“Expat Life” Culture Shock

The lifestyle, insularity, and unofficial class system of expat living can cause a unique and unexpected culture shock at first, writes Robin Pascoe.
They say some events in life are unforgettable, like a first love, a first job, or the birth of a first child. I will never forget my first expatriate ‘fancy dress’ ball. My husband probably won’t forget it either. He’s still mad at me.

While he was feeling posh wearing a tailor-made tuxedo, he had to endure hearing me moan most of the evening about sitting in uncomfortable evening clothes that are not my style. I was feeling desperately insecure in the presence of so many beautiful fancy, hand-made ball gowns. Worst of all, I was in fear of the moment we would have to get up and dance (we flunked a ballroom dance course). I just sat there miserably muttering under my breath: this phony socialite pageant wasn’t part of the deal!

Or was it?

Whether it’s a cocktail party or a nightly gathering at a local pub with other souls far away from home (who have become instant friends by virtue of just being there), there is an expat lifestyle that can take considerable getting used to. And there are shocks at both ends of the expat social scale.

“I didn’t realize or expect that in expatriate communities, there is almost an ‘expat class system,’“ says Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter, former managing editor of an alternative travel/life publishing house called Transitions Abroad. She moved to Prague with her husband this past fall as a ‘self-sponsored’ expat in order to further her own studies in Eastern Europe.

“There is a gap between ‘corporate’ expats and ‘self-sponsored’ expats like us,” she believes. “And I think that has been the most difficult shock. The experiences of the two are wildly different. Most of the support available for the community focuses on the corporate side.”

“For example, I have been going to the American Women’s Club. The women are all wonderful and friendly but their problems are definitely different than mine,” she says. “They are trying to find ‘decent’ 5-bedroom homes in Prague, stay busy without work, find a maid or a nanny while I’m trying to afford our tiny two-room flat, negotiate with my new employers, and navigate the Czech bureaucracy for permits. It’s almost like we’re on different planets.”

“Expatriate life can be intoxicating and challenging at best,” says Priscila Montana, a cross-cultural trainer who heads her own company, the Dallas-based Cultural Awareness International (CAI). “Many expats are lost when confronted by the different expectations that others have of them as expats,” she says.

Those expectations can include knowing how to entertain, dressing the part, good table manners, and cultural sensitivity with a truly international community that can be more savvy and experienced, according to Montana.

“I advise expats-to-be (certainly corporate families) that the situation will put them up automatically on the social ladder and they must be prepared,” she says. “That’s not just learning table etiquette but also relates to being a good guest in another country.”Identity is at the core of the culture shock of expat living and profoundly impacts on that ‘expat class system’ referred to by Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter. Where someone fits into expat social circles is very often based on where that person fits into the organization or company which employs him (or her) or sent him abroad. Or not fit, as the case may be.

Nationalities also play a social role. New expats often find themselves socializing with others from their own countries for no other reason than that they share a flag and find themselves reeling with shock from being with too many fellow countrymen.

Griping about local people and customs ironically brings some expats together. Everyone indulges in a few good whines from time to time, but when that’s all the conversation is about, some new shocked expats want to ask: so why do you stay if you can’t stand the country or its culture?
How do you combat ‘expat life’ culture shock whichever form it takes?

For starters, don’t think that just because you carry the same passport as someone else you will automatically be friends or indeed have to be friends. Be your own person. It’s nice to be around familiar people, but when they become overly familiar (as in every night or weekend), it’s all right to bail out once in a while.

Like all forms of culture shock, you must strive for a period of adjustment which means acceptance. While you may not agree with social snobbery based on position, finance, or just how long one has been around, it comes with the territory. Remember that there are snobs ‘at home’ too. Likewise, there are unwritten class systems too.

Learn to rise above pettiness and gossip. This is a tall order because expat communities can be like small towns for petty grudges and wild rumours. But there is an advantage of living in a mobile community: sometimes the unhappy troublemaker making everyone else’s life miserable moves on before you do.

Finally, just as you try to put your outrage on the back burner towards the local customs that make you crazy, it’s best to do that with expat circles too. Remember that in all matters of culture, there is no right or wrong. Just different. And that applies to members of an international community who make different choices in the way they choose to live abroad.

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