As the possibility of moving to a foreign country becomes ever more likely, I inevitably
begin to ponder the gravity of such a monumental step. I examine the winding pathways
of my existence which, while interesting, have been purposefully low key and hermitlike.
I do not exactly thrive under pressure. Quite the contrary, I am easily riddled with
and paralyzed by sickening anxiety. A faithful resistor to radical change, I have
been reticent to embrace many of life's more daunting challenges. I have instead favored
the familiar, the comfortable, even when such comfort has been toxic.
What compels an individual such as myself to step outside of her comfort zone in this
jarring manner? Whether you believe it to be cheesy or romantic, it is love. My profound
love for a foreigner is causing me to break out of my carefully constructed shell.
In moving to his country, I have a slight advantage: I know a moderate amount of Spanish
and have visited his city approximately a dozen times since my infancy. However, as
many expatriates will attest, there is a considerable difference between visiting
a country for several weeks every two to three years and actually residing there.
During a vacation, you are in many ways limited and even sheltered, especially if
you are visiting family. This was my situation in particular. We spent most of our
time in the homes of family members and seldom ventured out in such a way that would
grant us a better perspective of local customs.
Although I anticipate an initial grieving period of homesickness that includes moments
of sheer terror and even panic amidst such disorientation, I have been somewhat surprised
(and disconcerted) when reading the experiences of other expatriates. Culture shock
is a very real, emotional affliction that can become crippling, driving one to such
despair that living in one's host country seems impossible. The result can be a swift
return home. As the future wife of my beloved, this is simply not an option. Therefore,
I am arming myself with information in order to better deal with the considerable
changes awaiting me. I am also communicating these possible difficulties to my boyfriend,
lest he be taken by surprise and feel ill-equipped to handle the situation.
When we spend a lifetime in one place, we absorb and adopt the innumerable social
cues that surround us. Tasks such as grocery shopping, using a public telephone, paying
a bill, and opening a bank account are simple enough. Even when we are uncertain how
to go about these things, we are able to communicate our confusion and grasp the appropriate
set of instructions. However, in a foreign country, such activities can result in
a crisis of sorts. The disorientation can be overwhelming as you attempt (and possibly
fail) to adequately communicate your needs and desires. Even with a decent knowledge
of your host country's language, you will inevitably be exposed to business jargon,
slang, or medical terminology that is unknown to you.
The barriers not only encapsulate the verbal realm. Body language, gestures, modes
of interaction--both obvious and subtle--can be lost on a foreigner. I recall a recent
television program about a sandwich shop in Philadelphia. According to the natives,
if you did not order your philly cheese steak in the proper, Philadelphean way, you
were exposing yourself to a potentially hostile response by employees and fellow customers
alike. Unless someone has granted you a thorough primer that includes such details,
however, you will be blissfully unaware of them until you actually encounter a problem.
If it is this easy to stumble socially within one's own country, how much more so
One example of an expatriate who encountered a problem without warning was an American
residing in Guanajuato, Mexico. Despite all of the information he gathered regarding
his host country, none of the books he read alerted him to the possibility that he
may literally be pushed around by some of the natives. He speaks of various occasions
in which he has been strolling down the sidewalk only to be pushed aside into oncoming
traffic. Indeed, he was struck by a bus on three separate occasions. Fortunately,
he has lived to tell the tale.
While the aforementioned is an extreme form of culture shock, it is best to keep in
mind that, irrelevant of extensive research, you can expect surprises. Even so, garnering
all the information possible is crucial. If you are able, speak to your host country's
natives. You will be granted invaluable insight that cannot be unearthed in books
Following are recommendations for those of us who either plan to expatriate or are
already residing within a foreign land:
*Do not be taken aback by the range of emotions that will encapsulate you during this
time. Although you may go through an initial "honeymoon" period filled with excitement
and endless possibilities, it is common to subsequently feel overwhelmed, to experience
fear, anxiety, and even depression. Please remember that these feelings will subside
as you adjust and become settled.
*When you are confronted by unpleasant or outright rude behavior by natives, resist
the temptation to categorize the entire city or country as deplorable. Unbecoming
behavior exists in all parts of the world. Strive to retain a balanced view. Do not
ruminate over the negatives, as this will only exacerbate any anxiety you may have
and will prolong your season of acute homesickness.
*Try to embrace and enjoy the diversity of your new country, whether your stay is
permanent or temporary. Be open and observant. Learn all you can, view this experience
as an opportunity to expand your mind and abilities.
*Avail yourself of expatriate communities for moral support.
One day in the imminent future, I shall have to put into practice all that I have
written here. To claim that I am unafraid would be a falsehood. There are moments
in which I'm absolutely petrified, for I realize that it will be an arduous road.
Even so, I have no doubt that it is well worth taking.