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.

Culture Shock - Expat living

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.

4. EXERCISE:

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! 

Which one sounds most appealing to you?

If you have moved abroad, what has helped you overcome culture shock?

TCK Life: Finding Time to Teach Passport Language and Culture to my TCK

So, you’re not a teacher, but you want your TCK (Third Culture Kid) to be able to go back to her passport country for a semester of school, university, or perhaps just the option for her to live there easily when she is an adult. One of the benefits of cross-cultural life is having perspectives from multiple backgrounds, but you’re afraid your TCK is so disconnected from her passport country that she may not be able to assimilate to her “own” country. 

A big part of that is language and culture. Your TCK likely picks up her passport language from you or your spouse, but not everyone feels confident teaching their child to read, or homeschooling to ensure their child has the education their passport country requires for university. If you’re not a TCK yourself, it may surprise you how much language and culture is taught by the community you live in. There are idioms that your uncle taught you, a way of behaving in certain places that you learned by being there with other members of the community: the way one behaves in school, on public transportation, in a shop, at a funeral—these things are culturally informed and taught by the whole community with a shared culture. 

This may feel overwhelming as a parent of a TCK. “How am I supposed to replace an entire community of teachers for my kid?” you may wonder. Don’t worry. You can’t. And you don’t need to. Sure, you need to be intentional about teaching language and some culture, but one of the gifts of being a TCK is having an outside view of a culture that is seen as your “own.” So, do what you can, remembering that your TCK will have different struggles and advantages because of their upbringing, and that’s okay. That said, there are some ways you can teach your TCK her passport language and culture abroad.

Here are three tips to help teach your TCK her passport language and culture:

1. Take (even small) opportunities as they arise.

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When your child asks why you do something one way while all of her friends in your host country do it another way, take the opportunity to explain culture. This helps your TCK differentiate between the host culture she interacts with daily, the culture of their home, and the culture of their passport country. It can lead into a conversation that teaches your child more about the values you hold as a family.

2. Small, regular lessons are better than trying to shove a bunch of information in your kids before you visit your passport country.

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Say your child is enrolled full-time in school in her host country. Fifteen minutes daily of working through some free printables from Pinterest can seem like an insignificant amount of time, but if she’s getting that manageable amount of exposure, it can really make a difference over time. This is especially true if you are intentional and strategic with what you are doing with your child in those fifteen minutes a day.

Trying to do a crash-course over the summer isn’t working with the grain of your child’s brain, and ultimately won’t yield the results you or your child want. That will just frustrate both of you. Growing slowly and steadily is always best.

Once your child is able to read in her passport language, exposing her to books (and e-books) that are classics from her passport country, or history books will allow her to grow in an understanding of that national narrative and culture.

3. Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize.

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What are the most important goals for your TCK? Is it knowing the language their grandparents speak? Is it university opportunities in your passport country? Is it life skills in a passport country? What is the importance in ratio to the learning your child needs in your host country? That ratio should show up in the time they spend learning. If you haven’t read my blog post on helping TCKs through culture stress or in figuring out how to choose educational plans for your kids, check them out here and here, respectively.

Essentially, list your long-term goals for your child in order of importance, and put the effort in. Be prepared to sacrifice to make those most important things happen. Maybe it’s worth hiring a tutor for your TCK. Maybe it’s worth changing your educational plan to incorporate more of your child’s passport language. It may even be worth moving to a city with an international school, or sending your TCK to boarding school. Do the research to find out what’s best for your family. 

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Remember, it is worth the investment of time and effort of thinking strategically about your kids’ upbringing. As you’ve chosen a non-conventional lifestyle overseas, your children may require non-conventional approaches to their education. And an investment in your child’s future is never a waste. 

Your turn!

  • What are some ways you are helping your TCK learn her passport language?
  • How do you find balance in your family?
  • If you don’t have a TCK, what are some ways that you or your kids’ can learn more about another culture?
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Turkey Kalkan Roads

EXPAT KID: Help your expat kid in a Global Pandemic!

Your Road Map to Working through Culture Stress with Your New TCK (aka- Third Culture Kid)

September is well underway, which means that a new school year is upon us. This year in particular, school may look very different from years prior. You may find that your kids tire quickly, are more easily frustrated, and gravitate towards their comfort items more.

*[Ahem… You may notice that you do as well!]

One of the reasons for this is with so much changing in the day to day ways we interact with our world (geez, thanks COVID-19) that our brains no longer work on “auto-pilot” and now have to spend more energy to make decisions. 

The same is true for those entering a new culture, which is why this blog post is helpful for not only ex-pats raising TCKs (Third Culture Kids), but also all parents during the coronavirus pandemic.

This concept is explored more in this article shared about how the stress of living through the COVID-19 pandemic is comparable to culture shock.  Also, I recently read Lauren Wells’ book “Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids” and I highly recommend it for any parent of a TCK.

In this post, I want to share a guide for working through culture stress with TCKs that I learned from this book and from my research and observations of TCKs in general.

Read on for your 3 tips to work through culture stress with your TCK.

Turkey Kalkan Roads

What’s the destination for TCK? What is the goal of working through culture stress?

The first step to reaching any destination is knowing where we are going. The goal of working through culture stress with our children is that in the end, our children are integrated aTCKs who love diversity, are highly adaptable, resilient, and emotionally healthy

Let me break down what I mean by that a bit.

  • Integrated: our kids are a part of the community in which we live, they have a place and feel a sense of belonging and capability in their environment.
  • Love of diversity: one day our children will be adults who either fear or are excited by diversity. In working through culture stress with our TCKs, we are teaching them to become people who see the beauty and effectiveness of diversity, and who cultivate diversity in the spaces they occupy. 
  • Highly adaptable: by teaching our kids how to adapt to their new culture, we are giving them tools to adapt to any culture and any circumstance that life may throw their way.
  • Resilient: children are not naturally resilient in the way we often assume. They have to be taught resilience, and that’s where parents, caregivers, teachers, and mentors come in! We can teach our kids how to handle difficult situations.
  • Emotionally healthy: Children who can name and regulate their emotions will become adults who are not ruled by their emotions.

Now, how do we get there? 

A destination is a good place to start, but without a plan, it’s very hard to arrive where we want to go. So what is the “roadmap” to reach the goal stated above?

Below I walk you through 3 tools that will enable you to reach that goal.

1. Prevention: 

“An ounce is better than a pound of cure,” the saying goes. And it’s true!

Having a car that has been maintained properly makes getting to your destination SO much easier, and prevents innumerable disasters that could come up along the way. 

But what does prevention look like for culture stress?

The most important thing is to have systems in place to talk about feelings without invalidating those feelings, but teaching kids to work through emotions in a healthy way.

What does that look like?

  • Make space for kids to voice their needs and listen to what they’re really saying.
  • Have a time during the day when you check in with each of your kids; what are they experiencing, and how do they feel about it?
  • Practice asking good questions of your kids and really listening to their answers.
  • Maybe every night at dinner, everyone in the family shares the high and low points of their day.

Another prevention tool is helping your kids set expectations. Verbally prepare your children when you are going into a new situation, and give them ways to appropriately communicate their feelings to you.

  • Maybe your self-conscious child gets stared at for their different skin or eye color when you walk to school with her, or even has her skin or hair touched by strangers.
  • Maybe your sensitive child gets overwhelmed by the all the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the market.

As much as possible, give them a way to know what to expect and how to communicate what they are feeling in those moments with you. Of course, since you are also still learning what to expect in your host country, it is important to do the work of learning together.

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2. Partnership:  

When I’m taking a road trip, I always prefer having someone with me, experiencing things alongside me, helping me navigate my way to the next pit stop, and just for the company on what could otherwise be a lonely ride. 

The same is true of entering a new culture.

We can do the work of being a student of our host culture together, alongside our children, rather than excluding them.  Talk about your observations of the culture with your kids, being careful not to pass ethnocentric judgment. “What is something you’ve noticed today that happened differently than you expected?”

We can learn together how to navigate this new way of life, and present it as an exciting opportunity for our children.  You may be surprised…kids are incredibly observant! Two (or three or five) heads are better than one. Your kids can be great assents to your own culture-learning process, and you to theirs, if you partner together in this opportunity. 

Also, help build a community for your kids with local friends who can help you and your kids learn more about the culture you’re adjusting to. Making friends with families with kids similar ages as your own can be helpful in allowing the whole family to enjoy time together in your host language and culture, making your kids feel more at home in their new culture.

Basically, the more you can do together, the better!

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3. Parroting: 

Teaching by modeling to your kids is like giving them a clear map with a highlighted route, or clear road signs that show our kids what to expect ahead. 

When it comes to parenting, you already know: much more is caught than taught.

With regard to cultural learning, it is especially important to remember this. Your response to culture stress informs the way your children will respond to culture stress in a greater way than the way you tell them to respond to culture stress.

In other words, kids are much more likely to “parrot” your responses to the culture, whether they are positive or negative. When you are frustrated with the stress of the overwhelming feeling of just wanting one thing in your life to feel normal again, remember to be careful with how you respond. 

Be honest with your kids about your feelings: “Mom is feeling frustrated right now because I’m still learning to navigate the systems in this culture. But I’m going to take a few deep breaths and try again tomorrow.” Narrate your own feelings as well as your child’s, and remind them (and yourself) that emotions in themselves are not bad, but are indicators to us, like road signs.

Just because we are frustrated with the way our host culture does something, doesn’t mean that your feelings or the culture are wrong. The more we can identify our emotions without attributing blame to our host cultures, the more healthily we can interact (and model interactions for our kids) with our host culture.

This also works with narrating your kids’ emotions. “It seems to me that you are disappointed right now. Would you like to talk about what you were expecting and what happened instead?” Keeping the door open for communication is key to parenting, and especially when navigating a new culture. 

Let’s sum it up!

The more we learn to read the road signs, the more aware we become of our subconscious beliefs and motivations. Using these three tools of Prevention, Partnership, and Parroting will ultimately, enable your TCK (AND you too) to become the most emotionally healthy TCK they can be!

Your Turn!

  • Do you have TCKs?
  • What do you find is most helpful when working through culture stress with them?
  • What books have you read on the topic?
  • What from this blogpost have you found most helpful?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nia McRay from @Tastes_Like_Turkey

I am a lover of words and stories, student of culture, amateur photographer, adult cross-cultural kid, English tutor to TCKs (Third Culture Kids), and aspiring foodie. We will probably be instant friends if you give me good coffee, invite me to cook with you, or start a conversation with me about personalities, culture, and how the two intersect. I’m a life-long nerd, believer, and creative-in-the-works. I am all about the journey, so traveling and cross-cultural living is always something that has captured my heart and inspired my imagination. 

In 2016, after teaching in an inner-city school and needing a change of pace, I spent a year abroad in Izmir, Turkey with a friend. I absolutely fell in love with the city and the people. The conveniences of a big city with a friendly, slow-pace-of-life atmosphere is all found between the mountains and the sea. What’s not to love? So, after my year of adventure, I knew I wanted to come back to Izmir to live. 

Positioned on the perch of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, Turkey is both a mix of cultures, and a unique culture all its own. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and this desire to learn is what drives me to write. As a pretty quiet person, I write to learn, to discover, and to process. As someone who grew up in a cross-cultural context, Turkey’s diversity and mix of cultures is something I personally relate to. Plus, if you’ve ever tasted Turkish food, you know that it is definitely something to write home about. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the Funks’ blog and to grow and learn in the process.

Baristas Best Travel Guides

Why Baristas Make the Best Travel Guides

NOTE FROM CATIE: Michael is a long time friend! It is crazy to think we met one another over 10 years ago now! He is also the one who encouraged me to give up my heavily flavored cream (with a bit of coffee) and to ‘just drink it black.’ It took me a few years longer than he probably would have liked, but now I am a very proud black coffee drinker! Now on to the article

The best-informed travel guide just might be the person making your coffee. The role of barista has long gone beyond the role of “bartender” like the original Italian might suggest. Baristas are cultural critics, political wonks, and amateur music historians. They know where the best Banh Mi is (which by the way, Catie cutting in here, is a Vietnamese sandwich). They’re probably eating it on their lunch break. 

Your barista very likely has a liberal arts degree if not an MFA. Their band has appeared on public radio and opened for some nationally known acts.  But more importantly for you, they’ve learned how to craft a perfect cappuccino, and that attention to detail has attracted the city’s top chefs, museum curators, and journalists to their café.

In short, they know people. 

Baristas Best Travel Guides

(Of course, this is contingent on being in a good, independent coffee shop. I cofounded thecoffeecompass.com to help people find the best cafés around the world.) 

Barista knows where the hidden gems are.

They know which sights are overrated, which restaurants are past their prime, and where the queue is too long to make it worthwhile. They’ve already been to the up-and-coming place no one has written about yet. 

Lucky for you, your barista will more than likely share a few tips with you— provided you’re a friendly customer and they’re not slammed making drinks.* (Do not— I  repeat—  do not ask for a travel recommendation in the middle of the morning rush!)

Baristas Best Travel Guides

The technique here is very simple. 

1. Order a coffee. If appropriate in local culture, leave a tip.

2. Drink said coffee. 

3. After you finish your coffee, thank the barista. 

4. Mention you are visiting from out of town, and ask if there are any restaurants/bars/museums/ etc you should see while you’re in town. 

Mosts of baristas love their cities, and can’t resist showing it off to out-of-towners. More than once, a barista recommendation has had a waiter or bartended asking me, “How did you find us? We don’t get many tourists here.” 

In short, your barista can curate an unforgettable travel experience

Just make sure you leave a tip.  

*Do not try this in Manhattan. Those baristas are battle-weary and interact with far too many tourists to care whether you find the best natural wine bar (it’s the Ten Bells, btw). 

Baristas Best Travel Guides

Michael Butterworth is the cofounder of thecoffeecompass.com. (Instagram)

He lives in Istanbul with his family. 

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Turkish Summers + Chocolate Chip Cookies

For me, summer is the season for picnics and potlucks, marked by evenings of snacks and çay watching the sun paint the sky as it sinks into the Aegean. In Izmir, the bay is always lined with families and friends enjoying the sea breeze. In the summers when the sun doesn’t set until well after 8 pm, it can be hard to find a place to put down a blanket to sit and watch the sunset. But when you do find a space to spread out with your friends, few things are more of a crowd-pleaser than these chocolate chip cookies. They travel well, require no utensils or plates, and go perfectly with a cup of çay.

Izmir Turkey
Izmir Turkey

 This cookie has a caramelly complexity from browned butter, brown sugar, ground oats and cinnamon, a solid crunch with a structured crumb and chopped walnuts, yet all the gooey chocolate you could possibly desire. It is the combination of my favorite aspects of a few different recipes. I wanted a cookie that would give a crunch on the outside and hold together well, but with a soft interior, a bit of saltiness to keep it from being overly sweet, and the complexity of different textures and flavors. 

Izmir Turkey

This recipe is a bit time consuming as it requires for melted browned butter to come to room temperature, so I like to double the recipe ahead of time and keep pre-scooped dough in my freezer. That way, I can bake as few as two cookies for myself in the toaster oven, or a full dozen when friends or neighbors drop by unannounced. It’s a lovely feeling to know you are no more than 20 minutes away from a plate of warm, gooey and crunchy chocolate chip cookies that go perfectly with a cup of tea or coffee. The doubled recipe was enough for me to bring to 4 events.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup oats 
  • 2 ¼ cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup butter
  • ¾ packed brown sugar (1 tbs molasses (pekmez) + 1 cup sugar = 1 cup brown sugar)
  • ¾ cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • ½ tsp lemon juice
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 cups dark chocolate chips
  • 1 ½ cups chopped walnuts
Chocolate Chip Cookies

Instructions:

  1. Brown butter in saucepan. Transfer into a bowl; place in fridge for up to 2 hours until room temperature.
  2. Pulse oats in a blender or food processor until oats are fine, but still retain some structure. Mix all dry ingredients except sugars (and chips and nuts).
  3. Cream room temperature butter and sugars. (If you’re in Turkey and don’t have brown sugar, mix 1 Tbs of pekmez (grape molasses) per cup of white sugar until well-incorporated, and keep in an airtight container.) Add vanilla, lemon juice and eggs one at a time. Stir until smooth. 
  4. Slowly add dry ingredients until sticky dough forms. Fold in chips and nuts.
  5. Scoop dough with ¼ cup. Freeze dough. 
  6. Preheat oven to 185 C. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper. Take out a few scoops of dough, placing them 2 inches apart. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown on the edges, but still slightly under-baked. If you enjoy a salty sweet taste, sprinkle a pinch of salt while the cookies are hot.
  7. Let cool for 5 minutes. Eat while warm. 

Let me know how the recipe turned out for you! What kind of chocolate chip cookie do you prefer? 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nia McRay from @Tastes_Like_Turkey

I am a lover of words and stories, student of culture, amateur photographer, adult cross-cultural kid, English tutor to TCKs (Third Culture Kids), and aspiring foodie. We will probably be instant friends if you give me good coffee, invite me to cook with you, or start a conversation with me about personalities, culture, and how the two intersect. I’m a life-long nerd, believer, and creative-in-the-works. I am all about the journey, so traveling and cross-cultural living is always something that has captured my heart and inspired my imagination. 

In 2016, after teaching in an inner-city school and needing a change of pace, I spent a year abroad in Izmir, Turkey with a friend. I absolutely fell in love with the city and the people. The conveniences of a big city with a friendly, slow-pace-of-life atmosphere is all found between the mountains and the sea. What’s not to love? So, after my year of adventure, I knew I wanted to come back to Izmir to live. 

Positioned on the perch of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, Turkey is both a mix of cultures, and a unique culture all its own. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and this desire to learn is what drives me to write. As a pretty quiet person, I write to learn, to discover, and to process. As someone who grew up in a cross-cultural context, Turkey’s diversity and mix of cultures is something I personally relate to. Plus, if you’ve ever tasted Turkish food, you know that it is definitely something to write home about. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the Funks’ blog and to grow and learn in the process.