What it’s really like to move away from home and tips on how to cope
The 5 phases of culture shock, how to deal with them, and ultimately move from “Comfort Zone” to “Growth Zone”
At 24 years old, I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica and lived in several places around the world: New York, Paris, Sydney, briefly in Singapore, different parts of the Philippines, and come this April 2020 I’ll be moving to Amsterdam.
The ups and downs of travel
Moving to a foreign place can be both wonderful and difficult, often in very unexpected ways. On one hand, you get to learn a lot, secure more opportunities, experience incredible things, and meet all sorts of special people that you could have never imagined. But at the same time, travel isn’t always this fun and carefree thing, particularly if it’s the long-term kind that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. It can be one of the most eye-opening and rewarding experiences to ever be had in life, but usually not first without a good deal of struggle and discomfort.
Loneliness. Alienation. Confusion. Frustration. Fear. Anxiety. Insecurity. Doubt. We can feel all of these things even when we don’t travel or uproot our lives and relocate to a foreign place. So, what more when we do? What more when we move somewhere where we don’t speak the language? Where we haven’t yet built a life and are still missing a job or a solid sense of community and belonging? Where what’s considered “normal” is often not the same between you and the new people that now surround you? And maybe it’s not about going somewhere new at all but rather about coming back to a place after being gone for so long –to experience “reverse culture shock”. In either case, our minds and bodies have to adjust to an unfamiliar environment, and that’s no small, simple feat.
What is Culture Shock?
Oxford defines culture shock as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”
Culture shock manifests in different ways for different people. And oddly enough, it isn’t just about shock. It encompasses a multitude of emotions and experiences –ups and downs of all sorts. To adapt to a foreign or foreign-feeling environment, whether it’s a new home or an outgrown one, what’s required is a balance between acculturation (e.g., learning new customs, languages) and deculturation (e.g., unlearning certain practices, social responses). There are five psychological phases to this, which are also commonly known as the five phases of culture shock:
It’s not an exact science and definitely not the only and all-encompassing way of unpacking what starting a “new life” abroad or otherwise can be like. People can experience different phases at different degrees, or possibly not at all. And sometimes, other factors like depression, anxiety, or other family- or health-related issues come into play that require different, deeper attention. However, insight that helps us to make better sense of at least some of our heavy emotional experiences, or to better internalize that other people have gone or are currently going through something similar to us, can make an enormous difference in lifting ourselves up and getting us through hardships.
If you want to better manage culture shock, here are some tips for both before departure and after arrival.
How to manage Culture Shock (Part 1/2): Before departure
- Collect insight: Avoid setting yourself up for disillusionment with unrealistic expectations by painting the right pictures in your head. Seek out advice and relevant information, whether through desk research (e.g., vlogs, blogs, etc.) or by asking experienced people you know about important things to expect, know, and do.
- Figure out costs and budgets: The lifestyle you aspire for may or may not fit in within your financial means. Get a good grasp of expenses to expect and compare it with your income so you know what kind of limitations to set, or perhaps what kind of luxuries you’d want to save up for later.
- Factor in the struggle: Already expect to go through some hardships, and embrace change with an open, growth-centered, and adaptable mindset. To help, actively look for inspiration: books, films, articles, heart-to-heart conversations with people you trust and admire. As the wise Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
- Be goal-oriented: Moving away from home can get hard, but there is always a lot you can get out it. If you don’t already have a mood board or a list of goals, make one. Visualize what you want and when you want it. Include a range of “small” to “large” objectives (e.g., learn the language, secure a place to live, buy a couch, learn to cook, keep a plant alive), so that when times get tough you have something to look at to motivate or humour you. Constantly having something to work for and gradually striving for your aspirations can help sustain a positive, productive, and grateful attitude amidst adversity.
- Look for your “tribe” early on: Whether it’s finding a company whose culture or vision you can get behind, or groups and communities outside of work that share the same interests as you (e.g., sports, other hobbies), get a head start by finding them online: Facebook groups, meetup.com, volunteer sites, etc.
How to manage Culture Shock (Part 2/2): After arrival
- Take care of your body: Don’t underestimate the power and influence that your physical fitness and wellbeing has on your mind, mood, and “spirit”. If you’re going through something heavy emotionally or mentally, a poorly kept body will only make it worse. Eat healthy, drink lots of water, exercise, and get enough sleep as a basic standard. If you don’t know where to start, choose at least one good habit and commit to it until you feel comfortable with developing another one, or more.
- Make time for relationships and hobbies: Remember to enjoy yourself and not take life too seriously, otherwise it will pass you by like a storm. Have fun, take care of your relationships, and make sure to tell the people you care about that you care about them.
- Get unstuck with creativity: Paint, meditate, learn to play guitar, write, cook, start at DIY project. Getting creative can help take you out of your head, de-clutter, and re-compose. You don’t have to be skilled at whatever you want to do to do it; just do it for fun, for therapy, for yourself.
- Keep a gratitude list: Just say thank you. Put your gratitude out into the universe, and make an active effort to recognise all the things you’re happy to have. A roof, a job, a meal, a friend. Don’t belittle the little things — those are what make a life.
- Reflect on your goals, failures, and accomplishments: Are your motivations stronger than your fears? Which of the two are you feeding more? Be inspired by what you want to achieve, learn from what has gone wrong in the past, and take a moment to revel in what you’ve already achieved so far — from the small to the big feats. You deserve to feel proud of and grateful to yourself for how far you’ve already come. Sometimes we feel like we haven’t moved forward at all, so think back. Because you’re likely doing better than you think. Some time ago, this was exactly what you wanted. You are exactly where you once aspired to be. You just forgot. You just got too busy to notice. So, notice!
- Get socially involved and culturally switched on: Let people in. Open up. Try something new with someone new. Play football? Sing? Into photography? Join a club. A society. A Facebook group. Learn the language. If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. If you don’t try, the result will always amount to nothing.
- Remember you’re not alone, even if it feels like it: Maybe you’re alone physically. Maybe you’re away from family and friends, and it’s crippling. Or maybe you don’t feel like you have family or friends at all that you can turn to right now. In any case, you’re at least not alone in your struggle. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, crazy, alienated, or otherwise down because you’re in a place that you don’t really understand or feel like you belong in, it’s not only you. So many people before you have gone through this in one way or another, and made it on the other side. People are going through this now. Remember that the hardship won’t last forever for any of us, and in time it can lead up to something amazing, or at least laugh-able. We just have to let it.
- Move into the Growth Zone. Leaving your comfort zone doesn’t just have to be this scary, difficult, and uncomfortable thing. Outside of our comfort zones is actually where the real magic happens:
Entering the Magic Zone (aka the Growth Zone)
Every individual’s zone thresholds, like the 5 phases of culture shock, can vary. The point, however, remains: To learn and grow towards our fullest potential, we have to go beyond our comfort zones and overcome our fears. This is of course applicable whether or not you’re moving away from home or experiencing culture shock. Take seven to eight minutes to watch this video from inKNOWation, which brilliantly explains and visualizes the concept of moving from the comfort zone and into the growth zone: “Change does not mean to lose what you had; it means that you add. Change is actually development.” The shit storms will come, but like with all great things, nothing worth having ever comes easy.
As a final note, I’ll leave with the words of David Viscott:
“If you want to feel secure, do what you already know how to do. But if you want to grow, go to the cutting edge of your competence, which means a temporary loss of security. So, whenever you don’t quite know what you are doing, know that you are growing.”