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Stages of Foreignness

In Monday’s post on how our expectations affect
the way we experience international moves, I mentioned that adjustment usually happens in stages. Based on my conversations with several “serial movers,” I
had a vague idea what these stages are. In fact, there is a whole body of
literature on the cycle of expatriate adaptation with a few different
models of that cycle, but roughly, the stages you go through when you move are the following.
First, there is the honeymoon stage. That’s when you still feel like a tourist in the
new place. Everything is new and exciting. It is also not real life. You can be
on this honeymoon for as short as two weeks or as long as three to four months, but
usually after that you enter the culture
shock
stage. This is the most stressful but also the most crucial stage,
because either you make it past it and adapt to your new life or you don’t and
pack up and leave. It is the rough landing in real, everyday life, with its challenges
and frustrations. Struggling to understand and communicate in a language you do
not master, trying to make friends and “fit in” – all that may make you feel
isolated, exhausted, frustrated, even depressed. Studies show that most expats
move past culture shock after about an average of eight months in the new
location.
After you have been stressed and depressed for a while, you tend to
reach a plateau where the real adjustment takes place. You start functioning in
your new life, appreciating the opportunities it offers you and gaining
confidence in dealing with the challenges. You start accepting the new culture.
You are calmer and less stressed. They call this the adaptation stage. Eventually, you may reach the mastery or home stage, where you are completely functional, comfortable
and confident in the new location. I don’t dare say you feel at home, but
something like that. This can come any time between one and two years into the
move.
These stages are not set in stone. Not
everyone goes through all of them or in that sequence; some stages may recur;
their duration may vary from person to person. We may have different reactions
depending on (guess what) our expectations prior to the move, our personal
history, our personality, the similarities or contrasts between our home
culture and the new culture. Still, having a rough idea of what these stages
are makes the process more predictable and therefore more manageable. If
we know what’s coming, we can be better prepared to cope with it.
I thought of my previous moves and whether I went through all those
stages. It’s hard to generalize, but I think my “honeymoons” were short in most places, with the exception of LA, where I think
I had a long honeymoon and moved straight to adaptation (I might even have
reached “home” at some point). Boston – my first real move – had a relatively
long culture shock phase, but even there I was adjusting around the
eight-month mark. The most interesting experience, in that context, was Vienna,
where I think I remained in culture shock for a whole of nine years.
I wonder what all that means for my upcoming move and how I can prepare for it. Do we get better at this with time and experience? I would not be able to
conclude that from my own trajectory, but one can always hope.
What is your experience with the four stages? Was it always the same or did it differ among moves and why do you think that is?

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