The honeymoon is definitely over! For several weeks, I’ve been out of sorts. I start a project, and frustratingly set it aside. It’s been a month of heavy rain, slow internet, lots of bugs, and a lack of professional services on our island.
I am anxious because our “adopted” dog has a cancerous tumor in his mouth, and the only vet on the island has 35 years of experience, but no professional training. In March, he “operated” on Canejo on top of our septic tank using an old hunting knife and a hot piece of rebar and cauterised the remains of the tumor. The tumor has grown back, and now it’s only a decision about when to put a stop to Canejo’s suffering.
Life has been a bucking bull ride lately. If you have lived abroad for over a year, I’m sure you can identify with my feelings. There are four common stages of cultural adjustment:
I. The Honeymoon
The wondrous initial period of euphoria and excitement…oh how I long for those days of mystery and surprise! I enjoy reading Holly’s blog about her first year of rebirth in Boquete, Panama. Let the Adventure Begin! In this stage, one feels like he/she can conquer the world. It’s a superficial, tourist-like involvement with the host country, as well as intrigue with both similarities and differences between the new culture and the home culture. In this stage, one has lots of interest and motivation in learning and most importantly…an open-minded attitude.
II. Culture Shock
This is the stage where one feels like he/she is on a wild chicken bus ride though life. Every curve is fraught with danger, small issues become major catastrophes, and one easily becomes stressed-out, frustrated, and may feel helpless to solve the smallest problems. The focus is on the differences between the new culture and the home culture. Stereotypes and prejudices surface. Homesickness and missing family and friends sets in. In other words, the novelty of the new culture disappears in a cloud of fog, rain, or dust (depending on the season).
III. Gradual Adjustment
This is the stage in which one’s perceptions change, when one can hear the church bells toll…and enjoy them…and regain a sense of humor lost in the previous stage. Decisions are made to make the most of one’s experiences. Increased familiarity with the new culture, its logic and values enables one to feel safe, comfortable, and creative. This is a time of deeper understanding and questioning earlier assumptions about the world. Some parts of living abroad are actually better in one’s host country, than in the home country! It’s a time for revelations, changing perceptions, and evaluating a new way of life. Of course, there are highs and lows as adjustments take place gradually.
IV. Feeling at Home
One now appreciates certain aspects of the foreign culture and critiques other aspects. This is the stage of reality. There is no paradise on earth. One adapts and changes accordingly. This is home. One is no longer negatively affected by differences between the host and home cultures. Living and working to one’s full potential is the mantra. It is biculturalism at its best!
Most people living in a foreign culture for an extended period experience cultural stress. I have to remind myself that it is normal to feel overwhelmed and frustrated at times. It is all part of the cultural learning process. We learn through our mistakes. Living abroad is a challenge in many areas: culture, language, values, customs, traditions, and logic.
Strategies for Dealing with Cultural Stress:
Listed below are several ways we have learned to deal with cultural stress. Just remember, it is completely normal. Where do I belong in the cultural adjustment stages? Since the stages tend to blend into one another, I am probably between stage 3 and 4. Most of the time, I’m happily adjusted with many expat and local friends. But, occasionally, I do have “those days”. I’m sure you know what I mean.
1. Make plans to stay in touch with family and friends
Now that we moved my woktenna for a stronger internet signal ( the trees grew a foot or more this rainy season and covered the woktenna!) I can easily keep my schedule of Skyping with my family every weekend.
2. Get into the expat bubble for a change. It depends on where you live, but we are culturally immersed in a small all Spanish-speaking community. Sometimes, I need to visit my expat friends just to regroup, speak English rapidly, and talk about things we have in common.
3. There are several internal supports. First, understand the stages of cultural adjustment, then analyze your situations and your reactions to those situations. Identify your “hot buttons” and ways to manage stress. Finally, identify new ways of thinking positively.
I always tell myself when I’m down that the worst thing that can happen is that I will die. Then, nothing really seems that bad.
4. Travel to a new and different place. It always works to help us get out of a rut. Next week we’re taking a short trip to the La Flor beach on the Pacific coast to watch turtles. Next month, we’re traveling back to the states to visit family. Next year, we are planning a long, 2 month trip to Ecuador and the Yasuni National Park.
5. Physical supports: We eat healthily. We have a thriving garden and 15 varieties of fruit trees on our property. We experiment with new recipes all the time. Our motto is everything in moderation..not too much of any one thing. We get plenty of exercise walking, kayaking, and swimming.
6. Volunteer in your host country. This has helped us tremendously because we formed close and lasting relationships with a variety of local people. Everyone has a talent or a skill to share with others.
I think I’m feeling better, now. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the stages of cultural adjustment. If you live abroad, what stage are you in?