This one I have been meaning to write for a while now. I have learned a few things having moved to new countries twice (to Switzerland and to Great Britain) and we are now about to move back to the US. There is an emotional pattern that everyone seems to experience when dealing with culture shock from such big moves. For the first month from arrival you will experience euphoria of the exciting and new place. Everything appears wonderful and you only see the positives. After this, you slowly begin to notice the negatives one by one. This intensifies bottoming out at about three months. At this point some people will break and run home screaming. Reality then begins to take over and you will slowly gain the proper perspective over time by around month six. This is when you can decide with a clear head whether to stay or go. I read about this common response to culture shock somewhere in tour book about France, and this is exactly what I experienced in my Swiss move. Here is my twelve point advice list on dealing with such moves.
1) You will feel lost, exposed, ignorant and vulnerable. If you cannot handle the feeling of being lost then you will not like travelling to foreign countries. No matter how much you prepare or how much support you have in place, there is no way around feeling fear of the unknown. You’ll get lost, be blindsided by banking, immigration and health care issues, but you will muddle through. Playing the dumb foreigner card can work well here. Just accept the fact that you are going to feel stupid more often than you would like and get on with it.
2) Always try to get some local information about a country before you visit or move there. Key ones include: how to say please and thank you and the basic numbers, how the mass transit system works, in a restaurant do you ask for the tab or is it automatically brought to you after the meal, how to order drinks and food in a pub, do the locals form orderly cues or not. Knowing these simple things avoids much unnecessary tension. The phrase "ce n'est pas grave" will go along way to making your host calm down in a French area. It is sometimes hard to anticipate these little things that grease the social machinery so watch for them and learn them
3) Either learn the language or plan on it being a temporary but educational period of your life. There is no way you will ever be comfortable living in another county without learning the local language. I had a terrible time with French and was constantly bailed out by my wife and friends. I was in a French speaking area of Switzerland which made it harder because of the cultural significance French speakers attach to their language. There was no way I was ever going to fit in or have a friendly chat with the people living around me unless I learned French. It is not a tolerable nor healthy way to live being so isolated from the people around you. It was telling that we never met an expat living in Lausanne permanently that did not learn the language.
4) The hardest catch-22 of our foreign moves has been needing a resident address to get a bank account but needing a bank account to rent. Find a sympathetic banker who will let you use your work address. If you can’t get a bank account set up from abroad then bring lots of cash with you (travellers checks saved us with our Swiss more). The paper work will always be a pain so just plod on through it. If you are going to convert a lot of money, use a currency trader and not the bank. This last trick is saving us thousands of pounds on our move to the states.
5) Save everything addressed to your residence. DO NOT SIGN UP FOR ELECTRONIC UTILITY BILLS OR BANK STATEMENTS!!!! Many government agencies and companies require proof of address for various amounts of time. Get some folders and keep all of your bank statements and utility bills that are mailed to your residence. These rules and time periods are always changing so it is best to just keep everything. Also be sure to bring original birth certificates, marriage certificate and at least scans of degrees earned.
6) Get a local driving license as soon as possible. Most places let you drive on a foreign license for a while and it is tempting to put this one off. Don’t. If if you let it go to long it might not be as easy to get a new license as the rules can change when the grace period ends from giving the foreigner a break to strictly applying the local requirements. You might have to take driving lessons and pass a test. Such lessons are highly recommended for US drivers moving to anyplace with left hand side of the road driving and roundabouts. The trap here is that it will likely take much longer and cost a lot more to get a license than you might think.
7) Cultural differences are all about trade-offs. The strict Swiss rules might seem stifling, but everyone knows where they stand and the buses and trains run on time. The Brits are great at being tough and just getting on with it but end up blindly enduring more abuse through regulations and red tape than any American would ever tolerate. Americans are genuinely friendly and helpful, but when Europeans act that way it really means much more than being polite. Everything that annoys you about a foreign culture has some benefit or they would not do things that way. And the way you do things will sometimes annoy them because they will not clearly see the benefit.
8) Your home country is not as important to the residents of your new country as you think. This is really hard for Americans to understand. The US is about 10% of the world and that is about how important US affairs are to everyone else in the world, except when we are dragging someone into a war. The world does not revolve around the US and everyone in the world does not want to be like the US. So don’t run around telling everyone how much smarter or better your homeland does things. Like I said above, it’s all about trade-offs. Humility and holding your tongue is sometimes advisable.
9) One trick to avoid home sickness is to revel in the positives of the place you are living that are not available in your homeland. In Switzerland it was the awesome food and wine and beauty of the place, in England the pubs, the social gardening (our allotment), and history. Travelling and vacationing in places you would not have access to from your homeland is another big plus that makes it worthwhile.
10) The internet is the key to staying in touch with your family back home. Email, Facebook and Skype are the only reason I have any idea at all what my parents, siblings and nieces are up to. Make it a priority to stay connected.
11) Recognize that the times when the distance will feel greatest will be when your family and friends are sick or hurting. Always have an emergency plane ticket fund or enough on your credit card for emergency trips home. I once flew home for my mother’s breast cancer surgery and I think it made a huge difference for everyone that we were all there together.
12) Don’t be a finicky eater. The local cuisine is there because the locals know how to cook best with what is regionally available. It might seem weird and unappetizing, but at least give it all a try with an open mind. If you don’t like it then don’t eat it again. This worked really well for me as I won’t order snails or organ meats again, but discovered spatzel, squid ink pasta, mussels, wild boar, mushy peas and parsnips. And the French are absolutely right, day old bread is for the ducks!
I do count my time as an expat as being one of the most best and amazing times of my life. It is hard sometimes, but I never would have understood the world or my own country as well as I do now without that outside experience and point of view. We are now moving back to the US (east coast, so not really going home) and given the changes of the last 12 and a half years my wife is calling it “our third foreign country”. More on this in a coming post.