Culture Shock from Living Overseas
Man cannot discover new oceans until he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.
-- Andre Gide.
Claustrophobia was closing in. All I could hear was my own harsh breathing. I wanted to escape but was too afraid to flee. Instead I reminded myself to breathe and resisted panic. I drew comfort from the people around me. If they could survive this, so could I.
We knelt on the sand with twelve feet of clear blue South Pacific over our heads, dependent on our scuba gear for every Darth Vader-like breath. Diving masks gave us tunnel vision in the unfamiliar environment. Communication was limited to gestures, as our diving class experienced the undersea world for the first time.
A creature designed to function above the water, I was out of my element – namely air. Conditioned to hold my breath under water, I found it hard to do the opposite. I was disoriented, betrayed by gravity and the middle ear functions I need to distinguish up from down. I was a fish out of water – in reverse.
Adjusting to an overseas assignment feels like that to me.
In a foreign country, the way I’ve been conditioned to live, speak and function seems suddenly upside down and backwards. I am out of my element and disoriented. Not knowing the language, sometimes I can only communicate with gestures. Occasionally, I feel the urge to escape and feel familiar ground underfoot.
Like scuba class, living overseas gives me access to a part of the world I have yet to see. Some of the lessons I learned exploring under the ocean have helped me in my travels over it:
Know your environment: I spent time in a classroom learning about the underwater environment and how to use my scuba gear before I experienced both. Learning about your new country will help you make sense of the differences you encounter. You’ll be more intrigued than intimidated.
Start shallow: Twelve feet was deep enough for my first dive. Each outing the instructor took our class a little deeper. When adjusting to a new place, take small steps. Walk to the corner bakery or noodle shop. Take along a friend who knows the territory. Don’t be surprised if you feel a little anxious at first. Each trip will get easier.
Draw strength from friends: Every diver needs a buddy, for safety and companionship. This is true on dry ground too. Volunteer, get involved and you will meet people. Friends with positive attitudes are a necessity, not a luxury.
Don’t panic: Although I was afraid and anxious during my first dive, with each dive experience, my confidence grew. I focused less on my own breathing and more on the amazing undersea world.
Life in a strange place is uncomfortable, even frightening, like breathing underwater. Some days you will want to run away and hide. This is normal and temporary. Your confidence will grow with each new experience.
Worth the weight: With heavy air tanks, cumbersome flippers and a mouth full of regulator, at first I wondered if the diving experience was worth lugging the equipment. Once acclimated to the gear, though, I felt nearly weightless under water.
Similarly, the language barrier, new driving rules and exchange rates in a foreign country are burdensome at first. Soon you will get used to them and learn to use them to explore your surroundings.
Try to separate the frustrations about the adjustment process from your feelings about your new home. Recognize that the loss of convenience and lack of familiarity and culture barriers are the problems, and not the location.
Take your time: Adjusting to a new environment, whether under the sea or overseas, is not instant. When we were about to move to Germany, my friend Janice shared a helpful paradox.
“You’re going to love it,” she said, “but for the first three months, you’re going to hate it.” During some dark days of adjustment, Janice’s words reassured me that the tough times were normal and temporary. Give yourself time, and even permission to hate it occasionally.
Go Deep: My first dive was 12 feet, but a few weeks later I was able to dive ten times deeper. I explored the edge of the Marianas Trench in azure waters surrounded by amazing creatures. I was out of my element, but this time it was glorious.
So start shallow. Give yourself some time to enjoy wading in your new culture. But don’t stay splashing on the beach too long. Take the plunge. There’s a whole world to explore.