Dear Expat Mama

Editor’s Note:
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.

So recognisable! I couldn't have written it better. And the shock can take a very long time, even when your French is very good. They will still see and treat you as a foreigner. I finally understand what foreigners in my own country must feel. I will definitely think about this when I return.

I am sorry that you are having a hard time. This time last November we were feeling really down, each morning when we opened the curtains, there it was the mist. This year we are having a beautiful autumn and although it is getting colder, the colours on the trees are beautiful. The lady from whom we bought the house, her cousins and two other French friends are coming for dinner. Conversation in French all evening. Not too much of a problem for me, but Jim is getting better and always understands more then he says.
We went back to UK in September and the traffic even in rural Suffolk was amazing.
There are frustrations here, but what the French don’t often understand is that we won’t accept no when we are totally sure that we are right. We don’t give up as easily, so get out your knitting needles, start perusing the seed catalogues and think of Christmas.

We have been here 3 years ok i am retired so not looking for work though i do find the odd job now and again being an engineer, we are slowly being excepted by the people in the village some were quicker than others to try and get to know us having had the house 10 years before we moved here permanently but only using it for holidays, having a large ish veg patch and a packet of seeds will produce far more than we can use so we give the spare produce to people in the village in return we have had Mirebelle Jam and last Saturday evening a pheasant was dropped into my hands, i can relate to your comment Kate re. weak to be kind, we have been called likeable fools because we try and are willing to help people, we are looking for groups to join so that will get us out into the larger community every village and town has them be it music, cooking, walking, our French is terrible we know lots of words but none make sense used together in a sentence but we are willing to get out there and try if nothing else we can have a laugh, my wife misses her family but she flies back 2/3 times a year and the telephone is red hot, i have been asked by friends would you come home my reply is i am home this is my home its where i want to be on the tv this morning a house in Yorkshire bars on the doors and windows to stop vandals friend in Wolverhampton told me his children cant leave anything on his drive their bikes have been stolen from an open garage while they went in for lunch do i want to go back to that NO THANK YOU, yes France has its problems but it ticks more boxes for me now than the uk does

Thank you for your post. You have just helped an untold amount of people .

I saw a report on tele this morning (who knows how accurate it is) that a recent survey said something like more than 41 percent of the population think its weak to be kind.

Yes, this is exactly how it is but for me there's another layer which Brits never have to deal with. It's the worst layer. It's the one where you've given your whole self to France and even though I'm mostly quite alone (except at weekends with my retired french boyfriend) I never know how long I can stay. Its' impossible to put own real roots, to feel safe here because 6 months (minimum) are spent trying to get a carte de sejour and the other 6 months (make that a year) are spent desperately trying to find a job that the French government will approve and that a French organisation will pay special taxes for and do all the legal paperwork. At my age it's virtually impossible. So I live in fear of being cast out. I have nothing to go back to - materially speaking - in NZ. All my resourcs were exhausted geting here. My current job doesn't pay the rent but it's a job and that means I can stay a little longer.

I love many aspects of France and I want to stay but France (like England etc) is very harsh for non-EU folks like me. My roots are French, English and Irish. I'm a true European but the law says I'm not. The culture shock as you describe applies but I get more worn down by the constant struggle to justify my existence here and the fear of destitution somewhere on this planet if I don't succeed in getting a short contract each year. There's no work in NZ at my age and almost none in France. I compete with every Briton who has a right to follow their dream here. It's not over until the fat lady sings though.

A virtual hug right back to you, Lesley - and to anyone else that may be struggling - or simply not looking forward to Winter.

Wrap up warm, get a good fire going, spend time with friends and get out now and then and see what beauty there is.

LOTSALUVANLUK and here's a smile.

Fred makes a snow friend

Wow. So true. I could have written this myself. I, like Ruth, have been here for four years and I too agree with her as far as the conversation bit goes (If I even HEAR English spoken, I try to figure out a way to introduce myself or the fact that I too speak English in case they want to connect.). I feel like I am still struggling and have days where I just cry. My job here is mainly in English and I speak English with my French husband even though everyone tells me (and him) to speak French, French, French! But at the end of the day, after a full-time job, two full-time jobs if you count taking care of my two year old, after taking care of dinner and lunch for the next day, after laundry and cleaning and all the other activities that come with living, when is there time? After having someone roll their eyes because I don't speak well, after hearing "quoi??" after I've said something, after waiting behind that person in the aisle because they won't move after I've said "pardon" twice, after being ignored because some don't want to take the extra time to speak slowly to me or to wait for my response, yeah, I DO feel angry (mainly at myself--what ever possessed me to think I could survive here and why the heck don't I just learn the language already??) and I DO just want to lock the door and hide. This too shall pass? I'm waiting. Until then, thanks for the hug.

This made my eyes leaky! Identified with pretty much your whole post - except the conversation in your own language bit - my hubby will speak English if I struggle, but we have regular 'discussions' about the amount of french he thinks I speak! I have been here for four and a half years now, and for me, despite my efforts, every winter leaves me depressed and exhausted. The last 18 months I have started making more effort - I joined a zumba class, and attempted to make friends - probably not the best place to do this, as everybody seemed too busy trying to keep up! ;) And then afterwards, they all rushed home, so not really the social life I was's easier in the summer, because I can get out into the mountains in the sunshine, but now, as the weather is turning, I feel the blue days returning...when it's not raining, I make a point of getting outside, even if it's just a quick walk .... those clouds and that cold (and oh god, don't get me started on the snow! ;) ), just seem to make everything more of a struggle. Don't get me wrong - I am mostly very happy, but nobody tells you about the "culture shock", and the guilt at not feeling 100% happy 100% of the time.

Great post xx

Very true, but just remember as you say there is always someone out there in person, online or at the other end of a phone!!!!! We are living the dream (well I know we are) and even in the dark sad days I look around me and think how lucky I am !!