No expat is immune to culture shock, but you may be surprised by which member of your family actually struggles the most. It’s often not the children, despite the fact that they have to fit in at a new school in a new country. The same goes with working parents struggling to understand the unwritten rules of a Chinese office. Their
challenges are by no means easy to overcome, but those tough conditions actually help more than they hurt.
Cooped Up with Homesickness
“It’s the stay-at-home spouses who find it hardest to cope with
being in a new culture. They unintentionally isolate themselves,” says Dr. Stephen-Claude Hyatt, a clinical health psychologist and head of mental health and counseling at Beijing International SOS Clinic. “The family breadwinners, the kids at school – they are interacting with peers on a daily basis. That means they have support systems in place.”
“People who have social supports in place thrive better than those who don’t,” he adds. “Friends recover more together than those who don’t have anyone after moving to a new country. Community is important. It could be church, a volunteer organization, it could be going to your child’s school and asking how you can volunteer.”
That network can seem nonexistent for family members who have to stay home and raise infant children, or worse, send their kids off to school every day, only to be completely alone in their own homes.
“If your motivation is down, you’re not going to be motivated to go out if you’re already sitting at home all the time,” Dr. Hyatt says. “If that happens you’re not accepting your new reality, the reality of your new home.”
But for some families, the more domesticated parent ends up having all the fun.
Jes Christensen and Susanne Svoger Have moved from Denmark to Beijing with their two adopted Chinese daughters, Astrid Yuan and Maria Hao, in 2008.
Have says: “I think that there is some truth in what Dr. Hyatt is saying [about stay-at-home parents suffering from culture shock more than the rest of the family]. But when we lived in Denmark, I also stayed at home for longer periods of time, so coming to China didn’t change me that much. I would think if you are used to working before you move to China, and then you end up staying at home, it can be very frustrating with the husband and kids experiencing lot of things every day. But for me, I just got more time to do the things that I like. And with all the things that you can do in Beijing, the day sometimes just gets to be too short.”
That freedom and spare time helped Have adjust better than any other member of her family, much to her dismay.
“I think for the kids, it was really hard in the beginning, because they only spoke Danish and all they heard all day was English,” she says of her daughters’ culture pangs after enrolling in one of Beijing’s international schools. “They started in nursery and kindergarten and it was the first time they went to school, as they came from daycare in Denmark. But the kids are really strong and determined, so when Christmas came they were almost fluently speaking English. And when a new Danish boy arrived in January, Astrid became his buddy because her English was so good.”
Regardless of which family members struggle the most, Dr. Hyatt says culture shock is not something we can just “snap out of.” He sees it as a real problem, but one that passes. He adds that the average expat goes through a natural culture shock cycle.
Stuck in a Rut
Dr. Hyatt says the first phase is a honeymoon-style joyful feeling, where everything strange and exotic about the new locale is exciting. Then vast differences feel overwhelming, then unclear, and soon off-putting, leaving us in a phase of bitter rejection. That angry midway point is where we all struggle as expats, and where the less fortunate of us get stuck. Nationalism and denial can then set in, making us lock our doors, turn on our VPNs, stare at Facebook pages from back home, and ignore the strange new world outside that we traveled so far to live in. Even Dr. Hyatt is guilty of this strange habit.
“As a Jamaican adjusting to Beijing, I stuck my country’s flags on my car and blasted reggae music from the speakers. That’s something I’d never do back home, because I always thought some types of reggae music, especially dancehall, was too vulgar,” he says with a chuckle.
The doctor adds this phase is natural, even essential, to remind us of where we’re from as we also try to adjust to a strange new land – exposing ourselves to a new culture, while indulging in the old one we miss, can be a fine balancing act. Dr. Hyatt says the key is to stick it out, even though it’s not easy.
“Don’t go on vacation too soon after moving to Beijing. Stay here, live here, wait six months and you’ll see a difference,” the psychologist says, adding that if the feelings of depression and homesickness persist constantly after that, then victims may need to seek out professional help.
Patience and persistence are no small part of coping according to Dr. Hyatt, and he adds that there are other, more fun ways to ensure that expats adjust.
Out and About
“We need to try the food we think is disgusting, try the strange new things that are a part of this culture,” Dr. Hyatt says with a chuckle, before adding that there’s another remedy which is all the more critical to digest. “You have to get out there and reconnect. Your social life is very important. We need each other to survive and thrive. Whether we want to accept it or not, we’re happiest when we are interacting. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being out.”
That may seem too simplistic as a solution, but in fact there is an abundance of psychological and biological evidence to support it.
“If we’re talking about the emotional level, then we’re talking about the cognitive level as well, because how we think informs how we feel,” the doctor says of the depression that can be coupled with culture shock and homesickness.
Cognitive behavior therapy can help victims cope when the culture shock becomes too much to bear. The one-on-one sessions offer, among other things, breathing exercises and social interaction techniques to help them relax and connect with their new neighbours.
Dr. Hyatt explains that such steps are pretty drastic, and should only be taken when expats find themselves crippled by culture shock, unable to function at work or school, unable to maintain the healthy routines that will help them fit in and feel at home.
A Conversation Is a Two-Way Street
Teacher and Parenting Expert Kathryn Tonges, who co-authored the book Slurping Soup and Other Confusions: True Stories and Activities to Help Third Culture Kids During Transition, says: “Create many opportunities to have relaxed and non-judgmental conversations with your children about anticipated challenges and current concerns. This can lead to meaningful discussions to encourage your children to problem solve ways of coping, and to share strategies that you use to cope.”
Tonges adds that the discussion must be a two-way street, not a lecture or even a steady stream of gentle advice.
“Children need a secure base and safe haven. When parents fail to really listen to their childrens’ upset feelings and concerns and overload them with advice, children can feel isolated and confused. Dealing with culture shock through listening and engaging conversations leads to curiosity rather than criticism, moving forward rather than getting stuck.”
On top of that, Dr. Hyatt says the body, not only the mind and soul, has to be treated with care in order to properly cope with culture shock.
A Healthy Outlook
Hyatt warns, “Not getting regular recuperative sleep means you can’t adjust to the reality of things in a new country.” Jetlagged expats are prone to this physiological depression, along with long-term foreigners that have fallen out of proper routines. With enough sleep, we should take care of ourselves on all fronts. Hyatt continues: “Food and eating gives us a sense of happiness. Like exercise, it triggers chemicals in the brain that make us feel better. Those of us that are eating right and getting adequate exercise, who have a social life where they can interact with new neighbours and with friends back home. People who do all that, thrive better than people who aren’t in control of any of those areas.”
Dr. Stephen-Claude Hyatt, clinical health psychologist at Beijing International SOS Clinic
Call ahead for an appointment. Beijing International SOS Clinic, Suite 105, Wing 1, Kunsha Building, 16 Xinyuanli, Chaoyang District (646 29112) 朝阳区新源里16号琨莎中心一座105室北京国际救援中心
Slurping Soup and Other Confusions: True Stories and Activities to Help Third Culture Kids During Transition
By Maryam Afnan Ahmad, Cherie Emigh, Ulrike Gemmer, Barbara Menezes, Kathryn Tonges, and Lucinda Willshire. Available at BabyGro, The Bookworm, the WAB PTA shop and monthly INN meetings. (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com)