and it’s more fun to navigate new experiences with someone than alone.
Talk to someone. Watch for signs of depression in yourself and those around you. This is a difficult stage to navigate. Exercise, get out of your house, explore. Take time to care for yourself. Ask for help.
The frustration stage is the most difficult part of adjusting to a new place. What makes it more difficult is that you aren’t the only one. Every member of your family is going through the same process in a different way, and it’s difficult to be there to support someone else when you are wearing thin yourself.
At our home, my husband is in a new job, I am navigating daily life in a new culture, my oldest is adjusting to middle school on top of a move, and my youngest chose to participate in a French immersion class. Everyone is feeling some degree of stress. Each of it deals with it differently, and some days are just hard for all of us.
I think it’s necessary to actively work towards the final two stages, the adjustment stage and the acceptance stage. It is also possible to slip back and forth between the stages at various times.
Having been through this before, I know what I need to do – and not do to succeed. For me, a big part of a successful transition is not comparing where you are to where you’ve been. Its also important to maintain a sense of humor about what you’re experiencing, it feels better than being frustrated all the time. It’s so important to learn at least some of the language you are living in. You will never understand a culture completely if you can’t speak the language. If you don’t try to adapt at least a little, you will perpetually feel like an outsider.
During the third stage, you’ve established your new routines, begun to create your new community, maybe you understand a little more of the language and culture than you did. This is where you begin to feel at ease. Where you start to gain back some of the independence you lost at the start of your journey. I think I’m currently on the cusp of this stage, my French is improving, I’m beginning to navigate the different systems, I feel a little more confident and comfortable in my new surroundings.
The final stage is acceptance. At this stage, you can see the benefits and negative aspects of both your New culture and your home culture more readily. It is the time when you can easily adapt to most anything thrown at you and daily life becomes just that once more.
Going through the stages of culture shock is not limited to overseas moves. You can experience it in a move within a country as well. I’ve moved from New York to Georgia to North Carolina to Colorado to Florida to Kansas. Each of those places had their own unique culture, but it was contained within a larger shared culture. When we moved from Baden Württemberg to Bayern in Germany, I wasn’t anticipating as much of a culture shock as I found. When we moved to Rome, I expected culture shock, but I didn’t expect to remain in the frustration stage as long as I did. Moving to Belgium I knew that we’d be riding the roller coaster of culture shock once more. It will take some time, but we’ll move through this phase eventually.
One of my favorite books dealing with culture shock is “The Art of Crossing Cultures” by Craig Storti. I think this book should be required reading for anyone moving to a new culture. I studied communication theory, and I found that this book makes those concepts easily accessible to a non-academic reader.
How do you navigate culture shock?