From one expat to another…the truth about culture shock

expats culture shock

One thing I wasn’t expecting when we moved to Bogotá was to experience culture shock.  I told myself that because I had traveled a bit and researched our move it wasn’t going happen to me.

Culture shock (eww!) was only for folks who’ve never been outside the U.S. and are surprised that they can’t get ice for their soda. Or something like that. As we went about settling in I kept thinking to myself, “see, this isn’t so hard” and then would move on to the next task.

But after a couple of months, there weren’t any more tasks to complete—everything that was new and exciting became normal and it was time to start living a regular life.  That was when I started missing home, a lot.

Contrary to what I thought, culture shock is a gradual buildup of feelings and experiences and not some kind of immediate paralyzing fear. In fact, I think the term “culture shock” could use a makeover because it seems to imply something extreme and sudden. I read that even experienced travelers and previous expats experience culture shock to some degree. And unfortunately, no amount of reading, research or talking to other expats can truly prepare you for the emotions you’ll experience moving abroad.

I love my life as an expat but I can’t deny that as excited as I was about our adventure, I still went through a really hard time. After those first three months passed I felt like I was looking into a void. Everything was perfect—we had a beautiful apartment in a cool neighborhood, we had favorite restaurants, people were inviting us to dinner—but nothing felt like home. It all became incredibly real and I had this sudden thought of “oh no, what did I get myself into?!”

So I did what anyone seeking answers these days does: I started googling. I found that what I was going through was completely normal and the relief I felt from feeling like I wasn’t weird or the only one was immense. What I discovered was an expat community called Internations, which offered several articles about culture shock and the challenges faced by expats.

The summary below of the “5 Stages of Culture Shock” is borrowed heavily from one of their articles.

Honeymoon 

The honeymoon phase is the part of your journey when you are basically still a tourist: you are exploring your new home and every difference is viewed through rose-colored glasses.

I remember being enamored with how polite people were, that they asked questions about our move and how we liked the city (I mean, I still like that aspect). Cody is able to finally take a lunch break and not have to work on the weekends. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t find lemons or Triscuits, there were so many other things to try!

Rejection & Alienation

Rejection is the second phase of culture shock and sets in when the checklist is finished and real life sets in. As you settle into a routine and real life catches up, you start to notice the drastic differences between host and home country.  According to Internations, instead of glossing over bumps in the road you will focus on things that you miss about home and the problems caused by cultural misunderstandings.

Right along with the rejection phase comes alienation—the feeling that you won’t be able to make friends and will always have trouble communicating with locals. Basically, it’s a trifecta of loneliness, homesickness, and isolation.

This stage was where I found myself last August. Cody had to work in the U.S. for a few days and we decided that since it was around my birthday I’d accompany him and we’d stay the weekend. Unfortunately, as soon as we booked the trip it became a kind of weird lifeline for me. Each time I struggled with speaking Spanish or felt overwhelmed, I thought about our trip. I resisted making friends and exploring. As soon as we arrived in San Diego, instead of being overjoyed, I was overwhelmingly sad. I missed the familiarity of my city, my girlfriends, and how unequivocally easy everything was. Of course, it was also hard to see how life had continued without us. When we got home and I read that this part of culture shock would last a few weeks, I felt a bit of hope and just kept moving forward.

Recovery & Adaptation

This next stage—the recovery phase—is where things start to turn around. In this time, you begin to get the swing of how things are done and instead of frustration are able to regain the appreciation of differences that you had in the honeymoon phase. The difficulties that used to throw you off for the day are now becoming a part of everyday life.

Adaptation, the final phase of culture shock is where you become assimilated into your new culture. Instead of constantly comparing your new home to the old one, you realize and accept the differences and are able to move through your new world with tolerance and flexibility.

After about eight months living in Bogotá, I think I waffle somewhere between these two groups: I love my routine, things don’t ruffle my feathers so much anymore, and I’ve finally come to grips with feeling silly and making communication mistakes. Looking back on the rougher patches of adjustment, I feel like not only have I settled into my new home, but I’ve also become more comfortable with my native one. Each difference I notice in Colombian culture is because my native point of view is different. In order to understand and accept the new, I had to evaluate and understand my own.

This post draws heavily on my personal experience as the unemployed “trailing spouse,” but basic stages are the same for everyone. Next time, I’ll be sharing some of the things that I did to cope, as well as some examples of where I think I went wrong.  (Update: you can read that post here.)

Have you muddled through culture shock? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

10 thoughts on “From one expat to another…the truth about culture shock

  1. I am so sad to say that I had no idea of the degree of emotional difficulty you experienced during this “period of adjustment”. I see You and Cody as such complete overcomers and that is where I have focused. Nothing is for waste and you continue to grow and share as do I. So thankful for your transparency!!! We are all being stretched. Keep on Blogging. Xo

    1. It’s not your fault, I just couldn’t talk about it for awhile until I felt like I had my feet under me again :-) I love you guys and am so thankful for your support!

  2. Great observations. I agree about changing culture “shock” to another word, maybe “stress”? But I found the really big whammy to be the “reverse culture shock” which in my experience can be more of a sudden shock – things haven’t stood still while I was away, and I’ve changed too. Thanks for sharing, love you both and look forward to more reflections (which is a really good way to handle culture shock/stress)!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Kyle! I’ve read a bit about reverse culture shock but I was already having the same ‘won’t happen to me’ feelings! I’ll have to be prepared for that as well, when the time comes.

  3. Love you, bestie. Yes, life continues but make no mistake, you are never forgotten or too far away from my thoughts. We miss you terribly! xoxoxo

  4. I’m so happy you’re feeling more at home than homesick :) this is a great post…a lot of people don’t recognize culture shock for what it is.

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