Things They Don't Tell You About Moving Abroad
Things They Don't Tell You About Moving Abroad
There’s nothing quite like traveling to a foreign country. It’s an enriching experience, a chance to meet new and interesting people, eat new and interesting foods, drink new and interesting drinks, and wake up in new and interesting puddles of vomit. If things go well, you come home with some pictures that aren't of your own thumb, some useless souvenirs, and a handful of stories about how strange those wacky foreigners are, but how, in the end, people are people wherever you go.
“I bought everyone cervezas, then the guys gave me a nickname: ‘El Gran Pelotudo,’ which is like ‘The Great Pelotudo.’ Ja, ja.”
If you’re going to be staying in a country for longer than a vacation, however, that enriching experience can change into a grueling one, and you can change into a raging asshole, thanks to a little thing called culture shock. If you've never lived through it, there’s a chance you may think it consists of little more than fascination over all the quaint differences between your home country and your new host country, but that’s just the honeymoon stage of culture shock. This is the period when you make excited calls home to tell friends and family how funny it is to see all these zany Australians walking around upside down, or all these freaky folks in the US having their breakfast hamburgers, or all these crazy Canadians…um, killing moose with their teeth? (Those are all real things, right?)
The real fun starts once that initial excitement wears off and the extra adrenalin you've been running on goes away. That’s when your body notices that the new and interesting food it’s been getting fed isn't the kind of food it’s used to. That’s also when your brain realizes that it’s having to work overtime to perform daily tasks, because the way it thinks the world should work isn't the way the world is actually working.
Depending on how much your host country’s worldview differs from that of your home country, you may notice, for example, that the layout of stores is so bizarre that you need to set aside two or three hours just to buy basic necessities. Here in China, the most logical place for barbecue supplies is near the toilet paper, because aluminum foil. (If you don’t understand that explanation, just study the language for five or so years, then it’ll make perfect sense.) Looking for the imported goods section? Try looking next to the dog food aisle.
Running into little obstacles like this, day in and day out, leads to increased stress and frustration, and that’s when the real culture shock experience sets in. Depending on how you cope, you may experience symptoms such as the following (to name just a few):
• Excessive concern over cleanliness
• Feelings of helplessness and withdrawal
• Mood swings
• Glazed stare
• Desire for home and old friends
• Physiological stress reactions
• Getting "stuck" on one thing
• Suicidal or fatalistic thoughts
• Excessive sleep
• Compulsive eating/drinking/weight gain
• Stereotyping host nationals
• Hostility towards host nationals
Everyone gets to go through the process in a slightly different way, though, and all sorts of factors can play a role in determining whether culture shock turns you into a bumbling man-child like Mr. Bean, or a rampaging monster like the Hulk.
Why not a healthy medium, brotheerr!?
Fortunately, there are all kinds of resources available to help you optimize on your personal brush with culture shock and ensure that your time as a stranger in a strange land doesn't transform you into a destructive force of violence hell-bent on destroying anyone slightly different from you.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE ARE NO REESE'S PEANUT BUTTER CUPS IN SOUTH KOREA
What’s that you say? You don’t want to be the world’s worst person? Well, to each his or her own. In that case, here are some commonly given pieces of advice you’d do well to ignore before going abroad.
Learn as much as you can about Culture Shock
It may not be obvious just what’s wrong with this advice at first glance. After all, knowledge is power, right? The question, though, is just what that knowledge empowers you to do. Does it help prevent or alleviate a problem, or does it just give you more things to worry about?
One of the most popular guides to culture shock in the US is L. Robert Kohl’s “Survival Kit for Overseas Living,” 170 or so pages of information about what causes culture shock, what it means to be an American, what Americans believe, how Americans view the world, what problems Americans face living overseas, what symptoms of culture shock show up, and at roughly what time. It also includes some strategies for actually dealing with culture shock. If you’re the type of person, like me, who can go from checking out the best treatment for heat rash and, after a binge of link-clicking, to self-diagnosing Fournier’s gangrene (don't Google that - Ed.), you know that too much information can just cause more stress, and additional stress is the last thing you need.
If you’re the obsessive, super-efficient type, there’s a helpful little graph to show you the common phases of your mood swings.
The bad news is that culture shock is a very considerate phenomenon. It puts the toilet seat down after peeing, never drinks right out of the milk jug, and it’s more than happy to adjust for how long you’re planning on staying in a new country. That graph up there is an ideal norm for a one year stay. If you’re planning on staying longer, your mood peaks and dips may last much longer. If you’re only planning on staying a few months, you’ll be getting into Jack Torrance mood-swing territory.
“Still,” some former boy scouts say, “Be prepared!” One of the seemingly most manageable parts of culture shock is “adaptation of gut flora to different bacteria levels in food and water” [Wiki]. In layman’s terms, that means you can expect some travelers’ diarrhea, or as we call it in the States, Montezuma’s Revenge (a.k.a, Dehli/Bali belly, the Hershey squirts, the runs, the trots, the Jackson Pollocks, and so on). Those gut flora mentioned above are the little helpers that keep the old crap factory running smoothly. If you visit a doctor before leaving your home country, you’ll have no problem getting a prescription to help you manage when things start running much more smoothly than you’d like. A common prescription is Azithromycin or some other wide-spectrum antibiotic; unfortunately, wide-spectrum antibiotics kill more or less everything they run into.
I was in my current host country about five weeks before I had my first few signs of distress. Fearing the worst, I took a course of Azithromycin, and I felt better almost right away. Sadly, a week later my depleted and weakened army of little helpers ran into the Genghis Khan of stomach bacteria. To make a long story short, I spent six days doing little more than carrying water and rice from my kitchen to my bathroom in the least comfortable way possible. On the bright side, though, I did lose eight pounds.
LaoWai is our resident stealth panda, and lives in China, probably. Reveal his whereabouts to your friends, family, and the CIA.
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