Thriving abroad means taking brave, taking chances, being assertive, and at the same time knowing when to pump the brakes; to be deferential. Above all, it means knowing the road rules to avoid a culture clash, but how can you know them when they’re invisible? Trust me, you’ll feel it. That awkward lost-in-translation-meta-moment, when you misjudged someone’s tendencies based on your expectations (or the reverse). Misunderstandings can cause mutual frustration and are distressing and the learning curve to cope and adapt to some cultures is steeper than others, but you’ll get there. It won’t happen overnight (more frustration but because culture is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. This takes time.
The French call the distressing condition of culture shock dépaysement. The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country; of being a foreigner. The distress begins to happen, after the honeymoon is over (often coupled with a case of homesickness). It’s marked by the anxieties of being unable to interact or be understood in an unfamiliar environment. It can lead to feeling disoriented, anxious, frustrated, depressed, and isolated. It isn’t all bad though.
Riding the emotional waves of unfamiliar surroundings can take anywhere from six months to a year. The exhilaration of arrival and fascination will be followed by some or all of the following: depression, disorientation, and frustration (not necessarily in that order; sometimes in mind-blowing dark combinations). This is the mind’s way of psychologically coping and adapting to unfamiliar surroundings with the new mental software. Progress, not perfection is a good mantra for transitioning from the United States to another country. Culture shock isn’t a single event so much as it’s a low-grade series of frustrations and disorienting incidents like:
Being cut off from cultural cues and familiar patterns
Having to live and work over an extended period of time in an ambiguous situation
Having your own values brought into question
Continually being expected to function at top skill-speed with unknown norms
The solutions to cope and adapt are simple, but not easy:
Accept that culture clashes are inevitable (surrender, Dorothy)
Be Aware of your feelings (how did you feel, what did it remind you of? where were those feelings in your body?)
Acknowledge the incident (record or journal it for details because minor traumas are often buried)
Ask for help (share your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend)
Because after the initial adjustment, minor annoyances you once found charming make you downright angry. Everything is harder when you don’t know the unwritten rules (or language nuances, yet). In the end, you will reach a final stage when anger and frustration decreases; soon, reconciliation of the two opposing cultural mindsets occurs. Your sense of humor returns. You start ordering those deep fried chicken feet in the local Thai dialect, ha!
The mind and body have memory. It is a miraculously resilient creation. You will begin to recall how excited you were to live your dream. You had a positive attitude about living in Singapore. Capable of overlooking the small annoyances and inconveniences. It’s all coming back to you now. You are becoming bold again. You remember, living abroad was your dream. You choice. This is your life. Your adventure to Thrive Globally.
Visit my website Expat Whisperer for expat coaching packs or listen to my original podcasts on demand. You might also enjoy the always fascinating culture blog feed that deconstructs everyday life. Or, take one of my labs you won’t find anywhere else. I may be travelling somewhere in the world, but you can always find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.