When contemplating an overseas relocation, many of us plan for an exhilarating journey, expectant of every emotion from elation, surprise, and suspense to joy; but perhaps what we do not prepare for are the challenges that living abroad that can create and compound for our physical and emotional well-being.
Expat life opens the doors to countless new experiences and adventures. The opportunity to cultivate friendships with people from all over the world and expose yourself to new cultures and customs can easily place you in a position where your mental and emotional health is neglected or ignored. It is just as easy for the less positive aspects of living abroad and the stresses that come with entering a new culture to manifest itself in emotions you may find difficult to process and handle.
Cultural intelligence, or cultural quotient (CQ), refers to a capability to function effectively in culturally diverse settings. Put simply, the more we are willing and able to accept and understand different behaviors and expectations within a culture different to our own, the more positive our experiences and the outcomes of our interactions will be. But how effective is this as a strategy for good emotional and mental well-being when living abroad?
Studies have shown that expat depression has become more common, and that people living abroad have increased anxiety and stress. In a 2011 comparative study, looking at the mental health status of expatriates versus US domestic workers, Dr. Sean D. Truman concluded that a life abroad raises a number of risks, stating that “living overseas as an expatriate conveys risk for stress and psychological or psychosocial problems that exceed those in populations for individuals living in their home country.”
According to the World Health Organization, “Mental health issues are among the leading causes of ill health among travellers, and ‘psychiatric emergency’ is one of the most common medical reasons for air evacuation.” This organization, among others, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, have linked high levels of stress with frequent travel and expat living.
There are many reasons why expats may suffer more from mental health issues, such as differences in language, climate, religion, and customs from their more familiar home environment. The challenges of having to be completely self-sufficient in a foreign country, separation from friends and family abroad, and exposure to behaviors that are in complete opposition to our own can all lead to challenges that have a real and tangible human impact.
We are all human and need outlets of expression and creativity and self-care habits that help us to decompress, alleviate stress, and shape a positive outward and inward perception of self and others. These factors are related to Emotional Intelligence (EI), which has been found to be an agent of CQ. Researchers Yi-chun Lin, Angela Shin-yih, and Yi-Chen Song found that EI was an extremely important factor in the effectiveness of CQ. In 2012 they wrote, “We found that EI positively moderated the relationship between CQ and cross-cultural adjustment.”
It is commonly agreed that CQ is related to EI because individuals with a high CQ tend to be emotionally well-adjusted, process cultural cues more easily, express their emotions in a more appropriate way, read others people’s emotions and thoughts more accurately to interpret cultural meaning, and regulate language according to the professional or social environment they are interacting in.
These capabilities, however, are harder to exercise than one might think, and our motivation to accept differences in behaviors impacts cross-cultural adjustment. Do you have a high or low tolerance for certain behaviors that may test your cultural sensibilities – say, like spitting in public (one of my pet peeves)? I understand that spitting in public is socially acceptable within my current cultural setting; however, my tolerance for it remains low. My unwillingness (motivation) to tolerate this particular conduct negatively affects my response to it, which in turn negatively affects my ability to adapt to my surroundings.
Cognitively you may score highly on your understanding of another person’s culture, and why or why not someone may behave a certain way, but this does not translate into adapting your responses. Information or knowledge is not enough. It has been determined that one must have both the ability (most of us have this) and the motivation (this is where some of us may struggle) to use our knowledge to produce culturally appropriate responses.
So what can one do to improve one’s cultural adaptation journey, while still maintaining a sense of self and personal conviction concerning etiquette, behaviors, and customs? These simple tips can help relieve stress, and promote a well-balanced attitude towards cultural adaptation by taking a proactive approach to improving our CQ and EI.
Build personal relationships with people different from you
This may seem obvious, yet is perhaps one of the most challenging steps. Someone who offers a different perspective concerning particular customs and attitudes can lead to a better understanding of the environment around us, but can have an even wider impact in helping us better understand the diverse world in which we live.
Try avoiding spending too much time around those who are intrinsically similar to yourself; although this kind of relationship makes for like-minded bliss and can be a stress reliever when needing to express shared experiences, these friendships, in the long run, will not challenge any preconceptions you may have concerning encounters with difference.
Replace stress-trigger errands with alternative options
When I first moved to China, going to the shopping mall used to fill me with complete dread. I lived in a small northern community and the everyday errand of topping up on groceries put me in the front line of behaviors that would cause me stress. I would leave the mall frustrated and often without my complete shopping list. I decided for a long while to bypass my daily or weekly top up at the supermarket with a click and scan, and opted for online grocery shopping. I no longer do this as often as I used to, but this small decision to put my sanity first saved me from a lot of stress-induced frustration.
Everyday activities can soon turn into wearying chores. Try and seek out alternative options. Some options may mean spending a little more than you usually would; for example, I know of people who have decided to use a small percentage of their income to hire a personal driver for work. This may seem extreme, but in some circumstances, and mostly used temporarily, making these kinds of decisions can be a self-care mechanism when dealing with stress-trigger situations.
Moving more is essential to making positive changes in life, from healing a broken heart to transforming yourself. Including exercise into your daily or weekly routine will not only help you relieve stress but often introduces you into a world where new friends, skills, and haunts can be discovered. One of the most awesome aspects of living in a city like Beijing are the many exercise clubs, groups, and studios either accessible on your doorstep or not too far from your stomping ground. Join up and join in to sweat those stresses away.
Take up a culturally diverse or challenging hobby
Fancy trying your hand at calligraphy, watercolor painting, mooncake baking or Chinese cooking? Whatever culture-hobby takes your fancy, go ahead and try something new. Learn more about the history behind the craft and skill of your choosing and take a friend, or even better, make a new one while you’re at it. Learning a new skill is always rewarding but consciously choosing to participate in a culturally different or diverse pastime will no doubt help you to find a new appreciation and understanding of a culture unfamiliar to your own. This will only work if you throw yourself into it, so bring bundles of enthusiasm and be open to something new.
Pamper yourself once in a while
There’s no stress reliever like a little pampering. After a day (or week) of failed cultural adaptation, you may need to rub and click the stress away with a massage, get your nails or hair done, treat yourself to a posh meal, or book yourself in for a facial. Pampering doesn’t need to have a hefty price tag attached to it. A walk to your local park with your favorite book or magazine will do just as good a job. Get together with a friend, pop some popcorn and watch a movie or catch up on some well-earned sleep. Relaxation is simply doing something outside of your regular routine and comes in many different forms. Relax, breathe, and welcome in new perspectives.
Immerse yourself in culturally new environments
Above I encourage you to replace stress-trigger errands with alternative options to avoid some environments or situations that cause stress or frustration. However, challenging your cultural adaptation capabilities by putting yourself in environments where you are required to be around people different to you and surroundings that challenge your thinking and attitude towards ‘otherness’ can be a big step in achieving better CQ and developing your EI. These new environments can be anything from a Chinese language class to a book club that focuses on Chinese literature or content. Go to a restaurant that is frequented by locals. Deny yourself a couple of trips to western-geared social spaces and opt for more of local experience. This may be a challenge at first, but you’ll be surprised at what or who you might find when you live outside of your comfort zone.
Is your Mandarin failing you? Try adapting your language and tone
It’s amazing what doesn’t need to get lost in translation when you adapt your language according to the needs of the individual you’re speaking to. I will ask for assistance or an item in what I think is simple, idiotproof English, only to be side-eyed by the husband who will, in turn, do a much better job of getting the salt I need to the table or the ice I need for my water. Why? It really is as simple as discarding anything that resembles colloquial dialect, simplifying your sentences into one or two words that better direct someone to your need, and adjusting your tone to one which resembles that being used by the person you’re trying to communicate with. The expectation or assumption shouldn’t be that everyone should speak English or can, but that in some circumstances a person with limited English may be able to assist you if you try one or all of the above!
However you go about improving your CQ and developing your EI, its importance in helping you to culturally adapt is undeniable. Traveling and living abroad is an unforgettable experience, but let it be unforgettable for all the right reasons. Thrive in a space where you are both comfortable and challenged and remember there is more that connects us than separates us.
This article appeared in the beijingkids May 2019 Identity issue.
Photo: Adobe Creative Cloud