Living Abroad

Adjusting to a New Cultural

Living in a foreign land can be a roller coaster journey of emotions. From the initial excitement of planning to move to a new country to the honeymoon highs upon arrival to the lonely lows during those days when the word “foreign” stops being synonymous with the word “fun”.  Although the label “expat” is an invisible badge of courage, every overseas worker must cope with countless daily challenges to turn living in a foreign culture not just surviving, but rather thriving. Understanding the stages of cultural adjustment can help to make life in a foreign cultural easier. Here are some tips for coping while living abroad. Don’t just survive; thrive!

Journey into a Foreign Culture

Cultural Adjustment is a Long Journey

Culture Shock

  • “Wow, we don’t have those back home?” That is the fun kind of culture shock. 
  • “What the #&!% is that? No way am I eating that.” That is the not-so-good kind of culture shock. 
  • “What do you mean you can’t understand what I said.  I’m speaking your language…I think.” That is the frustrating kind of culture shock.
  • “Nobody understands me here. I can’t understand these people. I hate it here. I got to go home.” That is the culture shock at its worst.

U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment

Oberg’s Stages of Cultural Adjustment

What is Cultural Adjustment?

Cultural adjustment is a process of learning about another culture in order to function successfully within that culture. This can help an expat to accomplish the goals they have for moving to another country.  For example, a Filipino overseas worker needs to communicate with bosses and coworkers, understand the monetary institutions for saving money and sending money home, be aware of customs, laws and cultural expectation. Likewise, EFL teachers and study abroad students need to understand the educational culture and education system of a country in order to accomplish their professional or academic goals.  

The cultural-adjustment period is the length of time it takes an individual to learn or acquire the behavior necessary to achieve his or her objectives.  The amount of time it takes for a person to adjust to living in another culture varies due to differences in personalities, personal characteristics and personal experiences in the host country.  Social distance between cultures can also be a factor in how long the cultural-adjustment period may take. That is, the greater the difference between a sojourner’s home cultural and destination culture, the more difficult the cultural adjustment period is likely to be.  

Difficulties Living Abroad

  • Coping in a new education system (edu-culture)
  • Dating/Romance
  • Language differences
  • Collectivism vs. Individualism
  • Understanding cultural nuances or cultural mindset
  • Eating local food
  • Making friends

Variations of the U-Curve

English, B. (2011). “Preparing Japanese University Students for Study Abroad” in Tama University School of Global Studies Bulletin, Issue 4, 2011

In the above graph, point A designates the end of the expat’s Honeymoon Stage.  Frustration with cultural differences and language barriers are more pronounced as the traveler begins to need more than just superficial contact with people.  Point B represents the beginning of an early recovery.  This could result from the formation of a friendship network that has been successful in making the expat part of the new community.  Point C could represent a crucial point where the individual needs some positive feedback and encouragement to start a recovery.  Without some kind of success at this point, the individual may become melancholy about the sojourn and reject the host culture.  Any antagonistic feelings about the host culture may cause the expat to seek out the company of compatriots.  A compatriot friendship network could provide some support to initiate a recovery for the individual.  However, if those compatriots were also malcontents, then negative feelings toward the host culture could snowball, precluding any possibility for recovery as is represented by the line going through point D.  Point E represents a critical incident that had a positive result and depicts a favorable change in attitude toward the host culture.  Point F exemplifies a critical incident with a negative result that leads to a relapse, which is manifested in increased negative feelings about the host culture or additional disillusionment about the sojourn experience.

Good Friends are Important While Living Abroad

Pre-Departure Tips for Thriving While Living Abroad

  1. Have Realistic Expectations – Everyone has a bit of Dorothy in them. Oz was a wonderful place, but there is no place like home. So, before packing those bags, it is probably good to do a fair amount of research to find out how many lions and tigers and bears (and witches) are lurking in that foreign land. If you have been there already on holiday, keep in mind that a vacation usually only gets you part way through the honeymoon stage. Reading other people’s blogs about living in a country can provide a wider perspective of what to expect. Knowing the challenges will help you keep realistic expectations.
  2. Have an Arrival Plan – This seems like a no-brainer, but the better planned the first few weeks are, the easier the initial adjustment will be.  A wise plan would include seeking out compatriots living in the area or foreigner support groups via social networking. It is also important to have several options for accommodation in case there are complications with your first choice. An arrival plan should also include researching and anticipating what will be needed in terms of documents for a new school, job, apartment or medical emergency.
  3. Have a Contingency Plan – What will you do if your new school or job is very different from what you expect? Promises from OW agencies or English schools are not always kept. Don’t commit to an all-or-nothing gamble when deciding to move abroad. Have an “escape plan” just in case you need one.
  4. Learn Some Local Lingo – Study some of the local language and learn some basic phases that will facilitate getting around during the first few days. The more you can communicate in the local language, the easier it will be to do the simplest daily activities such as ordering food, shopping and asking directions. 

Post-Arrival Tips for Thriving While Living Abroad

  1. Friendship Networks – Making new friends is not always easy and trying to meet quality people while abroad can be especially challenging. However, it is important to befriend some locals that speak your language. Having host-country friends can be an open door to learning more about your new environment. Local friends can also help with translating and understanding cultural nuances. However, it is also important to have a network of friends from you own cultural. Finding expat support groups and attending expat social gatherings can be a great way to take a mental vacation from the stress of living abroad. This is easier in a large city than a small town just because choices are greater. Unfortunately, not all expats are outgoing to new arrivals and not all expats are the type of people you want to call friends. Every country has its share of jaded or dodgy foreigners.
  2. Avoid Malcontents – Negativity breeds more negativity.  If you spend time with fellow expats who continuously complain about the local people and customs, you too will look more and more on the dark side. Seek out positive people to stay positive.
  3. Monitor Yourself – Be aware of your habits and your health. If you realize that you are eating much more junk food, sleeping much later or drinking much more alcohol than you did back home, you could be getting depressed. A change in such habits could be a warning sign. Stay healthy physically and it is easier to cope with the stress of living abroad.
  4. Get Involved in a Cultural Activity – This is a great way to stay positive and meet positive thinking locals and expats.
  5. Daytrips – These are an essential way to recharge your mental batteries and reconnect with the “honeymoon stage” of living abroad. Plan a daytrip, get excited about it and go. If you are trying to save money, do something cheap like a hike or a walk through the historical part of a city. Pack a lunch and go to a famous park. Visit an art gallery or a temple or museum.
  6. Alone Time – If your living situation includes roommates or a host family, be sure to schedule some alone time for yourself.
  7. Keep in Touch (but not too much) – In the modern world it is easy to talk to family and friends back home. Sometimes, it is too easy. Family and friends can help relieve the homesickness and bring you up if you start to feel down about living abroad. However, they can also add to the homesickness without knowing it. Reach out and touch someone when you want to, but don’t think that skype and viber calls are your ruby slippers to click three times.
  8. Temporary Leaves – If the weather, the food, the job, the homework or whatever are getting the better of you, consider a short trip out of the country. For the long-term expat, a vacation out every now and then is necessary.
  9. Money – If you are an overseas worker then saving money is probably one of your goals for living abroad.  Keep your eyes on the prize.  Even if saving money is not one of your goals, having money can lessen the stress of living abroad.  Make a budget and stick to it. Living abroad often comes with unexpected expenses. Sometimes it is small like an unexpected rise in transportation cost.  Sometimes it is larger like an unexpected income tax hike or other deduction from your pay check. With money, expect the unexpected.

I hope you enjoy these tips. Please comment below about your own living abroad experiences and add some tips on how to thrive while living abroad!