Friday, June 1, 2007

Expat Culture Shock

Here is the article on culture shock I wrote for Escape Artist:

When my husband I and I began to plan our move from the Midwestern U.S. to Dominica in the West Indies, I read a couple of books on the topic of culture shock. I had experienced a mild case of this malady as a young American folksinger (remember folk music?) in Canada during the 70s. Back then Canadians were, very sensibly, suspicious of Americans. And Canada was just different enough from the U.S. that I was acutely aware of feeling like an outsider. I eventually began to feign a Canadian accent, and told people I was from Toronto. From that experience, I knew there would be adjustments and discomfort with a cross-cultural move. I suspected my earlier Canadian culture shock would pale compared to a move to Dominica. Yep, was I right!

The Honeymoon Phase
The experts on culture shock, who are hired by multinational corporations to help their workers with this issue, will tell you to expect a honeymoon phase. This was definitely true for Roger, my spouse, and me. We fell in love with Dominica like a pubescent boy falls in love with his buxom young teacher. All we could do was fantasize about her and do everything possible to spend every moment with her. Even when we moved here the pink cloud bliss continued for many months. All we saw was paradise through our rose colored glasses. “Ah,” I secretly thought to myself, “Dominica is so perfect for us we won’t have to deal with culture shock”. Those of us who move abroad often harbor a secret belief that life will be better when we move, and our initial elation only reinforces that belief.

Disintegration or the Irritability/Hostility Stage
And then it hit. The stage I dreaded arrived with a Thump! This, following a rapid fire series of unfortunate events, made me realize just how different this culture was from my expectations. Suddenly, I was in a spiral of uncertainty and negativity. I began to see everything through negative and pessimistic prisms, where once my rose colored glasses had been.

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I went to the Post Office one day to find a large pool of blood in the lobby from a stabbing during the night. The staff ignored it, opened the mailbox area in the morning and the public was required to walk through, or tiptoe around, this biohazard to check their mail. Events like these, coupled with some petty theft, and disappointments with individuals, marked my entry into the hostility stage.

I must add a caveat here: I am a person who experiences things very intensely, both good and bad. My hostility became a real difficulty. I could not utter a good word about my new home. I heard myself saying the same jaded expat phrases I had sworn I would never say. I began to speak cynically of my beloved island. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake in moving here. I bored my husband and friends to unconsciousness with my litanies of Dominica’s flaws. I looked for every opportunity to find something negative to add to my “Isn’t that awful” list.

It is difficult to reframe things more positively and find constructive solutions rather than wallowing in negativity. The smugly superior attitude of many worldwide expats became suddenly understandable to me. And many of us choose to stay in this stage. Does this lead to substance abuse found in expat communities internationally? I don’t know, but I see how easy it would be to stay stuck in these destructive attitudes.

Maybe this hostility is a result of leaving a place where negative aspects are oh so familiar, and therefore more easily dismissed. Suddenly, we are in a situation where it is hard to ignore negative things, because they are new and different. Our new culture is possibly no better or worse than the old one, but because it is new, the flaws are glaring. For instance, it is harder for me to ignore a Dominican picking her nose as she speaks to me, than it is to ignore the many American distasteful habits.

We grow up knowing how to manage problems in our own culture by watching others. It is second nature, learned at our mothers’ knees, like language. We know where we are safe and unsafe, what behaviors give offense, what behaviors are admired. We know what is expected of us, and what to expect of others. As a fledgling expat, I felt like I was attempting a “some assembly required” project with no instruction sheet. How do the pieces fit together here?

I have learned to say no to things which I never encountered at home. Some expat friends bought a house on Dominica, but the transaction was completed while they were in Europe. We took possession for them, and found a filthy mess left by the prior owner. I was helping to clean the house with another friend, when a local woman came into the house, uninvited, with her daughter. She had a look around, and sat down to watch me work. I said as kindly as possible, “If this were my house you would be welcome to stay, but as it is not my house, I cannot invite you.” They remained as I stood, confused about the right thing to do. I was about to say baldly, “You must leave”, when they left of their own accord.

Similarly, the 2 ½ year old from next door toddled over in his diaper, walked into the house and began to look about and play amid the clutter. After 30 minutes or so, the child’s mother appeared and walked in to address the child, “I didn’t know where you were, be sure to come home when you are done.” Mom turned, expecting to leave the child behind. One of us took the child by the hand, returning him to his mother. A necessary boundary was set about visiting.

These two events would never have occurred in the US, at least in my experience. No one walks into a house uninvited or sits down uninvited. No one lets their toddler wander unless they want to be charged with negligence by child protective agencies. When things like this occur I typically go blank and cannot figure out how to respond. I am gradually trying to become more assertive, but this is not easy for me. The first time I saw someone stand in my home talking with me and openly pick her nose, I was not able to say “would you mind doing that in the bathroom?” I am gradually learning to respect my own needs as well as others.

Roger gave offence to a Dominican when he responded on the telephone with “hello” rather than “good morning”. It seems one must strictly adhere to “good morning”, “good afternoon”, or “good evening” as a greeting. Sometimes it is very confusing to be a stranger in a strange land.

The culture shock issues are not only with the culture of Dominica, but also with expats from other cultures. Roger and I are very private people who value our alone time. We have expat friends who have very different needs and expectations. Dropping in without calling is acceptable to some expats we know, whereas we would rarely call on anyone without telephoning first. One expat friend walked into our house without calling out or honking his horn and caught me in my “knickers”. We now keep a lock on our gate so that we are not surprised.

My heritage is Southern U.S. where hospitality is a key virtue. Everyone who entered my mother’s door was pressed to stay for a meal. It is very uncomfortable for me to set boundaries with others when it comes to hospitality issues. As a result, I have found myself cooking for others when I wanted to do something else, and entertaining when I would rather be alone. Unfortunately, Roger is delighted to have me entertain rather single handedly on occasion. I am learning not to have such an open house.

We have learned that everything must be securely locked to avoid theft and everything must be spelled out to avoid misunderstanding. We left a Dominican friend to housesit for us while we visited Martinique. Although we locked our bedroom door before we left, we returned to find the door unlocked and evidence that our belongings had been explored. Nothing was missing, but our privacy was invaded. Locked doors don’t mean the same thing to everyone.

Adjustment Stage: Humor Returns with Sense of Balance
My sense of humor finally began to slowly ooze back into my life. I began once again to enjoy the surprises of Dominica: the stoned Rastafari who kisses me each time we meet, or the offers of marriage in the market. Having our auto mechanic shout out a greeting as his car passes us on the street makes me smile.

Living on such an amazingly beautiful island also soothes my negativity. I still have moments of frustration with island life and become unglued. Recently, I became miserable, cranky and ready to learn Spanish for the move to Costa Rica. But, we went up the hill and looked at the view we will one day enjoy from our own veranda. Mist covered mountains, sea, and a green, green valley. I became quiet. Ok. I'll stay on Dominica. This island is unbelievably gorgeous! It is enough to sap the evil out of me. Even me, on a bad day. It seems sometimes this island I love helps me to laugh at myself.

Adaptation Stage with a Sense of Belonging
Adaptation is an ongoing process, and as nature teaches us, we must adapt to survive! Integration and comfort with a different culture takes a long time and probably never completely occurs. Dominicans will always call us “strangers” and we will never be seen as Dominican. Recently, we went for a mineral bath at a place known as Screw’s. Screw had a good laugh when we called ourselves “locals” and asked for the local rate. He gave us the lower rate, but it is clear we will never really be locals.

A similar, but much more serious example of permanent outsider status is the situation of an expat doctor. He and his wife have lived here more than 25 years as citizens. They raised their children here. Still, he remains enough of an outsider that he was passed over for positions in favor of native born Dominicans.

So I never expect to fully integrate. But slowly, as I steep in the culture of my new home, I take on its flavor and learn to savor those flavors. As I understand Dominica’s peculiarities, I begin, in some indefinable way, to become more Dominican and less American. But, as I said, this is a slow, slow process.

Re-entry shock
Many expats do not survive the hostility phase, and hastily repatriate home. There, further difficulty awaits. Unbeknownst, home does change while we are abroad, and now adjustments to these changes must occur. The returning expat does not find the cozy, warm return to the familiar he longs for. Things are different. Not only is home different, but he is different. All of those negative parts of home, which were easily ignored when they were familiar, are now acutely obvious and grating to the returnee. So the poor expat finds himself once again struggling to adjust. Repatriation culture shock often occurs. The grass is really not greener back home.
When discussing a move abroad any intrepid expat will tell you, “It ain’t easy”. Many will say, “Don’t do it!” If you are reluctant to learn a new way of living, I would agree. Don’t do it. Living abroad is very different from vacationing in that same place. But I would be quick to add: “Try it, if...” If you can live without the familiar comforts of home. If you bring your best friend with you who wants the move as much as you do. If you think you might feel less of an outsider in a foreign land than in your own. If you are prepared to cope with the culture shock that is probably inevitable.

But remember when deciding, the world you leave behind will change and you will too. Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.


Unknown said...

Hello - I found your blog a few weeks ago and am really enjoying it. This post was great and familiar to me - I am an American living on St. Maarten and am certainly familiar with some of these feelings!

When I moved to St. Maarten I thought it would a year long lark - 10 years later, my life is forever changed and I can only be grateful for the joy and opportunities that came along with the confusion and apprehension etc.

Thanks for blogging! All the best - Jess

Juliana said...

I was directed to your blog through an ex-pat board about Puerto Vallarta. As a Canadian living there for almost three years, I experienced a lot of the things mentioned in your article.

A little over a year ago, I successfully repatriated back to Canada and have a whole new appreciation for my mother country.

My time in Mexico taught me alot about myself and I know now that I would only want to live in another country part of the time. I would simply miss Canada darn too much.

Good luck in your continuing adventure!


Jen Miller said...

Thanks, Juliana! Glad you had a good adjustment going "home". I don't think I could cope again with the US.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Wolfe was right, indeed. I once sailed away to the South Pacific and my return to the USA was met with 'Well, what will you do next?' and a cold shoulder from old friends and even family. We had already spent a few years living in Turkey and were perceived as something between disloyal and 'different'. Now, in retirement, we have lived at Lake Chapala for over five years and love it. Yes, the large expat community helps, but the warm friendliness of the Mexican community is what really makes this place 'home'. It is where we will stay for as long as 'forever' lasts. I once returned to Turkey and it had changed. When we last visited the USA, we felt like foreigners in a strange land and couldn't stand the 'factory food' dished out as we travelled. We soon found ourselves seeking out the Mexican restaurants and the opportunity to hear and use Spanish. Home is where you are happy and the location is subject to being changed as ones attitudes and perceptions change.
Bob in Chapala

Jen Miller said...

I will admit I am apprehensive about how my trip back to the US mainland will be this autumn. It has been 2 years and I just can't imagine what it will be like to experience that life again!

Lauren said...

This is a very old post so I dont know if you or anyone will ever read it, but I wanted to say thank you. I really enjoyed reading this. My fiance and I are playing with a long term goal of moving to the Caribbean from our current home in Seattle. I grew up on St. Croix and want to move back to the beaches and pace of life, but know the realities of the lifestyle there. He is more rose glasses to the idea and cannot see any downside. Thank you for your story. Best of luck with your adventures.

Amerikanitis said...

Yes it's an old post but still very useful and relevant! As Amerika descends into total chaos and degradation I look for somewhere else to be. A friend has great connections in Dominica and I'm almost ready to give it a try, but just don't know I'm ready for such a change. That's funny about friends thinking rvgringo was disloyal for wanting to leave the USSA -- if they still don't see what's happening to them here 6 years later, they may need shock treatments.