Canadian expat Kevin Cottam has lived in over 15 cities around the world, and says he loves to immerse himself wholeheartedly into different cultures, with the intention to widen his worldview and perspectives.
Embarking on his first move halfway across the world at the age of 19, Kevin – who is an speaker and author – is a seasoned expat by now. Here, he explains the four stages of culture shock and how it’s important to undergo the entire course in order to overcome it.
The four stages of culture shock
Culture shock forms a critical part of anyone’s relocation experience, especially when you move to a completely new country. Your psychological well-being, emotional well-being and mental well-being are all impacted by culture shock. The four stages of culture shock are:
1. The honeymoon stage
You’re super excited and you love everything about the place. The novelty of living in a new environment kicks in. This is the stage that we hear the most about and it glorifies moving. Kevin says that this stage typically lasts 2 to 3 months but can sometimes go up to 6 months.
2. The frustration stage
Reality sets in and the excitement wears off. You start to hit the wall in frustration. You get annoyed at little things. You find that things are not working as well as you initially thought they were. You question why the locals do certain things, why they can’t be just like you, why their bureaucracy is a particular way. You haven’t found a community to be part of.
3. The adjustment stage
Then something happens. You’re beginning to like it. You made some friends. You’re starting to understand how everything works. Suddenly, the place doesn’t seem to be too bad and you’re considering possibly staying. You’re at a peak decision moment and face a dilemma: should you stay or should you leave?
4. The acceptance stage
You realise it’s really not that scary after all and that you like it there, so you decide to stay.
“Just hang on”
Kevin says his key takeaway from experiencing these stages many times over is to just hang on and get through all four stages, especially stage three because that’s the point you decide if you want to stay or leave. In fact, this is what he says his advice would be for his 19-year-old self.
While Kevin acknowledges that it has gotten easier for him to adapt to a new culture over the year, he cautions it may be different for everyone. For Kevin, the more he travels, the shorter it takes for him to go through all four stages, which he credits to having adopted a fearless attitude and developed coping mechanisms.
One coping mechanism that has worked for Kevin: Make an effort to understand the basic principles of the culture.
“Maybe learn a few words from their language to communicate with the locals, especially when you’re making errands, and learn their dos and don’ts.”
This will help you feel less like a foreigner and more like you belong there. He advises settling logistical matters immediately as it makes you feel more settled and reduces the time taken feeling disconcerted.
Another thing he says has significantly helped him get through culture shock is having an anchor wherever he relocates to. He describes an anchor as someone who is either a friend or someone who lives in the area who’s familiar with the culture.
The anchor will help you with your relocation, especially in bureaucratic and logistical matters. If you don’t already know someone where you’re relocating to, you can still find anchors elsewhere and sometimes, in the unlikeliest of places such as your neighbourhood cafe shop owner, grocery store cashier or even your relocation company.
Hang out with more than other expats
Asia, which comprises of countries that have rich histories and deep cultural roots, proved to be the biggest cultural shock for Kevin, unlike in most Western countries where Kevin had resided. Even during one stint in Singapore, where English is widely spoken, the locals still have their own lingos, accents and pidgins. Add in how quickly the locals spoke, he felt slightly out of place.
But he suggests to meet the locals, live in their communities and converse with them. He believes that if you don’t do that, you might as well not move at all because you’re missing out on a huge amount of experience and knowledge about diversity.
So how do you even begin to integrate yourself into a new community? In Kevin’s case, when he stayed in Singapore, he did the following:
- Joined a group called Toastmasters Club, where he befriended many locals despite being the only Caucasian present.
- Opted to reside in an HDB (public housing), where the majority of locals stay, instead of lodging in a condominium or gated community.
- Made an effort to strike up conversations wherever he went, be it at parties or the wet market. It’s crucial to him that he doesn’t stay with his “own kind” all the time.
- When confronted with a language barrier, he doesn’t let it inhibit him and instead goes the extra mile to learn the language. In Barcelona, he learnt Spanish to connect with the locals at stores, work, clubs and bars.
La Sagrada Familia, a tourist hotspot in Barcelona, has been under construction for over a century
Obviously, you don’t have to follow exactly what Kevin has done and can find your own balance between diving into the local culture headfirst and living the expat life. Ultimately, your move is uniquely yours, and how you choose to spend your time will bring you on your own thrilling journey.
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