Adjusting to Life as an Expat: Interviews and Resources

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.

Expat life vs long-haul travel
Hostel life in Brighton, England. Hard to be lonely!

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.

The interviews

  1. When paradise isn’t enough – Julie Schwietert Collazo in Puerto Rico
  2. A Canadian in Istanbul – Joe Tuck in Turkey
  3. An American in Germany – Andrew Couch in Freiburg
  4. A Maltese in Switzerland, sans knowledge of the local language – Denise Pulis in Zurich
  5. An American, living “on the fringe” of Chinese society – Heather Wright in Beijing
  6. An American in Morocco – Vago Dimitio in Fes
  7. A Development Worker in Kosovo – Todd Wassel in Pristina
  8. Expat life in Tokyo’s night-time entertainment industry – Karen Kennedy in Japan
  9. An Australian trailing spouse in Saudi Arabia – Mandy Rowe in Riyadh
  10. A Canadian – and serial expat – in Beijing – MaryAnne Oxendale in China
  11. A Norwegian in New Zealand and the US – Anne-Sophie Redisch
  12. An American in Cuba – Conner Gorry
  13. An American in Turkey – Jennifer Hattam
  14. A Canadian in Madrid, Spain – Nithya Ramachandran
  15. Life as an Ajnabieh in Palestine – American Jenney Thorson
  16. Author Philip Graham – and family – in Lisbon
  17. German expat Marcel Krueger in Ireland
  18. Belgian serial expat Gerrit de Feyer on mental illness, art and new horizons (part 1 and 2) (part 2 will be published March 30)

“Bonus” interview – I interviewed myself for Denise of Travel with Den Den, so pop over to her site to read my own insights into expat life.

Other stuff:


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44 thoughts on “Adjusting to Life as an Expat: Interviews and Resources

  1. Hey Cam! I even know about the nightime-tears and quickly lost temper, and I only moved to London! So on top of what you say (having a constant feeling at just scraping at the cultural surface) I think these are also withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from our dearest and most addictive drug, traveling. I came to Paris to see my sister a few days ago, and I just had a moment of euphoria trying to find her place wondering the streets alone, being momentarily lost, admiring the buildings above me and the faces coming and going. Oh, how I miss that feeling! I miss the energy that the interaction with the unknown brings, but as you say, it is a whole lot different traveling through than living through. When you travel through you pick up any little morsel of understanding of the local culture, and treasure it as a great anecdote for the coming years, but when you live and settle you are expected to complete the puzzle. And that can be very frustrating sometimes. I hope you will leave yourself some well-deserved time when you go to Bolivia, recapture the traveling magic! 🙂 This will also help you see how much deeper understanding you have of the regional push and pulls than you may have originally thought! Stay well, and keep writing! xx

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  2. You know what? I'm at the start of a 22 hour bus trip back to Cusco to change for the 6 hour trip to Puno to change again for Copacabana and I've got a smile on my face – this weekend I get a brief little taste of the travelling life again – uncomfortable and tiring and wonderful! It's interesting, of all the interviews I've received back so far, a common theme seems to be that expat life isn't travelling, that not matter how ready you think you are cos you've been so many exotic places for so long, you're not. I guess we'll both just have to get used to it, and work on completing that puzzle. Have a wonderful little travel interval as well – San Seb next, right? Huge hugs to everyone you see there, to your folks, to Christos, to whoever else. Miss you!

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  3. I am thoroughly enjoying this series so far, Camden! And I totally know what you mean about seeing yourself as a tough travel cookie who oughtn't crumble so easily when faced with culture shock. I can't think of any particular moment in my 18 months in Shanghai where I felt what could be readily identified as culture shock (i.e. eeek, scary food! different language! ooo different ways of doing things!) but I knew something was up when I started kicking the tires of taxis who tried to run me over at intersections (on my green light!) and then spending my evenings and weekends getting all teary over the fact that I was living what I decided was a 'counter-intuitive lifestyle'. I think a lot of it came from my isolation- my American boyfriend was the only foreign contact I had and he couldn't relate because he was working in an expat-heavy environment. I was (and still am) in a 100% Chinese work environment in a very very Chinese part of the city and sometimes I just yearned to be able to see signs I can read or have conversations with people who aren't my students. You're right- there is a big difference between travelling and living in a place. The shared cultural references and ability to express yourself clearly and subtly in language are enormously important. My students (the only people I speak with for most of the day) don't get 78% of my references so I have to seriously tone things down. My Chinese is still really basic and it frustrates me to no end. Being understood and understanding others makes a big difference in your emotional wellbeing when living abroad.

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  4. Thanks for commenting, Maryanne! I think my favourite thing about this series this far has been finding out I'm NOT the only one who found living abroad so different from long-haul travel. Thank heavens – I'm not weak after all! It is so tough when you're removed from the comforting network of fellow travels, people who totally “get” you. I had another little breakdown the other day (although I have yet to take my anger out on taxis, hee!), but I'm starting to feel I'm getting my head around this. Connecting with so many other people who are going through or have been through the same thing has been an enormous help. We'll both get through it in the end! Looking forward to reading your interview (no pressure or anything!)

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  5. Definitely all about the people, Jon. Thanks heavens for my Cusco family, and I'm seeking out the expats now as well.BTW, thanks for giving me a terrible hankering to see more of Ecuador. So many cool places to go and things to do on your blog. Dammit.

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  6. I think the shock comes in various different forms. When I first arrived in America to live, the director of our teaching program spoke about culture shock. And I thought to myself, I won't have to worry about this at all, I've lived in Bangkok, I doubt I'll get culture shock in America. Well, it was one of the worst experiences I had with culture shock and it wasn't through everyday living but the dramatic difference in the education systems. I suffered from educational culture shock, and I too would cry every afternoon with wails of 'I don't understand, why they do it this way.' I even broke down in the principals office one day. Highly embarrassing, but not as much for him though I think!!

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  7. Oh dear, Caz, I can see that poor man wondering what to do with the hysterical Australian in his office! You're right about there being different forms, I think, and I guess it must be impossible to know how a particular move is going to affect you until you get in there and do it!How did you manage in America? Did you get past it in the end or did it affect you until you left?

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  8. Poor Brian, he brought me a gift the next day which I thought was very sweet! I got past it in the end and learned how to cope. I still couldn't help but shake my head every day at the educational system there though. I don't think I'll ever understand the madness of that!

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  9. That's IS very sweet. I guess in the end there's some things you can'tadjust too, and it's just a matter of gritting your teeth and bearing them.2010/8/13 Disqus <>

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  10. I’ve been living in Tarapoto, Peru for just over two years. I very rarely speak English and we don’t get many backpackers out here. Last night I met up with a group of German and US frog specialists – we went to a bar, had a few beers and I talked incessantly! I’m not generally the “chatty” type, but it was so nice to be able to talk to people in English, with a shared sense of humour and cultural similarities (I’m from the UK). My Peruvian girlfriend didn’t even know who the Beatles were when I met her – or ABBA, until she developed an obsession with Mamma Mia!

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    1. I know exactly what you mean – I’m in full Spanish mode most of the time as well, even more at the moment travelling with Colombians and Argentinians. Nothing like slipping into the comfortable slippers of cultural and lingual familiarity!

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  11. There are definitely different levels of culture shock depending on your age, location, previous experience, etc. as you have so well illustrated. Many like to think of culture shock as black and white but there really are so many different shades of gray in there!

    I’m looking forward to your other posts 🙂
    Amy

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    1. So right, Amy. Everybody’s experience has some commonalities, but is so different, as well. That’s been my favourite thing about this series, and the interview series MaryAnne is running over at ephemeraanddetritus.com. The whole spectrum of culture shock!

      Thanks for reading! LOVE the look of your blog, really striking! Looking forward to following you!

      Cam

      Oh, by the way – you don’t have internet subscriptions enabled – check what’s up with your feed!
      Take care

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  12. Interesting topic, we have been expats for the last 5 years and now with out new travel project it even gotten a little bit more extremer. We are only staying 3 month at a time. The most important thing is, to meet new people right away. Otherwise it’s always just the two of us, which is great but meeting people is one of the reasons why we are doing this.

    Keep up the great blog!

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  13. I agree with your paragraph on Culture Shock. It is the idea of learning and adopting to a new culture that makes every stay in a foreign country worthwhile.

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  14. I understand this entirely. I’ve lived in Germany, Venezuela, and Chile. By far, the longest bout has been in Chile and even though I feel fairly acclimated, I still experience moments of lonliness, down times, wtf moments, and “that would so not fly in the US”. I wish it didn’t still happen, but I think changing that would require changing my whole cultural frame of reference.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Sara (I loved finding your blog this afternoon). Writing about all these weird expat moments has helped me process them, but I think the most valuable thing has been hearing everybody else’s very similar experiences!

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  15. 7 years of expat living and never a regret! never a tear…life is too short to remain in a rut of everyday life..now back on the road in a serious way….Carpe Dium!

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