We need to talk about dog poo

This morning as I dragged Cooper around the block on his lead (he can be very obstinate when he wants to go in a different direction to you!), I thought about how hard it is to clear up your dog’s poo when there are so few bins on the street. One, on my usual walk, to be precise. And as night follows day, Cooper will always, ALWAYS, do his business after we have passed that lone receptacle. Nevertheless, I dutifully bag up his offering and carry it round with me until we either get back to said bin or reach home. After all, I’m a Brit: it’s what we do.

The dog park we frequent is another matter: bins dotted about everywhere, each one close to the main path, ready and waiting for the deposits. But sadly, even this doesn’t seem to make the slightest bit of difference: the park is littered with dog turds of all shapes, sizes, colours and smells. It is particularly bad at the moment, thanks to there having been no proper rain for months. But it’s not the lack of rain that is putting the poo there in the first place: it’s the local population who simply don’t have a culture of picking it up. And yes, it is pretty revolting.

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So why do I feel the need to share this story with you? After all, who wants to read about dog crap when you could be reading about sunsets and cocktails?

Well, mostly because this is exactly one of those small (but not insignificant) things that can trip you up as a new expat somewhere, one of the culture shock traps perhaps no-one will tell you about and you yourself won’t even have thought about until you move. One little thing like this on its own may not be a problem, but lots of little things added together can be. Especially if they happen slowly, one at a time, drip fed into your psyche until one day you reach your limit and you blow – without really understanding why.

Half way through writing this post I downed tools and walked to our local shopping mall to pick up a bit of food shopping. As I did so, I thought about what other little things were “different” from what I would be used to back home. Not better, not worse, but different. There were loads – the way people cross roads, the way people drive, the type of food available in the shops, the etiquette at the check-out tills in the supermarket, the types of childrens clothes for sale, the rubbish on the street…..after you have been here for a while, you get used to it all but when you start looking at it through a newcomers eyes it reminds you again what it is like to have to adjust to a totally different culture. The trips and the traps are everywhere.

But back to the dog poo. One of my newly arrived friends here (she will know who she is if she is reading this!) stated the other day that she wanted to start a campaign to clear up the dog mess in the park. It’s a great idea and I’m behind her but really, even if successful, it would be a drop in the ocean (or in the mounds of poo). Ultimately, as expats, we might be able to make small differences to our immediate surroundings but we can’t control the wider world we live in. So in the end we just need to get used to it, go with the flow, embrace the differences – or, at least, live with them.

So next time you go out for a walk and find yourself stepping around or over a bit of dog crap on the floor stop and think. Does it bother me? Did I even notice it? Am I even letting my own dog do his business and leaving it on the path? All of these things will help guide you as to which part of the culture shock cycle you have reached. And if it’s the latter, if you are so comfortable in your surroundings you’re at the “living like a local” stage then congratulations! Hopefully this means you have fully intergrated and can now enjoy your expat life to the full.

So this is the time to start encouraging your nieghbours to pick up their dog crap. Good luck!

 

Photo credit: Phil Thirkell

 

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Watch out for mini-culture shock

We’ve been back in Pretoria for a couple of weeks now and I am starting to feel back on top of things. Starting. By that I don’t mean I feel settled back in at all – in fact, I really feel like I could do with about three weeks holiday to get over my holiday, now that the children are back at school…

Because, apart from all the extra work there is to catch up on, the friends I want to see, the chores that have laid abandoned since the day term broke up back in mid-June, there is also that strange feeling of disorientation which we all have to go through on returning from a long trip overseas – especially when it is to your home country.

We all know about culture shock and, to come extent, we all expect it when we first move somewhere new. Most people at least have some understanding of the sort of rollercoaster of emotions they are likely to go through as a new expat – even if many of us don’t realise how hard or how long it may hit for. However, what I hadn’t expected was to go through a sort of mini version of this when we first returned from our long break in the UK.

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Expat life can be a bit of a roller coaster at times…..

I was looking forward to coming back. We’d had a good holiday and seen a lot of people we were missing. But it’s always hard when you have to keep packing and unpacking, moving between different places, never sleeping in the same place for more than a few nights at a time. I also missed my own bed, my own shower and my own space. And yes I missed my dog!

So it wasn’t that I didn’t want to return. We had had long enough away and even the children agreed nearly nine weeks out of school is way too much. They positively hopped onto the school bus the first morning back! We also returned to glorious weather (hot, sunny days, cool nights…) and lots to look forward to including various trips and holidays. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be home in Pretoria – it was more just that when I got here it took a bit of time to settle.

For the first few days I felt a bit down, grumpy and even various degrees of anger. Usually exercise and sun helps with these things but I couldn’t shake the feelings. I also felt disorientated, to the extent that once or twice I woke up and couldn’t work out where I was. I don’t think my feelings were helped by the bad memories of the first few days of “Brexit” which were also my last few days in Pretoria before the holiday – sitting in the car park at our local supermarket I suddenly had a flash-back to checking on my phone and discovering our prime minister had resigned while I was doing the weekly shop.

These feelings didn’t last long and gradually I started to “re-adapt” to my surroundings, getting back into the rythm of a life that mostly revolves around working, writing, dog walking, food shopping and organising holidays. But these feelings threw me as they weren’t expected at all and it made me realise that, as expats, we have to continue to be aware that life isn’t linear and the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride will continue throughout our time away from home. It also reminded me that I needed to be kind to myself – it isn’t realistic that I would be able to jump straight back where I left off nine weeks ago; and that the guilt I felt about not making arrangements to see people or starting a new project within a week of returning should be parked straight away in the unrealistic car park.

So here  I am on day 13 and I do feel like I am getting there. I have managed to write a few new blog posts, caught up with most friends, met some of the newcomers (who so far all seem lovely), sorted out the last details for our coming trips to Cape Town and Mozambique and more or less got up to date with work. I realise there is still a long way to go and my to-do list is as long as ever (although sometimes I think that is just what life in the 21st century is like for everyone). But at least now I know what to expect next time I return from a long trip home. Buckle up those seat belts!

Post Referendum culture shock

Yes I am devastated. I am also angry. Depressed. I feel like a car crash is happening in slow motion in front of my eyes and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. Welcome to the world of post-Brexit Britain.

It’s been a month now since we voted to leave the EU. A vote that should never have been put into the hands of the people. It has become clear very quickly that no-one really understood what they were voting for. And by that I mean people on BOTH sides of the vote. After all, how were we meant to understand about tariffs and subsidies and trade negotiators? Bank passports and freedom of movement. Access to the single market. These are all very technical matters that very few people really get. And the people who do are the ones we know as experts. The experts who were warning us of the consequences of our actions, but that were apparently ignored by a small majority of those people who actually voted. The consequences that we are now starting to see slowly happening although, if you read many of the social commentators, they aren’t happening at all and this country is a much brighter, happier place. I personally think these people are deluded.

There is so much I could write about here. We have had an incredible roller coaster of news over the past few weeks. Blink and you would miss another resignation. The biggest “suprise” was the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary – although many still think this is part of a clever game that Teresa May is playing. Time will tell.

But putting aside the news, I’ve been thinking about how this weird period in time feels very much like another thing – it feels like we’ve just landed in an alien country and it feels like we are collectively going through the culture shock cycle.

I have written about culture shock many times and discussed the cycle in the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. For those who haven’t read the book it goes something like this:.

Culture shock could be defined as disorientation on moving somewhere unfamiliar, a rollercoaster of emotions. It is said to have four phases and each phase is described differently by different people but generally speaking they are: wonder/honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and acceptance. You can move between the four phases in order or back and forth between them; you might skip some of the phases or not experience any of them.

So here we are, in a new, angry world and it feels very much like culture shock.  First is the honeymoon period. In my book I do also discuss the grief cycle and in fact at this stage, what we are going through/have been going through is much more like grieving than anything else. So whilst some of us did experience a sort of honeymoon stage (a weird “high” of the excitement of the first day or two), many jumped straight into the second stage which is denial.

Probably the most obvious way people have indicated their refusal to accept that this has actually happened is with a petition calling for a re-run. More than four million people have signed this petition even though it is very unlikely to happen (and there would probably be civil war if it did). But it was the only thing we felt we could do. This couldn’t be happening. This shouldn’t be happening.

Denial was mixed up with anger and frustration – which has led to a huge rift opening up in this country. I had already seen this happening before the vote and wrote about it here, but since the 24th June things have descended into a place I never thought I would see in this country. As well as a horrible rise in reports of racism on the streets, the comments sections of online newsites is not a place you want to be. I am seriously upset by the vile that is being spat out across the internet. I just want to turn back time and wish it had never happened.

But what comes next? It should be adjustment and I guess that is what we will slowly have over the next year or two. At the moment we can’t move on because we don’t really know what we would be adjusting to. I am still very hopeful that sense will prevail and even if we leave the EU we will still retain close links to our neighbours including access to the single market in return for freedom of movement If nothing else, I truly, truly hope that our ability to live and work and study in Europe will still be there when my children grow up. I also hope all my European friends in the UK are able to stay and live their lives happily – as can my British friends in Europe. It is a worrying time for a lot of people.

Eventually comes acceptance. At the moment I seriously cannot see how this is going to happen. But I know that eventually we will have to accept whatever the outcome of this debacle is. Or at least we will have to accept the new terms under which we will be living. We won’t have much choice unless, as many probably will, we leave permanently to live in another country. An awful lot of people are currently looking into gaining citizenship of another EU country at the moment.

So here we are stuck in the awful culture shock/grief cycle that has followed the referendum. I feel no better about things than I did straight after the vote but I realise that partly this is because my life is slightly in limbo at the moment anyway – we are still on holiday in the UK so I don’t have the normal distractions that would keep me sane. I recently read an excellent article about how to keep us level at times like this (which you can read here) and I will certainly be following some of this advice – in particular building a supportive community and getting out into nature (eg dog walking when we return to Pretoria).

But for now I continue to plough on, writing to my MP, answering mis-informed views on social media, talking to people about why they voted the way they did. I can’t do nothing, this is too big just to “let go”. We all have a duty to our children’s futures and I for one don’t want to say I didn’t step up when my they ask me in thirty years what I did to try and stop the madness.

In the meantime, all of you Americans need to prepare yourself for what you will be going through in November should Trump be elected. I suspect it will make post-Brexit shock look like a walk in the path…..

A Series on Expat Depression #5: Culture Shock or Something More?

“This was definitely more than culture shock. Though perhaps if I’d taken the culture shock more seriously and spent time dealing with it, the depression might not have occurred” Anne.

Just before I move on from understanding a bit more about what expat depression might look like and on to how people have started to help themselves, I wanted to consider what people understood about the term culture shock – and what they thought about its links with depression. As ever, thanks to expat mental health specialist Anita Colombara for looking over this post before publication.

When writing my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide I decided the subject of culture shock was such an important one that it deserved a whole chapter to itself. In the end, I also included a section at the end of the chapter on depression because I realised as I was writing it how closely linked the two are. And also how blurred the edges the two can be. How do you know if what you are experiencing is really just part of the normal experience of many (if not most) expats when they arrive in a new destination, and when it is something more serious?

Well I would say often you don’t – and that may be the problem. Because who is to say whether what you are going through is “normal” or not? If it is bringing you low should we label it “culture shock” and tell you that you will get over it? Or should we label it “depression” and recommend you seek advice.

To help answer these questions I decided to ask people what they understood about culture shock, whether they recognised it as part of their experience of moving abroad, or whether it felt like something more. The answers, predictably, were as varied as the experiences of those giving them – and helped to show how tied up in each other culture shock and depression are.

For background information, here is the definition of culture shock I came up with for my book:

‘Culture shock could be defined as disorientation on moving somewhere new, a rollercoaster of emotions. It is said to have four phases and each phase is described differently by different people but generally they are wonder/honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and acceptance. You can move between the four stages in order or back and forth between them; you might skip some of the phases or not experience any of them.’

An understanding of culture shock?
Most people who answered this section of the survey I used as the basis for this series said they did understand what was meant by the term culture shock – although for many this came later rather than at the time they were going through it. Although this in itself is heartening (as I think it should be part of everyone’s preparation for a move abroad to read up on culture shock), it is also worth noting that most of those who responded to my questions were already experienced expats. I wonder how many who have yet to move have ever considered a need to read up on this subject. Certainly a lack of knowledge about what is normal is one of the more common reasons people state for falling into depression – and thinking you are somehow doing something wrong by not being happy in your new home is also one of the reasons people fail to climb out of it.

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Part of their depression
For some people, their depression either started as culture shock or it was part and parcel of the same thing. Perhaps instead of moving through the cycle, they got stuck at a very negative stage. It is probably impossible to tell whether this was because the culture shock was preventing them from moving away from depression or the depression was preventing them moving through the culture shock cycle. Whichever was true, many found that the shock of moving to a new country pushed them lower than they had been before.

“The culture shock was one of the motives. Dutch people are way colder than Brazilian people. Sometimes I would feel so lonely that it was hard to make it through the day.” PKF

“Yes and no. Yes, because I’d briefly lived in the same country years earlier and my husband is native. But I discovered more things that drove me crazy and honestly, for the first three years, was desperate to move home no matter what it took. I knew it would get better but there are some things I will never like. So much of how I felt was tied up in being depressed and it was hard to separate the two”. V

Shock at the shock
Others found that they weren’t prepared for how severely they would be hit by culture shock, which in itself led to their depression. This included people moving to a new location for a second or subsequent time – not realising that culture shock doesn’t just happen the first time you leave your home country. It also includes people moving home and not realising you can get reverse culture shock.

“Having lived in Asia before I thought I understood culture shock, but China is so different that part of my problem is culture shock. Also I had never lived in a Communist, repressive, censored place before – that was a huge one we had never thought of”. Mary

“I understood the concept of culture shock. I lived right next door for five years beforehand. I just didn’t realise how different it would be here.” Sarah

“I expected to notice cultural differences and hoped to learn about different cultures and looked forward to that part of the cultural experience. I guess I was not prepared for the effect that cultural differences would have on me. In Mongolia, Indonesia and Mexico I feel that the cultural differences I saw or learned of have added to my education and enriched me. In India, the cultural differences I saw and experienced were far more extreme and made me realise that some of the core beliefs that I thought were universal were in fact not and this really unstabilised me”. Robyn.

“I did realise that part of my loneliness, isolation and frustration was the culture shock of returning home after so many years abroad” Nancy

More than culture shock
For many, especially those who understood culture shock and the effect of moving to a new environment, these feelings were definitely something more. Some recognised that they had had culture shock at some point in their expat lives and therefore knew this wasn’t that. Others worked it out when things didn’t seem to improve after a few months. As Catherine said:

“I definitely knew and understood the concept of culture shock. By this point we had been there almost two years so I think I had gotten over the culture shock part and was resigning myself to the fact that no matter what I did I would never be able to thrive in this environment.”

And from Nicky:

“This happened a long time after the initial culture shock! My friends were like family and I felt they had all abandoned ship and left me which was an irrational fear after so many years abroad”.

A good starting point: understanding culture shock
In my next post about expat depression I intend to start looking at some of the self-help methods people have used to help tackle their feelings. But a good starting point, whether you already have depression or as one of the weapons you can use against it, is to read up on culture shock.

Realising what is “normal” and what is perhaps something more can help us cope with what we may be going through. And if you believe that you have passed the stage when you should have been starting to adjust to your new life but you find yourself still struggling this could be the time to seek more help.

Further reading:

Culture Shock: What it is and How to Deal With It.

An interview I did for the podcast Tandem Nomads on Culture Shock

An article about the origins of the term Culture Shock

Photo credit: Republic of Korea

Did you suffer from culture shock? Did you understand what it was – and if so, do you think this helped? Do you wish you had known more about it before you left home?

Please don’t forget to read the other posts on this subject: Introduction to expat depression, what is expat depression, when and why does it happen and what does expat depression look like?

Culture shock

Have you ever stood there, staring at a sign in a totally different language, not understanding a word of it, and just felt like weeping? Or found yourself shouting uncharacteristically at a stranger in shop because, well, they just aren’t doings the way you are used to?

If yes, then you could be experiencing culture shock – a term that describes those feelings of frustration, exasperation, annoyance, confusion, disorientation and all-round crapness that almost always accompanies a move to a new environment.

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Even the differences in things like clothing can be difficult for newcomers

Do you know much about culture shock? Did you read up on it before you moved abroad? It’s something that I started researching in detail as I was writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide – and went back to recently as I was interviewed for an excellent new podcast series called Tandem Nomads.

Culture shock is something that generally hits most of us at some point in our overseas lives. It isn’t necessarily a negative thing – sometimes it is just a “thing”. But when it can become a problem is when you don’t understand that what you are going through is normal, part of the “roller coaster” ride of moving to another country, and something that will generally pass once you have adjusted to your new life.

When I was researching for my culture shock chapter in the book, I looked at various definitions of the term, and amalgamated a few to come up with my own definition – which is:

Culture shock could be defined as disorientation on moving somewhere unfamiliar, a roller coasters of emotions. It is said to have four phases and each phase is described differently by different people but generally speaking they are: wonder/honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and acceptance. You can move between the four phases in order or back and forth between them; you might skip some of the phases or not experience any of them.

Not everyone experiences culture shock in the same way – for some it will come and go fleetingly, for others it will last throughout their stay in their new country, and possibly even turn to depression. But for everyone, it is worth finding out a bit more about what you are likely to encounter when you first go abroad. Knowing the stages, recognising which stage you are at and realising that it will  almost certainly get easier is one of  the best pieces of advice I can give a new expat – they say forewarned is forearmed and in this case that is certainly true.

To find out more about culture shock please listen to the podcast, or buy a copy of my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear your views – have you suffered, or are you suffering, from culture shock? If so, how did it affect you? And do you think you can get culture shock even moving within your own country? Please comment below 🙂

How to overcome culture shock – an interview on Tandem Nomads

I was interviewed about culture shock the other day by the lovely Amel who runs a website called Tandem Nomads. The site is aimed at “empowering expat partners” and I was incredibly honoured to be amongst the first to take part in one of her podcast interviews. The podcast broadcasts (is that the right term?) haven’t started yet but you can sign up to the site to make sure you don’t miss out when they do – the link is here. In the meantime you can read Amel’s blog about my interview here.

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And  if YOU are an inspiring expat partner and would like to be interviewed too then do get in touch with Amel. If you want to know more about the show, this is what she says:

Tandem Nomads is a podcast show (online radio) and an online platform providing you with great inspiration and free resources to help you turn the challenges of relocation into great opportunities for you and for your career!

I will host for you 2 podcast episodes per week:

  • Mondays are “story days”!

I will interview for you inspiring and empowering expat partners from around the world that will share with you how they managed to build their career, their projects or their business while following their partners’ career and moving from a country to another.

  • Thursdays are “topic days”!

I will focus every week on one particular issue that you might be facing with as an expat partner. Those topics will be related to your professional success, your financial independence, but also on all the other issues that are important for you to solve as you will need to create the right environment to build your success. Issues like dealing with change, adjusting to new cultural environments and coping with all your other important responsibilities related to being an expat partner or an expat parent.

You can contact Amel via her website here