The notion of “culture shock” is widely known, but the actual experience of it is less understood by folks who haven’t gone through it. My own “dark days” began about this time last year, when the days got short, cold, and dark, and finished up when the sun came back at the end of February. We had been in our new home for about three months, and suddenly, each day became a task rather than a joy. A few months later, just as suddenly, the sun came out, my smile returned, and I looked back to realize what a slog I’d just been through.
I’m by no means suggesting that everyone goes through this (in fact, my husband and the husbands of a few other expat mamas I know didn’t!), and I certainly don’t want to scare anyone away from their own expat adventure. Rather, I want to reach out to my friends who are struggling through their early days, and reassure them: you are not alone! This too shall pass!
Dear Expat Mom,
(or recently-relocated dad or grandma or student or whoever you are, hurting where you are, because you feel foreign):
I know you’re feeling ungrateful, like you don’t deserve to be sad because you’re “living the dream.” I know you feel guilty admitting that you’re not blissfully happy, and sometimes if you admit your sadness to your parents or friends, they razz you, and you immediately feel bad (worse than you already did). I know that the truth is, despite the awesomeness, despite how much you looked forward to this adventure, and despite how thankful you are to be here, it’s also really hard to spend every day in a foreign land, away from everything familiar.
I know that even though you daydream about it a little now and then, you don’t actually want to go back home, but you do wish that you could bring home here with you — that by the end of the day, you’re just desperate to eat some comfort food from back home, watch some American TV, and have a conversation in your own language.
I also know, though, that when you get the opportunity to speak your own language with new friends, you either turn it down or tire out so very quickly. Everything just takes so darned much energy these days, and energy is in short supply. I know that some of these days are like struggling through quick sand.
I know that despite the fact that you’ve been shown kindness, the people in your “new” country can be quite frustrating, and you’re often (okay, all the time) angry at them. When they stop in the middle of the grocery store aisle with no attempt to move out of the way, despite the fact that you.are.right.there. When you try your hardest to say something in their language, and they repeat it back to you, exactly, but this time in question form, and you want to shout, “YES!! That’s what I said!” When you have to go back to the Prefecture for your visa renewal, again and again. And I know that you know that this anger isn’t fair — that most people are friendly and helpful and kind and patient — and that you’re sad that you’re angry anyway.
I know that part of the reason you’re angry is because you feel completely, hopelessly stupid most days. You know you’re not *that* stupid (you have a college degree, after all!) but on a daily basis, you’re left dumbfounded by your ignorance, your inability to communicate, and your fear.
I know that because of all of this, you just want to stay home and lock the door. And that most days, that’s exactly what you do. If you *have* to go out, you do it as quickly as you can, with eyes cast down, in the hopes that no one will attempt to engage you in conversation while you’re out.
I know that you don’t want to let on how hard these days are. I know that it’s your job to your act together and your emotions under control. keep you don’t talk about it unless someone really pulls it out of you, and that because you don’t really want to talk about it, you just avoid people as much as possible, (even the ones from home that you miss the most).
I also know that you will get through these dark days. You won’t know it until they’re over, but they will be over. I promise!
They call the experience “culture shock,” but I’m not sure “shock” is the right word, because to me, it implies something quick — like having a band-aid ripped off. This experience is longer and less abrupt. The shock, for me, came later, when I looked back and realized what I’d just gone through.
My Advice for you:
- First thing’s first: take a deep breath. When you exhale, push out some of the anger you’re feeling. You’re mad at yourself for so many things — for not adjusting faster. For not being better prepared. For feeling so incapable. Let that anger go. It’s not serving you.
- Claim some normalcy. Chances are, you’ve given up doing something that you used to enjoy back home. A hobby, exercise, a habit — something that brought you happiness and relaxation. Reclaim it. I know you don’t feel like you have time, or it seems like too much trouble, but it’s super important that you not lose yourself during this transition period, and this hobby or activity can help you stay grounded.
- Get out there. Force yourself to unlock that door and step out. Yes, you’ll make an ass of yourself. No, you won’t die of embarrassment. And every time you go out, you’ll learn something, and give yourself the opportunity to connect.
- Learn the language. Cuz duh.
- Revel in the benefits of your new home. Seek out and focus on the good things to offset your current tendency to notice the negatives. Find activities, places, and experiences that make your heart happy. Small or big, natural or man-made, it doesn’t even matter, so long as they bring you joy. Mine were a new coffee cup, sneaking peeks at snow-capped mountains, and French pastries.
- Reach out. You are not alone! Whether through online friendships or in-person relationships, find someone to talk to – someone who doesn’t tell you to quit whining when you complain about your exhaustion or vent your frustration.
- Hang in there. You’re probably a fair way through your dark days already! This too shall pass.
- Here, have a hug.