The Stress of Nice New Places
It wasn’t a war zone. It wasn’t a hardship post. The power stayed on, the food was delicious. Beyond unpredictable drivers and the occasional underpaid cop there was nothing to complain about.
And a few months after arriving I longed, quietly, for home.
Well okay. It wasn’t perfect. The language was different, and the weather was hot in this “developing” nation’s capital. Perhaps if I’d been in London I would have been happier. And perhaps not. I’ve read that Canadians on long term assignments find it hardest to adapt to the foreign cities of Washington, Paris… and London. Perhaps we suspect that Nairobi or Bangkok require some adjustment but expect these other cities will be just like home.
No place is like home. (Neither Kensington nor Kingston are Kansas.) I’ve listened to many funny and forlorn tales of folk befuddled by stores, subway systems, social norms and unexpected loneliness in places that otherwise look and sound like where they grew up.
What happens to us?
There are stages that I and most everyone I’ve met go through in adjusting to living and working in a new place:
The chaos before leaving. There is the excitement of being chosen, of reading about the new destination. There is the panic of packing up the house and finishing old work and saying farewell to everyone. Emotional whiplash strikes us in cycles of hours, not days. Strategy: Know that when you get on the airplane, all of the chaos will disappear. Someone else will need to pick up the leftover pieces. Meanwhile, be nice to yourself. Ask your friends to help. They’ll be grateful for the chance.
The honeymoon on arriving. I’m here. After all that imagining and hassle, I’ve arrived! I smell the air. My skin is alive to new sensations. My feet walk on different earth. Someone get a photo, quick! Strategy: Enjoy it. Life will become normal soon enough.
Denial and decline. Our head keeps telling us we’re loving it. Our gut is collecting a list: Crazy drivers, noisy night streets, no peanut butter, try to buy an umbrella in the local language and get given a condom instead, people at work weren’t informed about how good I am and don’t seem to recognize my worth, lonely suppers and long evenings, messages from home that they are having a grand time without me – or perhaps worse, are having a crisis that we fear is our fault because we aren’t there. Strategy: Pull out your lists (or finally make them) from the Elephant in the Room exercise. Find the threads of joy and satisfaction in this new experience and follow them.
The Crisis. We hate this place, this job, the organization that sent us and are beginning to question just how much we like ourselves. Our sense of humour abandons us and mighty seeds of grumpiness blossom to fill up the space. We pull maps out of travel magazines and fantasize about being anyplace else – the cottage or the Congo, it doesn’t matter. It would have to be better than here. We see the world in stark terms of “us” and “them”. THEY are… fill in the blank. It is easy. You now see clearly that these millions of people are all deficient in a list of ways and that you are the only sane and normal one. Strategy: Know that you are right on schedule. Everybody feels this way at this point, whether they admit it or not. Depending on the circumstances and our personalities we may feel it a little sooner or a little later, but most of us achieve a climax of these reactions about a third of the way through our intended time there. Say to yourself “Eureka! THIS is culture shock! I’m not nuts. They aren’t evil. It is culture shock!” The next day things should start to improve.
Getting past the crisis
Three things can happen when we are in a state of adaptation or culture shock. Two of them are risky.
We can leave. This isn’t recommended. We’ll carry around regret and a feeling of failure for a long time. And besides, things are about to get better.
We can hide. There are ‘cocoons’, places where everything is familiar. We can join the ex-pat clubs. People will look, sound, joke and play like us. We can stay home and watch Hollywood movies. We can pretend for a while – maybe much of the time we remain in the country – that we aren’t really here. This also isn’t recommended. If we are in a lonely outpost it is important to find a cocoon and visit it regularly to reassure ourselves that we’re still okay. But if we’re in a big city with lots of other folks who are indeed like us, the cocoon can become a trap. It can prevent us from learning the language, discovering the new, receiving the gifts of experience and insight that this new place has to offer. There is the potential for us to return home disappointed with the opportunities we missed. And beware the “virtual” cocoon of the social media, email and Skype. If you know what all of your friends are doing next weekend, you haven’t actually left home.
We can seize life. Make time and space to fully be where you are, without clinging to where you left.
Follow the strategies of Stress Management 101:
Keep communicating. Talk to friends or write daily in your journal.
Take very good care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well and perhaps most importantly, find some way to exercise. Sing, do yoga, play football with your colleagues… whatever you can do. It is important for your emotional state, as well as your physical state, to keep moving.
Take care of the problems. This comes last because if you aren’t talking or writing to reflect on your situation and you aren’t staying healthy, solving problems becomes much harder.
This place and its ways start to feel like home. We belong. We have normal lives, mixed with work that we have figured out to do in this new environment, and the pleasure of new friends and activities.
Profiting from our investment. In the last half of our time there we continue to accumulate knowledge, skills and attitudes that both make us more effective professionally and more comfortable personally. Newcomers look on us with awe. Strategy: Enjoy. Live and work to the fullest, because it will come to an end too soon and it is a shame to regret that something was left undone.
Prepare for what comes next. Once we’ve become comfortable, it can be hard to contemplate heading home, and harder once we get there. That is the topic for another note.
What can you do?
Write a daily journal, from before you leave home until after you get back. This is a private journal, not one to be shared with your biographer. Some days you will write several pages and it will help in the way that a conversation with a good friend helps. Some days you will only note what you did and where. Whatever you write will help to move through the present and be a great resource in the future.