So in between all this holiday cheer (because I have more holiday posts coming!), I wanted to take some time to talk about homesickness and culture shock because, let’s face it, even the veteran expats are probably getting a little homesick this time of year.
I saw this video come up on ExpatInDenmark.com the other day.
It’s a good video, and I like the way it succinctly describes something called the “culture shock curve.” But ever since watching it I can’t really stop thinking about it. Because I don’t think that this really describes my experience so far as an expat. (All 4.25 months of it.)
The traditional culture shock curve looks like this:
It’s important for non-expats – for family and friends who are left behind – to understand that there are these multiple periods of culture shock instead of just the one initial period. Because from afar the expat life can seem like one big exciting adventure. You can see how there would be an initial period of adjustment, but it’s harder to understand from afar how the more serious period of culture shock may come later after you’ve superficially adjusted to life in your new country.
However, the way it’s usually drawn makes it look like a fairly natural ebb and flow, like a steady progression through stages. But there are two things that I would note:
1. Not everyone gets to the final “acceptance” stage. Some people get stalled in one of the various culture shock troughs. I read this in a “so you’re moving overseas” book before we left the US, and I will admit that it kind of freaked me out. Because I would be just the kind of person to get stalled. But I think it’s important to note that adaptation isn’t easy.
2. My personal experience is not represented by this graph. Rather, it looks a little more like this:
This may be due to the fact that I’m only 4 (.25!) months into my expat experience, so I may not be seeing the big picture or larger pattern. But it definitely feels like these culture shock periods come much more frequently than just twice in your whole expat experience, and they’re not necessarily so prolonged. The whole experience feels much more up and down rather than smoothly curving through sequential stages. I feel like I go through one whole cycle of this maybe once a month.
Also, I don’t think that these two states are mutually exclusive. I can be in the throws of a serious homesick binge when we have a good day and learn something really cool about our host country. Or I can feel like things are going fine when something happens and I feel like I’ve fallen back a couple steps.
So while the culture shock curve is a very helpful graph in introducing future expats and their families back home to the fact that there are multiple moments of culture shock and that adaptation is hard and may not come easily or right away, I think it’s a little too simplified. And as an expat who’s read many many articles about this “normal” curve, it’s starting to get a little annoying.
Not every expat’s journey looks like that. Your journey and how you handle the experience of moving abroad is very personal and unique. Comparing yourself to some standard of normal – or to what other expats are doing or feeling – can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. Just have faith in yourself and your ability to grow and adapt. Know that you will get there someday in your own time in your own way. Or you will go home, and that will be OK, too, because this is your journey.