Expats: the exhaustion of culture shock (being an expat teaches you to laugh at yourself – maybe maniacally at times)

I grew up in the UK, lived by the social norms and yes abided by the many, many unwritten rules of our society. I was a Brit through and through (including drinking my tea lol). And then the day came, in 1990, when we emigrated to Australia. Everyone said: you won’t suffer culture shock, it is the same culture and language as the UK…HA! What little did they know. It took me a long time to get used to Australian ways ie of either shortening words or adding ‘ie’ to them (afternoon became arvo, biscuit became bikky, breakfast became brekky – you get the idea). I remember the shock I felt at church on day  (they were announcing the church trip for the following Saturday) when they reminded us to bring our ‘thongs for the beach’ I sat there stunned and shocked and whispered to my husband ‘they remind us to bring our underwear? What type of church have we joined???’ Later someone explained they meant flip flops (ie casual beach shoes). Another time, after my son was invited to a birthday party and we were asked to ‘bring a plate’, I rang the party boy’s mum and offered to bring more crockery if she needed. To which, after she had finished her hysterical laughter, she explained that in Australia ‘bring a plate’ meant to bring a plate of food to share. These are just two of the MANY cultural mistakes I have made, yep being an expat teaches you to laugh at yourself.

And here I am in the USA, another new country…rinse and repeat all over again.

I have been living in the USA, in a rural area, for about a year now. It happened  unexpectedly and wasn’t something that I had been planning. I came here to write a book…then stayed. You would think that I would be prepared for the culture shock, but I wasn’t. I had naively thought America was as portrayed in the media…yes I had watched American TV like ‘Friends’ etc and no, here isn’t like you see on TV or read about in the media. Life is very different to TV programs and media descriptions.  I had been wondering if the city (and city people) would be the America I had read about or seen on TV, because rural life and people were not.  But, my conclusion is that the media never portrays a country, and it’s people, like they really are (Australia wasn’t like ‘Neighbours’ either, the only show I had seen about Australia before I emigrated). One big difference is the place Christianity has in the American society. As I have mentioned before…it doesn’t, not to the extent we all imagined and were told by the media it would have here.

I have gone through the typical cultural shock merry-go-round: You arrive and are in the ‘honeymoon’ period where it is all glossy and new, then the ‘shock’ stage when you stand there and think ‘say what!?!?!? You do what???? Why??’ To things people say, do or you witness. The stage where you can’t believe people do things that way and didn’t they know that isn’t done in other countries…? You feel like an alien plonked on a new planet where they go about their lives in a way that looks the same as your old planet and yet is radically different, words are the same but have different meanings: Trousers (UK term) are not trousers here, they are pants (which is underwear to me 😳). A barbie is a doll here, but a bbq in Australia, ‘bush’ means rural in Australia but it is just a plant here.  Imagine the confusion if I suggested to wear your trousers for a barbie in the bush 😬.  On another note, they love your accent here (what accent? I don’t have one…you all do) but don’t understand your words (see previous comments).  They drive (well kind of) the same but on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.  And you keep questioning ‘why’ and people look at you with that ‘because’ answer, which really isn’t an answer (sorry mum and dad, it never was an answer).  You find yourself thinking ‘this is crazy’, yet to the nationals…it isn’t! And it IS tiring, be prepared for the mental exhaustion of trying to get use to it all. I have found it is easier to just go with the flow of the culture at this stage, and try to push out the negative thoughts that come to mind about them.

Then the peaceful time starts…you go through the ‘settling in’ stage, when you start to accept the differences of your new country. You find yourself relaxing more, not fighting the cultural differences so much and you think you have finally settled in…nope, get that idea out of your head, foolish girl.  Just when you think life is ‘normal’ (whatever that is) when you think you are settling down in the new culture and the worst  of the cultural shock is over, you start back at the ‘shock’ stage, and off we go again on the merry-go-round (milder each time but still tiring). I know this will settle down (it did in Australia), and I keep reminding myself that…it does get better, hang in there.