EXPAT: 5 Tips to Overcoming Culture Shock
When the excitement of moving abroad wears off
Note: This article was first featured first on the Expat Women in Turkey website. You can see all my published works on my portfolio page.
Spring is gorgeous here. The sun shines and the weather is just the right temperature. Recently, I went out for a few errands and just basked in the rays of sunlight peeking through as I weaved in and out of the shadows made from my neighborhood buildings and trees. In a split second, I went from gloriously praising MY lovely city to cursing the stinky rules of THEIR culture. Because, for the almost 1 millionth time, I barely missed stepping on fresh dog poop in the middle of the sidewalk….
Eight months ago (Update: now 4 years!) my husband and I moved from a small town in the midwest of the United States to Izmir, a busy apartment city of 4 million people. We moved from one set of cultural rules to another – spoken and unspoken. An unspoken one in America, you pick up your dog’s poop and throw it away (or take them to a dog park) and here in Turkey, leaving poop everywhere is totally acceptable. Amazing how one little thing can spark a moment of anger stemming from culture shock.
(Update: I have since come to learn that this is NOT a norm and street dog are a major culprit here with this issue. ALSO, I would like to point out just how amazing clean these major cities are kept!)
But this isn’t the first time I have moved internationally. Before marrying my sweet man, I spent 2 years in Turkey and 1.5 more years in Afghanistan. From my experience, the first few months can be hard because you have to adjust everything about your life. Other people seem to have a little honeymoon phase (maybe 2-4 months) before the frustrations hit them full-on.
Throughout these journeys, I have found a few ways to counteract culture shock:
1. KEEP A JOURNAL:
Keeping a journal has been proven to help people reflect and process change. However, many people end up using a journal to vent about things they don’t like or make them angry. While there is nothing wrong with that, I suggest using your journal another way. Keep a running list of things you love about the culture and place you live – especially in the beginning while the ‘honeymoon’ stage is still happening. Write stories of when someone helped you, a kind gesture on the street, or laughs of the neighborhood children after school.
2. BE A TOURIST FOR A DAY:
My best way to counteract the frustration of living in another country is to get out and explore. Sometimes it is easy to fall into the routine of work, eat, sleep and repeat. Make a list of places, festivals, and events to explore in your city then make a plan and go! It can seem intimidating, but the more you try new things, the easier it becomes to explore.
3. MAKE YOUR COMFORT FOOD:
While I promise you it won’t be the same, it’s definitely worth the effort! The first time I moved to Istanbul, I basically had to learn to cook my comfort food from scratch. But when I mastered my first banana bread recipe, it became a go-to for times I felt like everything I ate was foreign.
Sometimes moving to a new city can stop our daily routines. Maybe you exercised before moving, but now are lacking motivation. One of the best things I did my first year abroad was pay (way too much money, mind you) for a gym membership. It gave me a reason to get out of my house, interact with others, and meet new people.
5. MEET YOUR NEIGHBORS:
You may think “why would I meet new people when people are the cause of my culture shock?!” Believe me, it is the best advice others gave me when I was feeling frustrated. Creating deeper relationships with locals (or even other expats) helps you understand the culture more. Perhaps cultural frustration can be resolved by learning more about why people do the things that they do. Also, connecting with other people helps you notice individuals behind “those Turks” or “those Americans” or “those… insert people group here“. Grace and open-mindedness help you move past culture shock into an area of understanding and appreciation for another’s home country.
These are just a few ways I have found helpful to avoid and break through the culture shock in the 3 countries I have called home in the last 10 years.
Remember that you are not alone and there is always someone to talk to! So instead of withdrawing, maybe consider doing the exact opposite and see how it goes!