As we’ve recently discussed, living in a foreign country as an expat is hugely different from traveling during short-term trips.

In July 2015, this difference really hit me, and it wasn’t a subtle realization.

I was sitting at the dinner table in my soon-to-be apartment, uncomfortable and confused as my new real estate agent and potential landlord rapidly spoke Chinese to each other. It seemed like they were shouting most of the time. They weren’t smiling. Occasionally I’d be asked a question that I never knew the context of – was I Russian? Who was my employer? Was I taking Chinese classes? I’d answer, the landlord would nod curtly, the real estate agent would sigh or roll her eyes – because of me? Because of the landlord?

This conversation lasted from 6pm to 11pm, and I still wasn’t sure if I was getting the apartment at the end of it.

Leaving, I didn’t remember where the metro was – I got pretty lost looking for it. Taxi drivers were baffled by my hotel’s address, several just shaking their heads at me and driving off. I thought the street I was walking down was terrifying after dark. It smelled strange and I saw more than a few rats that were basically the size of small dogs.

This was a whole new experience and assortment of feelings for me. I felt out of place, vulnerable, and overwhelmingly confused.

Before I moved to China, I had been warned about the culture shock I’d most likely encounter. I wasn’t taken completely off guard by any of my negative thoughts. I knew they were natural, and that they’d pass.

Five Stages

True to my nature, I had done plenty of research before beginning my life abroad, and I repeatedly read about these 5 stages for expat life:

1. Honeymoon – At first you’re just thrilled with everything about your new home. It’s a bit like falling in love, where every quirk is fascinating and beautiful. You can’t imagine ever feeling differently.

2. Frustration – But no infatuation lasts forever. Soon little cultural differences will start to rub against you and irritate you. Things were just easier at home. You’ll start to compare your routines, values, and world views with those around you – and secretly you’ll decide that your way is the better way.
3. Adjustment – Hopefully you’ll reach this stage sooner rather than later. It will begin to dawn on you that there is no “better” ways, just different ways. If you’re going to live somewhere long term, you’ll have to learn to live like the locals do in many ways.
4. Acceptance – Here’s where you’ll find a good sense of peace. At this stage, your foreign environment now seems normal to you. You are comfortable and at home.
5. Reversal – But you still have one hurdle left: going home. Whether you’re returning for a short visit or to move back permanently, most expats say they feel a bit out of place when they try to rejoin their old communities. It’s not until you’re back in a familiar setting that you’ll realize how much you’ve been affected by your new culture.

What Does Culture Shock Feel Like?

Just being able to name an uncomfortable feeling can cause it to lose power, so knowing what thoughts can be classified as “culture shock” can definitely help you to not be overwhelmed by your first few months abroad.

Helplessness – It’s normal to feel a bit lost when it comes to many of the tasks you’ll need to complete upon arrival, from finding an apartment to setting up a bank account. These processes will likely work differently than you’re used to, and you’ll be trying to communicate with people who speak a different language.

Mistrust – After I had been in China awhile, it became easy to spot a newbie expat because they often seemed kind of paranoid. They’d think that all taxi drivers were trying to scam them, or that all local food would make them sick, or that they needed to be safely home every day before sunset. An unfamiliar environment can stir up a lot of fear, whether it’s rational or not.

Annoyance – Irritability is another tell-tale symptom of culture shock. Maybe you’ll find the locals to be too loud, too polite, too slow, or too pushy. You might want to change the way things are done to make everything easier, clearer, or nicer.

Loneliness – Finally, it’s normal to feel lonely at first. At home you had relationships you spent years building. Now all your friends are brand new. It takes time to build intimacy and genuine closeness.

Now What?

So you’ve determined that you are experiencing culture shock – what can you do about it?

Don’t pack up your bags quite yet. This phase is only temporary, and if you understand why you’re feeling the way you do it’s much easier to overcome. Try these tips to help yourself deal better:

– Talk about it with another expat.
– But then take your mind off it by doing something you enjoy.
– Take note of positive things you observe. Write them down.
– Ask a lot of questions and make very few judgments about your new culture.
– Guard your thoughts – don’t allow yourself to compare this culture with your home culture.
– Befriend locals, not just other expats.
– Stay in touch with loved ones back home.

Have you ever experienced culture shock while living abroad? How did you handle it?