A veteran Canadian expat, who has lived in over 15 cities around the world, shared with us his sentiments on how to truly immerse yourself in the local culture and the intrinsic rewards you gain in doing so. From having an anchor to embracing the four stages of culture shock, he details how he escaped the expat bubble and learned to live like the locals.
On Making the Most of Your Relocation
Something often left undiscussed about moving to a new country is how there’s not much cultural growth actually involved in the process. While many people physically relocate to a country, few move mentally. As a result, not many manage to truly immerse themselves in the local culture and appreciate it for its individuality. A lot of expats, thus, end up getting stuck in the expat bubble. While interacting with expats from a myriad of backgrounds does enrich your life, they don’t understand the local culture as well as the locals do. Albeit understandable in wanting to seek familiarity in an unfamiliar environment, in doing so, you miss out on the opportunity to learn so much more.
Most expats also face a challenging dichotomy between wanting to stay true to their own culture versus assimilating into the new culture and gaining acceptance. This need to stay true to one’s roots, coupled with the anxiety and homesickness that relocating brings along with it, makes immersing into unchartered territory difficult. So, you remain within an exclusive community where other expats reside, put your kids in schools with other expat kids, patronize expat cafés and befriend other expats. Sound familiar?
When you embrace different languages, perspectives and ways of life, you acquire a more nuanced worldly outlook and boast eclectic views.
However, when you embrace different languages, perspectives and ways of life, you acquire a more nuanced worldly outlook and boast eclectic views. You don’t lose who you were originally by accepting a new culture; you just become an upgraded version of yourself. Your identity is merely an amalgamation of the various cultural identities you have embraced and your views will be unparalleled to that from just one culture. By conversing with the locals, hearing their life experiences, engaging in discourse with them, taking part in their day-to-day activities or even learning their language, you stand to gain a much more authentic view of the society.
Kevin Cottam, Author of Nomadic Mindset and Inspirational Speaker, lives by his personal motto, “Never settle… for Too Long.”
Just last month, we interviewed a veteran expat from Canada who loves to immerse himself wholeheartedly into a culture, with the honest intention to widen his worldview and perspectives. Embarking on his first move halfway across the world at the mere age of 19 and having lived in four continents and 15 major cities since, to say that Kevin is a seasoned expat would be an understatement.
He shared with us some of his key takeaways about moving and how he overcame this rut expats often find themselves in. He explains the four stages of culture shock and how it’s important to undergo the entire course in order to overcome it.
Here’s how you can make the most of your move.
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. Kevin categorises culture shock into four main stages which have helped him understand what to expect from future relocations.
The Tumultuous Journey of Relocation
- 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 2-3 months but can sometimes go up to 6 months.
- 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.
- 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?
- The Acceptance Stage:
You realise it’s really not that scary after all and that you like it there, so you decide to stay.
Kevin’s 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. When asked if it gets easier for him to adapt to a new culture, he says it does, although cautioned that it may be different for everyone. He reflected that perhaps it’s easier for him because he’s done it multiple times and has grown accustomed to just getting up and going. 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.
Maybe learn a few words from their language to communicate with the locals, especially when you’re making errands, and learn their do’s and don’ts.
One coping mechanism he shared was to 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 do’s 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.
He describes an anchor as someone who is either a friend or someone who lives in the area that’s familiar with the culture.
Another thing he expressed that 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 that’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.
Asia, which comprises of countries that have rich histories and deep cultural roots, unsurprisingly proved to be the biggest cultural shock for Kevin. Unlike in most Western countries where Kevin had resided in, he observed that everything in Asian countries is laden with cultural values and is based around its origin and roots. He recounts how distinct sets of cultures, people and languages made adapting to Asian culture much harder. Even 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.
Chinatown is a microcosm of Singapore, with influences from several races and religions
Kevin goes on to explain that relocation is not about staying amongst expats and people who just moved to the country, no matter how unfamiliar the country may be. He suggests, from his experience, to meet the locals, live in their community 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 as well as all the different aspects you can learn from living in a different country. Of course, having a similar affinity like Kevin does for people and his curiosity about vibrant cultures, languages, food and ways of being will definitely make this much easier to do.
While inspiring, you must be wondering, with almost nothing in common with the locals, 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 luxurious condominium or a gated community, which most expats typically favour.
- 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.
The frustration and adjustment stages are often neglected from conversations about relocation.
It’s important to note that relocation isn’t all sunshine and rainbows; the frustration and adjustment stages are often neglected from conversations about relocation. Kevin describes having to deal with a country’s bureaucracy as one of the main pitfalls of moving. We also asked him to share some of his frustrations when he relocated to Singapore. He found Singaporeans to be shy and reserved which was exceptionally exasperating when staff wouldn’t respond in the way he was used to being served in Western countries. However, he acknowledges that it’s cultural and isn’t personal. Singaporeans are known for complaining way too much, especially when it comes to their metro system. Kevin thought this reflected a sense of entitlement. They failed to recognise how their metro system trumps that of many foreign ones and could only identify its faults. This entitlement, however, isn’t unique to Singapore and is common in many modern developed countries.
If he were to give his 19-year-old self advice regarding relocation, he would tell himself to just hang on because he was in the midst of culture shock and he’ll get through it eventually. He only learnt of the four stages of culture shock afterwards, which had he known earlier, he would have understood the relocation process much better.
Meet the culture. Live with the culture. That’s how you learn and grow and expand in your outlook of the culture.
The second piece of advice he’d offer his younger counterpart would be to be more involved with the culture, talk to the locals and spend time with not just his own kind, skin colour or culture. Meet the culture. Live with the culture. That’s how you learn and grow and expand in your outlook of the culture.
La Sagrada Familia, a tourist hotspot in Barcelona, has been under construction for over a century
Kevin emphasises on going through all four stages; not only do you have to get over the bump but you also have to stay long enough to let yourself get over the bump. Living in a new country is akin to learning a new score or game. When we start off, we think it’s gratifying and entertaining. Then, when we hit a few road bumps along the way, we say it’s not for us and give up. There will be a period when you don’t like what you’re learning, which Kevin explains is part of the process, before it becomes familiar. Accepting this will allow you to have heightened awareness of relocation.
As with most things in life, you learn and pick up how to do things as you go along, so don’t fret too hard about relocating. 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.
This article is part of an ongoing project to share relocation narratives. We are collating first-hand accounts of expats’ relocation experiences in the hopes that it will provide you with valuable tips.
You can play your part in this story by sharing a page from your life with us. Reach out to us today
Other stories in this series: