Sunday, January 17, 2010

Culture Shock and the Expat in Slovakia

So here’s a scenario I hear about often (and have experienced myself):

You are moving to Slovakia or some other country that is new for you. You are so excited about the move and are distracted about all the details of settling in, such as finding a place to live and getting all your stuff packed and moved, finding a decent job that’s going to pay the bills with some left over to travel a bit, getting acquainted with some of the locals and getting exposure to the culture and cuisine, becoming familiar with your new neighborhood, traffic and comfortable with the public transportation system, experimenting with foods and becoming familiar with products in your local grocery store, and adjusting to a new currency.

And then all of a sudden it hits—A feeling of depression, or self doubt that you’ve done the right thing in making the big change. Or possibly a sadness because you miss your family, your home, or “your people” back in your home country. You get home-sick, sometimes bad enough that it makes you consider cutting and running.

What do you do? Try to ignore it? Wait for these feelings to go away? What is culture shock, anyway? Can anything be done to help minimize the negative feelings associated with it?

Everyone experiences culture shock at some level. I received an email from a woman who was originally from Slovakia but had lived in the US for more than 10 years and had just recently moved back to Slovakia with her American husband. She wrote to me asking if I knew of any groups where she and her husband could meet other expats. She said her mindset had changed over the last several years away from typical Slovak life and that a lot of thing were driving her crazy back in Slovakia. For her and her husband, finding other Americans would help in their transition to Slovak life.

Expat groups can help you get in touch with others from your own country, or those who are English speakers anyway. In Bratislava there is a group called Bratislava Expats. This group started up right after I moved back to California so I never got to go to any of their events so I don’t have personal experience with them. I am familiar with their forum, however. They usually meet at the cafe Next Apache located somewhere not so far from the Presidential Palace. Contact them and see if anything is going on in the near future.

Another good website for Americans is for the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia. They have events that are really great. Of course they have really nice parties or picnics for major US holidays like the 4th of July (in the past they’ve hosted a great outdoor event at Bratislava Castle) but they also host very interesting talks about the growth of the City of Bratislava or how Slovakia is adjusting to the euro, etc. Most of the time these events are open to the public.

And there is an American football league in Bratislava. I wrote a blog post about it. There’s also a great American football league in Vienna.

There are also good websites that provide forums for expats or other specific country information such as a list of popular blogs by expats in various countries. Expat Women for example, has links for over 1,000 expat women blogs on their site. Expat Women is a website that helps women living overseas. They’ve got readers’ stories, country resource pages, their own inspirational blog, and loads of motivational articles.

Expat-blog is dedicated to expatriates who want to share their living-abroad experience and to those who want to live, study or work in a foreign country, or just discover how life is on the other side of the planet. They’ve got forums, living abroad guides, and an “expat network” to help you make new contacts in your destination country. Sometimes surfing through pages on Slovakia provides more information than you ever realized existed.

But what else can you do proactively to deal with culture shock?

For me it was important to understand that culture shock in itself shouldn’t be considered as an entirely negative experience. Feeling symptoms of culture shock means that you are sensitive to differences from your own culture and have the capacity to gain deeper self knowledge as well as to be enriched by another culture. This sensitivity provides an important opportunity for learning; it’s something like growing pains.

Additionally, after living abroad for 5 years, I came up with a list of tips that help me deal with it. Here they are:
1) Keep active. This is particularly good advice if you are feeling symptoms of culture shock such as depression, extreme homesickness, or wanting to withdraw from people (culture) that are different from you. Join a fitness club, go sightseeing, or take a language class.
2) When you need a break from culture overload, take some time out for yourself: make yourself your favorite foods from home, watch a favorite movie or T.V. show.
3) Try to make friends with locals. It’s to your advantage to go out of your way to break through that barrier and work on making friends. For some, this is often easier said that done, but friendships are important in helping you get over culture shock and to learn about Slovak life. In addition to that, friends lead you to meeting new friends, which is a good thing.
4) Keep an open mind and try not to fixate on how things are done back home in comparison to your adopted home. As I have heard it so eloquently stated, “You’re not in Kansas so don’t act like it!” Not only does complaining not solve anything, it makes you a bitter and unpleasant person to be around and makes locals defensive and antagonistic.
5) Remember that part of your education is to learn to decipher foreign customs and try not to let the differences annoy you. Some people can adapt easier to new surroundings than others but everyone can get frustrated or feel out of place from time to time, particularly when upsetting things happen. When you aren’t familiar with the customs it’s easy to get frustrated at another’s seeming lack of respect. For example, I’ve had this reaction before: “I don’t understand it. I refused an offer for a drink and still he keeps asking me to have one. Didn’t they hear me the first time? These people are so pushy!” Later I learned that if you are at someone’s home, it’s customary for a host to offer you a drink of an alcohol, and your host will not feel like he or she has done their job until you accept at least one drink.
Finally, travel and living abroad are extraordinary opportunities for growth, self knowledge, and life-long experience. Some people think that you need to be adventurous or willing to take risks to travel or live abroad. This was never my philosophy; you just need to have a little determination, do some planning, and be flexible. In return, the value gained from traveling and living abroad is impossible to measure. Not only do you gain insight and appreciation for other cultures, but time away from your own country often makes you aware of who you are and the significance of where you come from.

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