Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg concluded there are four stages experienced by expats when adjusting to life in a new country and culture. Many of us are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ however the stages are the honeymoon phase, negotiation phase (known as culture shock), adjustment phase and mastery phase.This emotional rollercoaster is one heck of a ride, so let’s explore each stop from my own perspective..
During this phase everything is new and exciting and this feeling may last up to a two months; for me this euphoria lasted 2 weeks to the day. Expats possess a positive mindset and feel enthusiastic about creating a life and career in the host country.
Culture shock emerges and can last up to 6 months or so into the move. This phase finds the expat attempting to reconcile what is known or normal from ‘home'(i.e., the social and cultural norms and expectations) and those of the new country. New knowledge needs to be created regarding social sublties (e..g., subtle gestures, greetings, social interactions, facial expressions etc), making purchases at stores, ordering food at restaurants, dealing with domestic staff, expectations for conduct of men and women – everything yon take for granted at home.
This time can mess with your mindset and may be a period of confusion, depression, grieving, stress, disorientation, anxiety, depression or frustration. Talk to others able their experiences as well as their coping strategies, it helps. The negotiation phase lasted from 2 weeks – around 9 months into our posting for me and I found that at times I moved between the negotiation phase and adjustment phase around the 9 month mark.
Towards the end of my first year at post, I had developed and implemented coping strategies and this is when I began to feel comfortable and confident within my new country. Venturing out to malls and supermarkets and catching taxis became ok – I knew some basic language and possessed a limited mental map of the city. Things start to look promising once more. The people, language, food and culture start to become the new normal and familiar and I found that when I visited home, I started to feel like a misfit.
Within 12-18 months I had found that my host country was now ‘home’ and home became ‘Australia’. The mastery phase was a time of high functioning and feeling comfortable in my host country. From this point I found that I had become a triangle (see my post I Am Now a Triangle). I had moved from a circle country to a square country and had morphed into a shape that did not truly fit either.
I have added this phase as this is a dangerous phase. The thought of returning home home lulls expats into a false sense of security – friends, family and colleagues ask how hard can it be? You’re returning to the familiar, to normalcy. Hati, hati (danger)! We often reminisce about how beautiful our home town is, happy family and friends, returning to our previous workplace and colleagues and somehow we have forgotten the day to day frustrations.
The stages of cultural adjustment will kick in all over again. Reverse culture shock emerges and can be more debilitating than when moving to the host country and familiarising with the new culture. Changes to work culture and expectations, socio-cultural changes and unrealistic expat expectations may all be contributing factors.
My world view has been altered and returning to Australia is both exciting and anxiety inducing. I realise that once more I will need to extend patience, understanding and tough love to myself and partner as we make another transition and support each other to thrive through the process.