I’ve always considered myself to be an especially adaptable, laid-back and open-minded traveller. I suppose we’re all susceptible to that kind of self-congratulation, especially as you get into the double-digits of countries visited and the triple-digits of hostels slept in, unfamiliar cultural aspects observed, weird and wonderful people from all corners of the earth met.
So, in the face of such reckless and unjustifiable self-confidence, it took me some time to figure out why sometimes, in the last six months of making my life in Peru, I would cry and cry and cry at night. Red-eyed and sniffling, I would protest to Gabriel that this wasn’t me, I’m tough, I never cry. To his credit, he never once pointed out that I did, it would seem, cry on a regular basis. He would merely raise an eyebrow, wrap his arms around me, and wait it out. I never could explain, to him or to me, where the tears were coming from.
Culture shock? I always kind of laughed in the face of culture shock – isn’t that where the fun is? If I wanted to be immersed in the warm comfortable bath of familiarity, I would stay at home; drive the same roads to work every day, prop up the same bars in the Valley every weekend, and spend my holidays at the Gold Coast. But I don’t. Because I love to step off a plane and into the alien chaos of a city where I don’t speak the language, where nobody knows me, where even walking to the corner store for a bottle of water is an adventure. Where sights and sounds and smells I’ve never seen or heard or smelt in my life wrap me up in an exotic fog of novelty.
And so when the opportunity came along to study by distance, cancel my flight home, and extend my stay in Cusco indefinitely, I seized it with both hands with no thought as to its psychological impact. Culture shock? Ha!
But it ate away at me, a sly wearing down of my emotional stability; there were no panic attacks in crowded markets, no obvious sense of opening my front door and being assaulted by a wave of otherness on the street. Only night-time tears and a propensity to lose my temper.
So why here, and why now? I wasn’t this emotionally unstable travelling in Bahrain, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Southeast Asia; living in Spain, Greece and the UK was a piece of cake. And I’m a hardened and experienced traveller, right? Right?
Yes and no. I’ve lived overseas yes, but primarily in hostel jobs, surrounded by travellers, a traveller still. When we get Yamanyá Backpackers open I’ll be returning to that lifestyle, but for now I’ve shifted sideways into the real, real life of a place, surrounded by Peruvians, without the shared experience of backpacking to bind us.
Which relates to the next stumbling point – that I was always surrounded by European, Australian or North American friends. They spoke English and got my cultural references. We shared expectations of life, of relationships and friendships, of social interactions, dreams, modes of movement in the world.
Here I don’t have that. I live my life in a language in which I am, so far, incapable of expressing myself in a concise yet profound manner. I live, and am in a relationship, with someone who was brought up with a different understanding of how men and women relate to each other. Obsessed with reading the news and keeping up with politics, I find it impossible to understand the web of political parties and corruption that characterises my adopted country. Social satire goes over my head.
This is something I plan to explore in more detail over the next six weeks. What is culture shock, and how can I become more comfortable with the expat experience? I sent out a request to the wonderful Lonely Planet Blogsherpa and <a title="MatadorU" href="Matador U” target=”_blank”>MatadorU communities for expats who would be willing to share their experiences and was overwhelmed by responses (thanks everyone!).
So I’ll be running two expat interviews a week to find out how others have experienced the transition and how they coped. I’ll also be writing some articles of my own, and presenting some of the best resources on the web for expats. I hope this helps me deal with the expat transition, and any others who may be going through the same thing. I also hope this turns into an interesting dialogue, so don’t be shy – I want to hear your experiences, questions and comments.
- When paradise isn’t enough – Julie Schwietert Collazo in Puerto Rico
- A Canadian in Istanbul – Joe Tuck in Turkey
- An American in Germany – Andrew Couch in Freiburg
- A Maltese in Switzerland, sans knowledge of the local language – Denise Pulis in Zurich
- An American, living “on the fringe” of Chinese society – Heather Wright in Beijing
- An American in Morocco – Vago Dimitio in Fes
- A Development Worker in Kosovo – Todd Wassel in Pristina
- Expat life in Tokyo’s night-time entertainment industry – Karen Kennedy in Japan
- An Australian trailing spouse in Saudi Arabia – Mandy Rowe in Riyadh
- A Canadian – and serial expat – in Beijing – MaryAnne Oxendale in China
- A Norwegian in New Zealand and the US – Anne-Sophie Redisch
- An American in Cuba – Conner Gorry
- An American in Turkey – Jennifer Hattam
- A Canadian in Madrid, Spain – Nithya Ramachandran
- Life as an Ajnabieh in Palestine – American Jenney Thorson
- Author Philip Graham – and family – in Lisbon
- German expat Marcel Krueger in Ireland
- Belgian serial expat Gerrit de Feyer on mental illness, art and new horizons (part 1 and 2) (part 2 will be published March 30)
- Do Your Research Resources for current and prospective expats
- Notes on Western Femaleness in Peru
- A Day in the Life of an Expat in Cusco, Peru (Matador Network)
- 5 Mistakes New Expats Make and How You Can Avoid Them (Matador Network)
- Geo-Twister and the Expat Split: over a year after this post, another reflection on expat life, and its emotional ramifications
- The (hateful) ties that bind: Expats and cultural criticism
- Painting in broad strokes: how moving to Buenos Aires was different to moving to Cusco.
- A Moveable Fiesta: Kant on Expat Life. Also, Bikinis: expat life and morality. My reaction to a particularly obnoxious view of expat life.