Making your overseas experience count: fear vs adventure
People move abroad for a myriad of different of reasons: to study, to follow their heart, pursue their dreams, a work opportunity, or simply to experience a new location for a few years. Increasingly, more younger people move overseas rather than just experienced managers supported by their organisations. The traditional expatriate model is decreasing and the younger generation is looking to expand their horizons and gain valuable international experience.
The first few weeks or months in a new environment can be very exciting. You feel intrigued by the differences between the new culture and your home culture and you are keen to learn more, meet new people and make the most of every moment. The 'world is your oyster' and you can deal with any challenge that comes your way.
Unfortunately, this feeling doesn’t always last forever, particularly if you have not been prepared for 'culture shock'. Differences become more apparent and you might find you become more sensitive when things go wrong. Even small things – missing the bus, a poor WiFi connection, leaving the main ingredient for your dinner behind at the shops, or not being able to do your laundry can be very frustrating. You might feel like a “fish out of the water" particularly if you look and sound different and everything is unfamiliar to you. But remember that this is a natural reaction for people living in an unfamiliar place and these feelings will pass. How quickly they pass, depends on your attitude, your language skills and the efforts you make to get to know new people.
Rise to the language challenge
You may also experience a language barrier. If you don’t speak the language you will feel isolated from conversations and find it more challenging to get things done. Invest some time in learning the local language; take a course but also develop your own strategies: ask when you don’t understand, favour local menus in restaurants, look at local newspapers and magazines or try watching the local news.
Living overseas is an exciting experience for many people but when the excitement fades, you may experience loneliness, homesickness and anxiety. Kalervo Oberg first coined the now well-known term ‘culture shock’ in his book “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments." This may well take you by surprise so here are some tips for overcoming culture shock and making the most of your experience:
- Open your mind Be positive and remember the reason of why you are living abroad. Never say “no” to new opportunities and adventures even when you don’t feel like it.
- Get to know new people from different places. Find someone you can trust and explore the new city together. Be curious about your differences but notice how much you share in common.
- Reset the home button. Take a short break to another city or even a neighbouring country. When you return, this will trick your brain into changing where you see as home. Don’t make comparisons with your real home all the time. The more you interact with your new world, the sooner it will start feeling like home.
- Know your biases. We all have biases about new people we meet. We can’t delete them but be aware and recognise your own. Negative stereotypes and assumptions can encourage you to see challenges and problems that are only in your mind and miss the positives of being overseas.
- Discover more about yourself and your abilities. Create your own adventures and take the opportunity to develop new skills. Embrace your idiosyncrasies and take the opportunity to understand who you are and perhaps reinvent yourself. You will need to adapt to the new culture but not at the cost of losing your own identity.
- Set yourself goals. Think about why you chose to make the move and what you want to achieve from your experience. You will realise that you are capable of more than you believed and you will boost both your career prospects and personal life.
- Accept that your communication style isn’t the only one. Be aware of cross-cultural communication styles. Be patient, listen and observe to tune into the local communication patterns.
Adapting to a new culture and a new way of life might be one of the biggest challenges you have faced, but if and when you learn to adapt, everything will fall into place. It should be a once-in-a lifetime opportunity that you will never forget. It will allow you to learn new intercultural skills which will greatly benefit you back home.
Marta is from Madrid, Spain. After graduating in Marketing & Advertising she moved to London to improve her English and experience living and working overseas. She is now working as a marketing intern for LSIC. Her passions are painting, branding and intercultural communication.
I truly believe that if you push yourself beyond your limits, you can achieve anything that you set your mind on and don’t forget that home is where your heart is