The Stages of Cultural Adjustment

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..

Honeymoon phase

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.

Negotiation phase

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.

Adjustment phase

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.

Mastery phase

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.

Repatriation phase

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. wpid-wp-1401709243607.jpeg 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.



Could repatriation be more challenging than expatriation?

wpid-wp-1421210277801.jpegThinking of “home” conjures memories of blue skies, smiling faces of love ones, our dogs and an easy lifestyle.  These rose coloured glasses of mine are building me up to fail at our upcoming repatriation.

Many expats buy into false assumptions about the ease of returning home.  Home is familiar so the move will surely be straightforward, as will the transition back to normalcy. This is when the gods of reality check laugh and throw a few curve balls.

Those returning home experience similar challenges to when they moved abroad – sourcing accommodation, cars, school enrolments, possibly securing a job for the spouse and so on.  However this time, the family completes this transition without the support from the employer.  After all, you’re home now  how difficult can it be?

Reverse culture shock 

The romanticised view of ‘home’ often omits the forgotten frustrations and stressors of everyday life.  Home has changed – people have changed and experienced new and different things and may have moved into a different lie stage.  You have changed too as a result of experiencing a new culture.   Your beliefs, values and essentially your world view have evolved and these may be at odds with what awaits you at home.  Be aware that this may make it difficult to simply pick up where you left off with friends and coworkers upon your return.

Further, your lifestyle abroad was fairly comfortable.  Here, we have domestic staff who assist with minimising the daily stressors of navigating anger inducing traffic (machet), limited parking opportunities, lengthy travel times as well as home cleaning.  Returning home means doing everything for yourself.  Additionally, you may find that money becomes a consideration without access to expat financial allowances (though this may be countered by the spouse being able to work once again!).

Supporting children

Leaving the familiar is difficult for adults who have the language to communicate frustrations and fears.  Children on the other hand may not and their anxiety may present through behaviour.  Repatriation for kids is an enormous deal – they are leaving their home, school, routines, friends and significant adults – everything that is familiar and predictable.  Some children may have developed a strong connection to the adoptive country and some may not even remember life back home.

So how to manage this transition for kids?  Communication is key.  Talk positively about the transition and ensure that the child knows that the move is inevitable.  Children should feel supported to talk openly about how they’re feeling about the move without judgement.  Other strategies may include:

  • schedule proper goodbyes prior to leaving
  • ask your child what they might like to know about ‘home’ and research together
  • once you’ve made the move, set up the child’s bedroom in a similar way to provide a sense of familiarity and comfort
  • establish routines within the home and
  • keep in regular contact with teachers or carers

Many organisations do provide counselling services for officers and their families; consider utilising this service to support with the transition before, during or after relocation.  Repatriation offers many additional challenges for expats and their families due to the perceived ease of returning to the familiar.  Good luck.

Why is the transition challenging for trailing spouses?

Firstly, lets celebrate the trailing spouse and make time to reflect on the enormity of of this supporting role and thank them for their sacrifices.  For me, the two biggest challenges I grappled with were no job and no friends and the baggage that comes with …that.

The majority of trailing spouses at our post are women.  Highly educated, driven women who have willingly put their careers and professional aspirations on hold to support our partners to further theirs.  Many of these women who join their partner at post and find that they are unable to easily find work due to visa requirements, political environment and so on.  This is huge.

Many, like me, find that making the transition from career women to home maker quite confronting.  Our careers are heavily intwined with our identity; who we perceive ourselves as people. Some successfully find short term employment within our post while others take to the ‘ladies who lunch’ lifestyle like ducks to water.  Good on them, but that’s not me or most of my friends.  With no job, zero way to contribute to the household financially and without financial independence this leads us to deeply reflect on ‘who am I without the additional layers?”

Now if like me you have a supportive partner, you will survive the emotional rollercoaster and implement many coping strategies that will serve you well beyond the posting.  For the majority of officers, life carries on as normal.  They work in a familiar environment with policies, expectations and procedures from home, they interact with fellow countrymen and they have routine.  As spouses we struggle with the lack of routine, limited social interaction, running a household with little knowledge of what’s available within our new community, financial and emotional dependency on our partners and constant self doubt.  These factors all chip away at your happiness and mental health and the biggest factor is that you have left your support network at home.

Things to improve and mostly in random ways.  One day you will happen to meet someone who asks if you’d like to join them for a coffee.  Be brave, say yes and actually turn up. This person may end up being your best friend at post OR they may lead you to the next friend. Slowly you establish a small yet trusted support network and everything gets better from this point on.

From this point, you remember the person you were prior to posting – the vibrant, happy, confident, interesting women with hobbies. And she begins to emerge once more.  You notice it, your partner notices it and loved ones back home notice it too during Skype chats.  You venture out of the house more and more, your mental health improves (along with your outlook), you rediscover your confidence once more and you’re no longer dependent on your partner for emotional support.  A weight lifts off your shoulders and you suddenly find yourself thinking life ain’t too bad – this is a huge accomplishment!

And life as a trailing spouse isn’t too bad.  The lifestyle affords us the gift of time to study, explore a career change, start a family, experience a new culture, relax, whatever you want to do.  Initially all of these positives come at the price of happiness and anxiety.  Spouses are forced out of their comfort zone and compelled to work through many challenges.  This experience will make you stronger and more resilient both personally and professionally.  Valuable skills for life after post.


Surviving the Return Home

Repatriation.  At the beginning of our posting, the idea of repatriation was blissful. Returning to the familiar.  The lifestyle, career, home, people.  The pull was tangible.  Now the thought of returning home is anxiety inducing as we prepare to leave our new home and the lifestyle that is our normal.  We have friends, work, routines and experiencing a new culture has altered our world view.

Recently I wrote a post “I am now a Triangle” outlining how I feel like I feel like a misfit in my native culture and in my adopted country.  This got me to thinking about how we will make a smooth and successful return?  Basically, I don’t believe we do.  I think we will once more ride the rollercoaster of change and work things out as we go. Reflecting upon our initial move to Indonesia, similar feelings were brought to the fore and we managed.

“Think of shapes: Imagine you are a circle, living in Circle Country. Then you move to Square Society. You will never become a Square, but that culture starts to embed itself in you. When the time comes to return to your Circle Country (home), you have become a Triangle (”

Here are my thoughts/strategies for our successful return:

Be kind to yourself.  Allow time to settle and adjust to this life change.  Work through emotions and the grieving process just as you did when you transitioned to the expat lifestyle. Schedule protected time to nurture yourself – join a yoga class, walk the dog, coffee with an old friend, find a hobby that fills your bucket.

Reconnect with expat friends who have returned home.  These folk understand the expat bubble as well as the challenges and positives of repatriation.  Monthly dinners/catch ups like we used to schedule will be happy distractions and good for mental health.

Say yes.  Accept invitations to coffee and other social functions just as you did when you landed in your new country.  Eventually you will make new friends who are a good fit and are a good support.  You won’t connect with every person and that’s okay.

Reconnect with old friends.  Authentic friends will be interested in your expat experiences as well as your intentions now that you’ve returned.  Be aware that you may need to evaluate these friendships and let some fall by the wayside and that too is okay.

Seek support.  If things are not going well, seek professional support. Asking for help is  sign of strength and may assist to develop a plan of action as well as developing coping strategies for this challenging period of transition.

Plan holidays.  Having a mini break or holiday to look forward to in the first few months back home may help to recharge and provide time to reflect upon how well you are managing and coping with this major life event.  Taking time out may assist in recognising and celebrating achievements and milestones since your return as well as leading to a new and positive perspective on life.




I am now a triangle

Recently I read a rather intriguing article that sort to explain the very real difficulties of returning home after living and working in another country and finding that finding that you no longer quite fit.  The article resonated with my not simply because my thoughts now centre on our impending return home, but because I have experienced this feeling of not quite fitting in when I have visited home for family celebrations, short holidays and visiting friends.

“Think of shapes: Imagine you are a circle, living in Circle Country. Then you move to Square Society. You will never become a Square, but that culture starts to embed itself in you. When the time comes to return to your Circle Country (home), you have become a Triangle (”

We have been posted to Indonesia for nearly 4 years and during this time my values, beliefs and perspectives have evolved and when I return home I feel a little well, like a misfit.  Living this duality means feeling unsettled understanding that I don’t quite belong here or there..

Friends, old colleagues and family members are interested in a highlight reel of an expat’s adventures and experiences; anything deeper than that and their eyes glaze over.  They want to hear stories of the glamorous lifestyle of an expat, particularly that of the supporting spouse.  No-one wants to hear the stories of feeling socially isolated or the difficulties experienced because “what have you got to complain about?”  And let’s face it – life’s deeper moments are shared over a glass of wine with trusted confidantes.

The support for relocating to your new life is thorough. Repatriating not so much.  We have been provided with a handbook containing a to do list leading up to departure, once we land the rest is up to us.  No formal support for re entry.  No support for returning to work (for the spouse), enrolling children into school, finding homes, cars, connecting utilities etc.  Fend for yourself and cope as best you can.

Engaging with expat groups like I am a Triangle certainly help to manage anxiety and garner support from others who have experience similar struggles, triumphs and experiences.  Technology has allowed a sense of connectedness and belonging throughout my journey as an expat and will continue to do so as I grapple with the return home.


Frustrated Trailing Spouses

Reading this article made me realise the value of the job I do here to support officers and their families as they move to and then settle in at post.

Even with the support of our office, spouses are “left to tackle the challenging dynamics of establishing a home and integrating alone; whilst the focus of the companies was on getting their spouses settled into their new workplace as quickly as possible.”
Sadly this is the time for the trailing spouse to be the buffer for the officer and the anchor for the family, as rough as it is.

Dealing with removalists, service providers, domestic staff and so on in an unfamiliar country and culture and most often grappling with a new language and suddenly no friends and family for support is tough but we all know that.. we do it and feel a sense of accomplishment and little by little our confidence grows.

We venture out a little more and meet new people who share their experiences and support us to try new things and introduce us to new people.  Eventually you do have a friendship network and you do settle in and the bumps on the road become fewer and far between. We learn to be kind to others and a little easier on ourselves, and life in our adopted country becomes familiar and the culture a little more appealing and suddenly life is good again (mostly)..

Keeping connected..

Being a trailing spouse certainly allows the significance of maintaining long distance relationships to shine on through.  Like others, I have different ‘go to’ people for the many challenges life throws at you while living away from home.  These days social networking makes reconnecting so easy, effortless and convenient and I must admit to wondering sometimes how the TS coped in the era of snail mail?!

My sister, four BFFs and mum are just the ticket back to reality when needed. During the last 12 months at post I have experienced the full rollercoaster ride of emotions. D bears the brunt most times but for other times my tribe gets me through and I love them more than anything ( remember that you’re here to ensure that the posted officer’s life carries on as normal and with the least amount of stress, right?).

They listen and provide that (I want to say harsh) reality check that is needed to sometimes put life back into perspective and importantly they do this without judgment and with my best interests at heart.  And the wonderful thing is that I get to do the same for them when needed.  We laugh through tears and see that things are pretty great really and that you’re never alone.  Black humour during difficult times is a godsend!

What would we do without our tribe?