“And then it happens… One day you wake up and you’re in this place. You’re in this place where everything feels right. Your heart is calm. Your soul is lit. Your thoughts are positive. Your vision is clear. And you’re at peace. At peace with where you’ve been. At peace with what you’ve been through. And at peace with where you’re headed”.
This quote for me perfectly sums up overcoming culture shock. It’s like the feeling of welcoming in a fresh new day. Not quite sure exactly how the day will unfold, but knowing you can handle it.
Coined by Kalervo Oberg in 1954, culture shock refers to: emotional responses caused by anxiety brought on by unfamiliarity of your (new) environment and social interactions.
“Go back to your country…” is a well-known response to any foreigner on the island that complains about anything. It has now become a bit of an office joke amongst my non-Maltese and Maltese work colleagues.
Experiencing culture shock is perfectly normal. Like with anything, awareness is the first stage in dealing with it and there are some easy and fun ways to overcome culture shock.
The Four Stages of Culture Shock
Culture shock can creep up on you too, one minute you’re chasing glorious sunsets and shrieking with pure delight. And the next you’re sitting on a random doorstep wailing uncontrollably in the rain, like you’re in a 90’s r&b music video. (okay, so it wasn’t raining but the rest is true).
There are four stages to culture shock which is why you (or me) experience such extreme reactions.
Like the giddy stages of an early relationship. You’re awed with your brand new surroundings. Everything is beautiful and you’re practically singing and dancing in the streets. You can’t believe you’ve moved here. You did it and everything is just perfect. You are euphoric!
Rejection or Regression Stage
It’s during this stage that you begin noticing the differences. Perhaps it was the dreaded visa application, or the silly bank clerk, who just wouldn’t listen. In fact no one listened, nor helped. Now you’re missing your friends and family more than ever.
Adjustment/ Negotiation Stage
Okay, you’re fully aware of the cultural differences now and it’s uncomfortable as hell. You may start to feel completely unseen. During this stage you’re much more likely to seek out other expats. Namely those from the same country as you…
Oi-Oi this is where you shine and come into your own. You may not like every aspect of your new culture. But rather than resist and reject…you have learnt to accept it. Now you know what you need to do, where to go for x,y,z and you can do this all independently.
One of the biggest expat gripes is making friends so any ideas what my first tip is?
Making friends, but make it fun and more than that… wholesome.
Until you meet your tribe, you will have moments of loneliness. Again, completely normal. Sure, there are apps, FB groups and of course work. But friends, good ones won’t land in your lap. You’ll still have to get out there and show them you. But not the you, you think they want to see. You. Be your amazing self. Easy right?
Word of advice: The best way to find your peeps is by embracing difference, staying open and sometimes even thick-skinned.
Back in London, I was funny and people always belly laughed at my jokes. Making friends was super easy.
Here in Malta, less so.
My jokes often involve complicated breakdowns as to:
a.) what my joke was
b.)why it was funny (or should be)
making it super a-w-k-w-a-r-d.
I once had a long and loud conversation about bread with a work-colleague-turned-friend because I saw him in a shop by the bread aisle and “cracked a joke”
He didn’t get it and later decided to pounce on me in a quiet open-planned office.
One, the moment had long passed.
And for the rest of the office who shamelessly eavesdropped… it was a
“you had to of been there” type-of-joke
I began explaining, trying to signal with my eyes and body language that it didn’t matter. He seemed to miss those cues entirely staring back at me with eyes as wide as saucers waiting for his explanation.
The moment was agonising and felt like that iconic “I carried a watermelon” scene in the film Dirty Dancing.
I’m telling you this because those cringey and awkward moments soften with time. Eventually these moments become memories and great openings to stories of how you met some of your besties abroad.
Oh and make peace with the fact you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but on the plus side… they won’t be either. But guess what? You won’t have those birthday notifications from “who the hell is that?” showing up on your timeline….so??
Get Actively Involved in local life
You’re no longer on holiday, roll up your proverbial sleeves and get stuck into the community. Did you know that one sure way to achieve happiness is to give back? So this tip works as a double – and a win/win.
For instance, here in Malta there are beach clean ups, animal shelters where you can walk a dog and human shelters to where you can volunteer your time.
At the end of the month the annual President’s Solidarity Fun Run is taking place and you can help raise money for local people that are seriously ill.
There are other things you can do when you’re out and about in the community, like simply “saying hello” or smiling at other people. Ask local people questions about the neighbourhood or show a genuine interest.
It’s surprising what you learn, sometimes about the neighbourhood and sometimes about people in general. We all have our struggles and sometimes people,
locals get lonely too and just need a chat, a friendly face or even someone to vent and offload to.
How about shopping local and stopping for coffee or checking out the local artisan shops?
There’s so much things you can do, but whatever you decide on, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, otherwise it won’t be much fun will it?
Although your belonging is inherent, the more you get out in the community is the more you will feel a sense of belonging.
Become a SUPER Tourist in your New Country
Three guesses on my culture shock coping mechanism? 😀 My third and final tip is becoming a super tourist in your
Before you-know-who descended on the world, over 2 million people a year visited this amazing island, even if you’re not based in Malta, I bet millions of people would want to trade places with you right now! Like everywhere in the world, it’s not perfect here but I feel grateful that I get to live here.
Even so, I still experience(d) culture shock and had to work my way through to eventually overcome it, the day I found myself wailing on that doorstep was the culmination of a low period living abroad.
From there I started turning everyday in a solo mini adventure exploring and learning everything there is to know about where I live.
Get up and out, go for a walk, try the foods, discover the culture, the history, local life, the best places to visit and even the language.
Everyone here speaks English, and the little Maltese I have spoken with locals has often been met with crinkly eyes and huge grins, but served as a huge bonding moment.
Some days, I pinch myself at all the little connections I have forged here.
So, go on give it a try. At best you’ll learn a new language and at worse, you’ll give someone a good giggle and make them smile.
Try and see moving abroad as the huge adventure it is but also like the best and most exciting life lesson you’ll ever have and where you’ll achieve the most personal growth.
Personally I see culture as a two-way street, not only are you learning, you’re teaching others too. You’re automatically become a one-woman-walking brand ambassador holding up where you are from. Locals may not have encountered your culture before. In the case of myself, there aren’t many third-generational Caribbean Black British women on the island and it warms my heart being able to share my heritage.
Like Maya Angelou once said:
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
You won’t like everything about your new culture and that’s okay. Be yourself, get out there and start to enjoy your new country and in no time it will happen…
you will wake up feeling at peace with where you are.