As I mentioned in my previous post, the term “culture shock” is a misnomer because it is not necessarily an acute event, but rather a series of sensations experienced over time when a person is immersed in an unfamiliar environment or culture. The 3-stage process of assimilating or adapting to a new culture is called the cultural adjustment curve (CAC). Of the 3 stages, the hostility phase encompasses the low point of cultural adaptability. This does not mean you have to go running back to your passport country though! In order to increase the likelihood of successfully integrating into the new culture, the newly relocated expat must overcome this hostility or crisis stage. Here are 7 ways to help the expat triumph the CAC.
Establish a support group (locally and from your passport country)
I have always been a “girl’s girl”. I have 3 sisters and a solid network of girlfriends that have been my constant source of support over the years. One of the most difficult aspects of moving to Costa Rica was leaving that behind. I was especially scared of not being able to make new friends because I was not going to be working outside the home in Costa Rica, and my job has always been my breeding ground for friends over the years. Fortunately, the Internet has disintegrated geography as a barrier to maintainig friendships. While you are living abroad, keep in touch with your old crowd. Even though they are not going through the same experiences you are, they can listen and give you a virtual hug if you need it. Talking out your feelings of hostility may even feel safer with someone who does not live in your hometown.
But you still need a support group with roots in your host country. You need to reach out to a group of exats living in your new community that will understand your frustrations and will be able to help you when you need a information about some of the “technical” aspects of your new home (ie, where do you pay your electric bill…). Sources of potential friends include your children’s school, your job (if your move abroad was work-related), online expat groups (do a Google search), and joining community activities such as local dance, yoga, or art groups.
Stay physically active
I am a total fitness nut. I have been a runner for over four years and completed a marathon in 2012. I have continued running in Costa Rica, even though I put in less miles than I used too. I also walk an incredible amount. On any given day, I can walk anywhere from 1 to 9 miles. Staying physically active leads to benefits beyond the obvious health advantages. Physical activity releases “endorphins” that make you feel good. This will help you mitigate negative feelings caused by culture shock. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. This is not hippie-speak, but a very real fact. This does not mean you have to take up running or start hitting the gym if that is not something you enjoy. You can walk, swim, hike, mow the lawn, ride a bicycle, or take dancing lessons. Do whatever is feasible in your home country, but make sure it is something you enjoy doing.
Find a restorative activity
A few months after moving to Costa Rica, I started attending yoga classes at one of the hotels. Tourists, expats, and Ticos attend these classes. I have met some great people (see suggestion number 1), and I have found yoga to be an excellent way to clear my mind of negative emotions. I recommend any newly relocated expat to find an activity that helps them do the same. This can be writing poetry, painting, drawing, gardening, meditating, or playing a musical instrument. The activity must bring you joy and relaxation. If you don’t look forward to it, you will not find it restorative.
Splurge on the comforts of home
I remember the first time I made mac and cheese in Costa Rica. We had been living here for about 2 months. I finally found the pasta at the store and decided to splurge on it. Pasta is more expensive than rice here. Chris, Kara, and Tristan were positively ecstatic when they saw it on their plates. They were so happy to eat something simple but that was familiar to them. Back in the US, I made mac and cheese, steamed broccoli, and fresh fruit as a meal at least once per week for dinner. Preparing this meal in Costa Rica brought everyone joy and comfort, which helped mitigate any feelings of homesickness.
Since moving to Costa Rica, I look forward to weekends for 3 reasons: I stay in my fleece pajamas all morning, drink fresh-brewed coffee, and I watch mindless shows or movies on Netflix or iTunes. This may sound like trivial or silly things to look forward to, but this is what I used to do when I had a weekend off back in the US. Continuing this ritual in Costa Rica has helped me overcome the hostility phase of CAC. In fact, I actually enjoy my ritual more here, because in the USA I used to work about 40% of my weekends, and I used to do a long run on Saturdays when I was off. This meant that I only got to do the coffee/movie/PJs routine a couple of times per month. Now I get to do it every Saturday and Sunday, which is absolutely wonderful.
It is OK to splurge on creature comforts every once in a while. Eat at the only Pizza Hut in town (if you have one in your new country). Download the entire series of your favorite TV show on your lap top. Have dessert for breakfast. Work in your pajamas all day. Don’t feel guilty for doing this!
Arm yourself with patience and a sense of humor
One day, we decided to go to a fundraiser in Canitas (a neighborhood on the other side of Santa Elena town) for a Tico family that was experiencing a serious health crisis. As with almost any event in Costa Rica, the details were sparse, but I knew which road to take. Someone had told us that the event was about a 20-minute walk from Santa Elena. After we had been walking for about 30 minutes, I asked for directions to Canitas, and we were told it was another 2 km. We walked on, until it became clear we had passed the 2 km mark. I stopped at a bakery and asked for directions again, and was once again told that Canitas was 2 km. Say what?! We walked for almost 2 hours before we found the location! In the end, we decided to laugh about it and use the walking experience as an excuse to eat lots of desserts that day. It also helped to put our “crisis” in perspective when comparing it to the family for which the fundraiser was held. Patience and sense of humor are the most important tools in the expat’s arsenal to combat culture shock. Make a certified effort to adopt these virtues, and you will find yourself to be a much happier expat.
I don’t write in a diary, but I like to make checklists, which is a byproduct of my physician days. Thanks to Atul Gawande, checklists are all the rage amongst my pediatric hospitalist colleagues. Each day, I write down 3 tasks that I plan to accomplish. They don’t have to be huge tasks, but I like the feeling I get from crossing items off the checklist. On particularly busy weeks, I keep a weekly checklist of “to-dos”. I think there is therapeutic benefit from writing in general. To help attenuate the negative feelings of culture shock, I recommend the expat to engage in some form of reflective journaling. This can be by making checklists like me or actually writing down your feelings. In order to call up mind over matter techniques, you can also write down anything that made you feel happy or made you laugh that day. All of these journaling activities will help ease the hostility phase of the CAC.
If you feel depressed to the point that you cannot function in your daily life, are losing weight unintentionally due to homesickness, feel like you want to harm yourself or others, or feel that you are responding to external stimuli (hearing voices that others don’t hear) please seek professional, psychiatric help. No amount of yoga or journaling is going to fix that.
I hope that these seven prescribed actions help you palliate the hostility phase of cultural adjustment. Remember you are not alone.
What other strategies have you used to alleviate culture shock? Let me know in the comments below.