The first few weeks of a new ‘posting’ are exciting and everything is an adventure, you still feel like a tourist discovering new things, sightseeing and experiencing new food and transport. I’ve read many articles that compare this to 'The Honeymoon Period' of a marriage. Its quite an appropriate analogy. Quirky differences are cute, funny and endearing…. however these can quickly become annoying and irritating. I went from thinking the wet markets in Hong Kong were fascinating to being repulsed by the smell in a little over 3 weeks !! ’Singlish’ is another example I heard lots of times when I was living in Singapore. Its a cute adaption of English but after a couple of months you want to slap the next person who puts ‘Lah’ on the end of their sentences…..Thats when you know the ‘honeymoon’ is over and you have moved to the next stage…..
Part of this stage is also the feeling of 'Its not like Home’. You just want to find 'proper' bread/chocolate/coffee (feel free to insert whatever it is that you are missing!). You miss the familiarity of home, friends and family. This can be especially hard if your partner travels for work or has long working hours. At this stage it is really important to have found a sanctuary. This could be anywhere from a Starbucks, to a beautiful park where you can take a sandwich and a book and escape … it also helps to have new friends who can remind you that 'home' wasn't quite the rosy place you remember. I used to go for walks around Victoria Peak in Hong Kong listening to my iPod and while casting my mind back a few months to standing, waiting for a delayed train into Central London on a wet November morning…..
The next stage consists mostly of feelings of ‘not wanting to be there’. This is a turning point in the expat experience. You can either reject everything that is part of your new host country and stay at home watching TV and eating overpriced foods from an expat supermarket or you can accept the quirks and irritations and try to ignore them !! Learning the host language can also help at this stage, or joining a club where you meet locals. This certainly helps you move to the next stage where you start to feel like this is home. You accept the differences in language and try to understand them. You may even start to like the food and find you prefer some of the things you couldn’t get at home.
Lastly is the stage where you start to worry about going back home, all the things you have gotten used to and are going to miss. Being able to take a taxi EVERYWHERE in Hong Kong or having a full time domestic helper. These things are not in most peoples budgets in the UK but it was completely normal for most families in Hong Kong and Singapore to have a live in helper and taxis were a cheaper option than car ownership. I guess this is when you really feel like the host country is home, it feels familiar when you return from a trip and you look forward to being there and getting back into your life and routine.
These stages can take anywhere between 3 - 9 months. All the stages don’t necessarily happen in this order and you may well skip some, but I feel certain that every expat out there reading this is smiling and empathising with many of these stages.
At this point I’d also like to add that its not only leaving your home country that is hard, returning home can also have its problems. You’ve been off travelling around a new country and having ‘exotic’ holidays while everyone at home has just been getting on with life. Nothing changed there and many people don’t want to hear about your adventures. When you complain that your domestic helper STILL couldn’t make pastry after you’d been trying to teach her for 2 years, you will see them rolling their eyes. Not only is it highly likely that they are simply not interested but its almost certain they just don't understand your frustration !!
Everything you remembered with those rose coloured glasses looks very different through the eyes of someone who has travelled and lived in a different culture. Maybe they are even better but maybe they become a source of irritation.
I didn’t invent these stages, I just wrote about them from a personal perspective !!
The Anthropologist Kalvero Oberg wrote about the stages of culture shock and if you’d like to read his article you can find it here….
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