If you are an immigrant having a hard time adjusting to a new culture or you are planning to move to a different country, there are various stages you will most likely go through.
Immigration is a crucial aspect of human history and refers to people living in one country moving to another. The archetype of the “immigrant” represents our need to seek happiness, safety, comfort, wellbeing, stability and prosperity by relocating to a different place. I myself have gone through most of these stages as I relocated to “another country” about 10 times now. Also, I have spoken to a lot of clients who are either immigrants or would like to change their country of residence.
Therefore I felt it was important to lay out the emotional aspects of such big life changes. Although every person is unique as is every country, there are some common stages most immigrants will go through in the process of accepting a different culture from their own.
Canadian anthropologist, Kalervo Oberg defined the term “culture shock” and identified 5 stages:
- The Honeymoon Stage
You arrive in your new country of residence and everything seems so much better than back home. The people are nicer, the food tastes better, the landscape is more impressive, etc. There is a level of euphoria during this time and most likely you’ll be eager to learn the local customs, traditions and language (assuming you didn’t speak it beforehand). I can proudly say I destroyed both Mandarin and Thai with my hopeless attempts to pronounce the complicated tones, while living in China and Thailand.:) Slightly off the topic, but this is also the most important stage for any aspiring tourist destination, i.e. the stage of maintaining tourists in a mental state of escapism , euphoria & wellbeing. Therefore this stage will last for as long as you don’t have to fully immerse in the grim reality. If you are on a student visa, freelancing or simply living in a place as a tourist long-term (lucky you!), you’ll probably be able to extend this stage.
- The Rejection Stage
As the honeymoon stage slowly fades away, reality gradually starts to creep up. All of a sudden you are noticing the people are not as friendly or sincere as you initially thought. They are not as outgoing, direct, funny, vibrant, etc. as in homeland. You are not getting all the local jokes in slang. The traffic jams are a nightmare. You are sick of the local food and are now noticing the massive gap between your country of origin and the new country. And why in the heck is cheese so expensive here? Perhaps you try to tell a joke or share a custom from homeland, but it just doesn’t come out right and no one really gets it. You start to feel like an alien and begin resenting the new country. It is now “you” against “them”.
- The Regression Stage
If you don’t get a grip of stage 2, it is very easy to fall into a regression mode. At this point, you are so discouraged from further immersion into the new culture that you start spending more and more time trying to connect to your country of origin. You look for people from your own “tribe” or at least a similar culture. It’s interesting how as Europeans, while in Europe, we feel our cultures are quite different and yet, once we are on a completely different continent, we find so many similarities between us. I hear the same from my fellow South Americans here in Chile, that once they move to the U.S. or Europe, they tend to stick together and form Latin American communities. I personally have never been very tribal and prefer to hang out with the locals on any given day but I know many immigrants tend to stick together as they feel safer this way. And there is nothing wrong with forming such expat communities, for as long they don’t serve to bash the new country of residence and its citizens. Regression stage is probably the most critical and if emotionally not dealt with, you may be tempted to just give up and go back to your home country. This can be a very frequent reason for relationship / marriage breakups, especially if one of the partners is immersing well and busy working all day and the other is not.
- The Recovery Stage
If you’ve successfully gotten past stage 2 and 3, you are now in an emotionally stable stage of fully accepting your new country of residence, with all its virtues and flaws. You have evolved into accepting the best from both cultures (or as is my case, multiple cultures) and you feel enriched and grateful for it. This is the stage in which you can achieve most of your goals and feel comfortable where you are, as you are no longer dispersing your energy on nostalgia, blaming the environment for your inner drama and so on. You are now more grounded, optimistic and feel like you belong to this society.
- Reverse Culture Shock
Ok watch out for this one! You’ve more than adjusted to your new country and can now almost fully identify with the mentality. You are no longer thinking about your home country as much, you are living your life “here and now”, you are used to the social norms, you’ve picked up the slang by now ( I actually use more Chilean slang than my Chilean husband at this point), you find yourself preparing local food more often than not, tourists ask you for directions and refer to you as a local, and you understand their bureaucracy by now (well, ok, maybe not that one, I will probably never get bureaucracy in any country!:)). And then…you go back home for a visit!!!
There will be things you missed and there will surely be things that will drive you insane. For example, whenever I go back to hometown Zagreb, I really enjoy spending time with friends and family, as well as the fact that I don’t need to worry about getting assaulted like here in Chile. I can finally joke in my own language and eat mom’s homemade food! However, after getting used to the very polite and diplomatic Chilean communication, I find it challenging to go back to the more confrontational style of interaction. Also, the lack of “no smoking” cafés and restaurants is also an issue when I go back home, in comparison to Chile. What is your experience with reverse culture shock?
Now, if you are going through some of the more challenging stages mentioned previously, here are some guidelines we use in Progressive Systemic Constellations that can help you get past the emotional setbacks.
- Close chapters
It is important to resolve pending emotional issues in your country of origin before moving abroad. If you try to escape from some type of emotional burden, don’t be naive to think that the problem will just go away by moving away. If you need to resolve family issues, end relationships, heal an emotional wound , etc. do try to do so before emigrating. If this is not possible, then at least, become aware of the emotional baggage coming with you, so that you can consciously start to overcome your issues. Progressive and Systemic Constellations can be a very useful tool in the process of resolving these.
- Embrace your emotions
Never ever undermine your emotions and sweep them under the carpet. If the culture shock is getting the best of you, do fully acknowledge what you´re feeling and do something about it. You are not alone even though you may feel like it at times, especially during these isolating times we are living due to the pandemic. Do ask for professional help, join a support group online or consider joining a yoga and meditation program that can help you better regulate your emotional state.
- Be proud of your origin
It’s common to feel resentment towards your country of origin especially if the economy , political environment and/or social repression doesn’t allow you to fully flourish into who you want to become. I was there too, so I understand you. And while your spirit may not agree with the politics, environment or mentality (after all, there is a reason you left or are considering leaving), that doesn’t have to prevent you from appreciating and loving the land you came from. If you want to be fully content in a foreign country, you need to embrace your history, your ancestors, your unique physical appearance and the land where you were raised. The connection to your roots is your inner strength to deal with whatever issue comes your way. Although during the time I lived in Croatia, I was mostly living in Zagreb, I feel most connected to my roots when spending time on the island of Brac where my nona & nono were from. Which special place connects you to your essence and the legacy of your ancestors?
- Focus on your mission
If you want to succeed anywhere, you need to set goals and WORK towards achieving them. The more focused you are on achieving your goals, the less you will have a tendency to succumb to the challenging stages of culture-shock. Whether you decided to take up a 2-year project in a foreign land, or move for good, you may experience similar ups and downs. As mentioned previously, you will still need to deal with some depressing days as winters can get gloomy, bad days will happen, co-workers or clients may not always be kind, but if you are clear on why you have moved to a new country, this will help you put things back in perspective when you feel discouraged.