This article is a 'Guest Chapter' in Catharine Patha’s book, entitled Roaming - Living & Working Abroad in the 21st-Century, published in January 2016.
When I was five years old, I moved from tropical and warm Manila to a cold and rather austere French country town north of Paris. At the time, my father had decided to pursue a business opportunity with one of his uncles in France, and as a result, he uprooted the whole family, and this is how I came to experience my first move abroad.
Although often very exciting, relocating to a new country is never easy. During the first few months after you arrive, many factors can affect how you adjust. It can depend on where you’ve moved from, and how it compares to where you’ve moved to. What stage of your life you’re at; if you are an experienced “relocator” or if this is your first move abroad. And of course, it helps if you speak the local language and are familiar with the new culture. All these variables can dramatically impact how you experience the initial integration period in the new country.
In this particular case, I was obviously NOT an experienced relocator, but I did luckily speak the local language fluently, given my French father and my Filipina mother had made French the language of our family home in Manila. However, what was somewhat of a shock to me was the dramatic change in our lifestyle. All I had known till then had been a beautifully warm and sunny country, with cheerful, smiley people and a happy somewhat privileged lifestyle, filled with birthday parties, outings at the country club, and my mother’s large and loving family always close at hand.
For me, moving to France was akin to a 180 degree change in lifestyle. In fact, it was my very first experience with culture shock. Soon after we arrived, I started my schooling at a local public school. The French education system seemed strict and more punitive than what I had known in my American-style kindergarten in Manila. Despite the beauty of the short European summer months, the cold and dark winters also took some getting used to. We lived in a big house on the edge of a dark forest and occasionally I felt a little isolated. Furthermore, I could sense my mother’s longing for the support of her family and friends back in the Philippines, but it also didn’t help that my father was often away on long business trips abroad.
Despite all these challenges, after many months, we finally adjusted to this new life and found many things to enjoy and love about France. Eventually, we made the most of our four years there, before moving back to live in the Philippines once again.
Today, I have lived in a total of five countries and in seven different cities around the world. In my opinion, regardless of if you are a child or an adult, it really does take at least six to 12 months (minimum) to settle into a new life abroad. Even if you do speak the language and have a structure in place when you arrive – such as a new school or job for instance – culture shock can work in mysterious in ways.
It is also important to note that your state of mind prior to the relocation may play a pivotal role in how you experience your first few months in a new country. Was this a personal choice? Were you reluctant to move or did you specifically ask to be transferred? Generally speaking, when the move wasn’t strongly desired to begin with, a certain period of “mourning” for the past life may also coincide with the first few months in the new country. If this is the case, then it may unfortunately make the adjustment period more difficult and emotionally challenging at the onset.
Two months after my 18th birthday, I moved from Manila to Tokyo to attend University. I had never set foot in Japan before, and I didn’t even know much about this country’s great history and culture. I spoke not a single word of Japanese, had never been interested in studying the language, and didn’t even like the taste of Japanese food. If truth be told, I had in fact, no desire at all to go to Japan.
Of my 200 plus classmates at the international school in Manila, I was the only one who ended up going to Tokyo for university. The majority of my friends went on to study in Europe or in the United States. Going to Japan to study was entirely my parents’ enlightened decision. They believed with a strong conviction that I would benefit from this unique life experience and from the added bonus of learning the Japanese language.
So off I went, on my own, to the land of the rising sun, without really knowing what to expect. I could never have foreseen the kind of massive culture shock I was about to experience. Here I was, a cocky-know-it-all 18 year- old expat-brat, who thought she was an Asia-veteran, having lived a total of 14 years in the Philippines, and completely unprepared for how different this new culture was going to be. For starters, to my surprise, people in Japan seemed to be following ALL the rules. Moving from Manila, where traffic lights are a mere suggestion, to Tokyo, where the only people who dare to jaywalk are from the local mafia called Yakusa, was a very strange and novel experience to say the least.
Furthermore, during my freshman year at university, I lived in a strict all-girls dormitory run by stern Japanese nuns. All activities were severely regimented and everyone had to be up and dressed, ready to clean the dormitory communal areas, such as toilets and showers, every morning at eight AM sharp. Having grown-up with a somewhat privileged lifestyle in Manila, with maids and drivers at my beck and call, this alteration in my way of life did take some serious getting used to. Additionally, I often felt frustrated because despite studying the language for hours on end every single day, I was unable to communicate in Japanese till about six months into my stay there. It was only after I spent two weeks working on a Japanese farm in the southern island of Kyushu, where I was forced to speak the language constantly, without any other foreigners in sight, that I finally made a breakthrough with the language. I came back to Tokyo dreaming in Japanese. And in this particular case, I can confirm that total immersion really does work!
In the end, my time in Japan turned out to be a truly humbling but incredibly rich and formative experience. All in all, I lived in Tokyo close to six years, and although I did eventually get used to my new life, and succeeded in speaking the language with fluency, I truly believe that up until the very last few months of my stay there, I was in many ways still adjusting.
Ultimately, when moving countries, the differences between the old and the new culture suddenly become more obvious, and may even cause much anxiety. Getting used to these changes can be mentally exhausting, as it was for me in Japan in the early years. New stimuli, day in and day out, often resulted in chronic mental and physical fatigue. There is so much more to take in and to digest. Changes in weather, food, medicine, language and customs can heighten the sense of disconnection with your surroundings. One may also feel very lonely or homesick because of the lack of friends and support. Language barriers easily become major obstacles and make everyday ordinary tasks much more difficult and stressful.
Nevertheless, in most relocation cases, if one is genuinely excited about moving to a new country, the first three months are usually referred to as the “honeymoon” period. Everything is new and shiny: new food, local habits, pace of life etc….most people are fascinated by the new culture and excited by their fresh discoveries. But like most honeymoons, this phase eventually comes to an end, and reality tends to quickly set in.
When I first moved to the west coast of the United States from Japan in my early twenties, I felt exactly as if I was on a honeymoon. I had been dreaming of living and working in America, and everything was different and exciting to me. Things were much cheaper and more affordable than in Tokyo, and I felt spoiled for choice in local departments stores and supermarkets. Working in marketing for a company such as Nike was a thrilling experience, and I found that Americans had a straightforward and practical work ethic that was easy to adapt to. People valued go-getters and hard-workers, and it wasn’t about spending long hours at the office like in Japan or in France, but rather about being as productive as possible with your time.
Furthermore, in contrast to Japan, where group consensus was often given consideration, I quickly learnt that in the United States, if you didn’t speak up in meetings, it was almost akin to having no opinion. But apart from some adjustments in the work environment, my new life was much easier to get used to, than it had been for me moving to Japan. Language was not an issue. Culturally, it was quite similar to the Philippines, which was once a US colony. And except for a few local customs that were new to me – such as hugging people (even new acquaintances), speaking quite loudly in public places, the huge food portions at restaurants, and being carded at the supermarket even if just to buy a six-pack of beer – settling in was not too difficult, and much easier once I developed a routine.
This is why I believe that no matter what country you move to, it usually takes several months to a year to settle in. As habits begin to form, life starts to seem more “normal”. Having a routine can be very comforting for many people. Familiarly is reassuring and calming, and one begins to create a new life, with friends and acquaintances. You may start to find favourite places to eat or to shop at. Your neighbourhood can also finally become more familiar and thus make you feel more welcome and at home. This is when you really begin to settle into your new life.
When I moved to Paris, New York and more recently to Singapore, I also experienced these various stages of culture shock. Despite the fact that language was not an issue, until I found my way around and familiarized myself with the new cities’ unique characteristics, I felt in a state of transition, and in fact quite unsettled.
In my view, during this early important stage, one’s general attitude, outlook and state of mind is in actuality the key to making integration into the new country a success (or not) in the long term. If you manage to adapt to the aspects of the host culture while keeping a positive attitude, and if you are able to maintain some of your own unique cultural habits and preferences, while also incorporating bits of local culture into your new lifestyle, then you are undoubtedly on your way to assimilating effectively into your new country of residence.
Over the years, during the numerous migratory periods of my life, I’ve come across countless incidents which contributed to moments of culture shock. Nevertheless, what I always find interesting, and often very entertaining, are the differences in each country’s attitude to the following universal subject matters: work, success, education, pregnancy and giving birth, service, alcohol, hygiene, courtship, food, the list goes on and on. If you try to keep an open mind and view these differences as learning opportunities, you will discover a wealth of knowledge in social and intercultural variations that can only enrich your view of the world.
Take the subject of pregnancy for example, as I reflect on the three countries where I’ve experienced these important stages of my life – in the United States, France and in Singapore – I can think of countless episodes which were truly amusing and culturally diverse. In France for instance, as a pregnant woman, I was told NOT to exercise and that I could drink a little wine and have coffee everyday if I felt like it. In contrast, my American obstetrician insisted I exercise regularly and not touch a single drop of alcohol or caffeine under any circumstance!
In Singapore, I was asked to pack comfortable loose clothing to wear for the day I would leave the hospital to take my newborn baby home. In France however, pregnancy books advise that you pack a nice dress, make-up and a pair of shoes with low heels for the day you leave the hospital with your baby. There are countless other examples which are all part of the learning experience of being a roamer such as myself. And ultimately, it is about wanting to embrace the rich diversity of human cultures around the world. As the American novelist Henry Miller once counselled, “Develop interest in life, as you see it, in people, things, literature, and music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people.”
In some ways, adjusting successfully to a new home is in reality about finding your own unique blend of cultures and taking the best parts from your personal background and interweaving them effectively with the host nation’s unique local flavour. Doing this takes time and patience. No matter how experienced you are or how cosmopolitan you think you have become, it can’t be rushed. Give yourself a good six to 12 months to adjust, but most important, remain open-minded, and I am convinced that you will eventually get settled in quite nicely indeed.