You made it happen. You are now living abroad. You have deftly completed the tasks on a long checklist from having a garage sale back home to figuring out how to open an electricity account in your new home country. You maintained a brave face so far, as the journey that has been paved with twists, turns and the occasional bump in the road. Some you anticipated; others, not so much. Or… maybe you dream of living abroad some day, or just arrived to your new country, or perhaps a few years into your new reality. No matter where you are in the expatriate journey, an understanding of the stages of the expatriate integration process will help to serve as guide throughout your experience.
Pre-departure: I am really doing this?
As you prepare for departure date, you are mixed with feelings of excitement, sadness, and a fair bit of exhaustion as you try to tie up the innumerable loose ends. Bittersweet conversations with friends who are so excited for you, the awkward feeling of goodbyes and your internal realization- this chapter of life is coming to and end. You are surprised by the strength of the occasional wave of emotions you feel, but you put your game face on, board the plane and jump into a new reality.
Honeymoon: Vacations never felt like this
Your expatriate journey begins with the honeymoon stage where you constantly stimulated by a barrage of new experiences: sights, sounds and smells that feed your insatiable curiosity. Your excitement is palpable as you explore your new environs and carry out everyday tasks. You are left with the same thought over and over, “Wow, this is where I live!” You are truly impressed with yourself and how you have handled this momentous shift; however, the initial elation ebbs after the first month or so as uncertainty shows itself from under your adrenaline-filled armor.
Culture Shock: Is this really happening?
The “newness” of your transplant home is wearing off, and some of the same things you found so intriguing a few weeks ago now grate on your nerves. It starts slow, but builds as you increasingly can’t help but question the seemingly illogical way things are done comparing them to the “way they do it back home”. You feel fatigued trying to communicate in a new language and successfully navigate the cultural labyrinth without offending the locals. Minor frustrations build inside you until you feel anger boiling beneath your trying-to-be-calm exterior. You probably thought it would not happen to you, but you have entered the second phase- you are in “culture shock.” Don’t be discouraged, everyone has these feelings to different degrees, but the way you cope in the face of these challenges will define your expatriate experience.
Transformation: Finding your groove
The transformation stage is longer than the culture shock stage, but with some time, frustration and longing for something familiar are replaced with a true appreciation of the lifestyle and culture of your new country…you are becoming an expat. To make this transition much easier, there are important coping activities and tools that you can practice and utilize. For example, you should establish new routines, introduce yourself to your neighbors, make new friends (not just other expats!), and participate in local activities (clubs, events, celebrations, sporting events, etc). This transformative stage will be an incredibly rewarding process as you learn and experience the cultural richness of your new home empowering you with a deeper understanding of your own cultural identity.
Integration: A whole new reality
You have accepted and embraced your new lifestyle by successfully bridging the cultural chasm that once existed. While you will never be a native, you have transformed yourself into an expatriate, a citizen of the world. There will be the occasional frustration, but all in all, you are generally happy and at ease in your new life. Some expats will never reach the final stage as they remain stuck in the transformative stage, isolated and unwilling to accept and embrace the cultural nuances of their host country. Others take it to the other extreme rejecting their own culture which can be equally divisive to long-term happiness. For expats on short-term assignments, achieving full-integration poses to be a challenge since often they leave while in the Culture Shock, or Transformation stage.
Each person’s experience is unique, and there are no hard and fast timetables to adjusting to your new life, but there are tools and strategies that make this process quicker and easier. This incredible experience is as much personal as it is geographic; your journey will be defined by how you react to the more challenging moments. I was fortunate to reach Integration during my most recent expatriate experience in Latin America and honestly did not want to leave. On the other hand, I experienced instances when I was living in Europe where I left the country prior to full-integration. I find myself often asking, “what if I had stayed longer?”
By Michelle Sullivan, a corporate executive, as well as a Leadership Development & Cross-Cultural Coach with Sullivan Global Consulting.