Exploring the culture shock of COVID19, lockdown and comfort zones.
In the past few months, life around the globe has changed beyond recognition as an invisible and deadly enemy has forced us all into varying degrees of lockdown. The dramatic changes to our daily lives caused by the COVID19 pandemic happened so fast that we didn’t have much time to contemplate the effect it would have on us, leaving us feeling shaken, afraid, and disoriented.
Nothing could have prepared most people for the culture shock of lockdown. And yes, I do mean culture shock.
Now we are moving out of lockdown, we are experiencing new issues, the main one of which is the matter of comfort zones. When we become anxious, we create a comfort zone. During lockdown, this comfort zone was forced upon us and now lockdown is easing, it’s becoming hard to move out of our bubble.
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com
Hi, welcome back to the Expatability Chat podcast. I'm Carole, and this is episode two. And I want to talk about the culture shock of COVID and lockdown life and how it feels to be coming out of lockdown. I'm joined today by my cat, Sumi, so any peculiar noises that you hear are her trying to get in on the act!
England, where I am, is carefully peeking back over the edge of lockdown. We've been in lockdown for over 100 days now. At the beginning of lockdown, I first posted an article about the similarities between culture shock and lockdown.
In the past few months, life around the globe has changed beyond recognition as an invisible and deadly enemy has forced us all into varying degrees of lockdown. The dramatic changes to our daily lives caused by the covid-19 pandemic happened so fast that we didn't have much time to contemplate the effect it would have on us.
It left us feeling shaken, afraid and disoriented. Nothing could have prepared most people for the culture shock of lockdown. And yes, I do mean culture shock.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, culture shock is defined as 'the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes'. And that's certainly something that everybody experienced as soon as we were told that we had to stay at home.
There's a great quote by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. "Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change".
Many expats experience culture shock at some point in their lives. Sometimes it happens in the most unexpected places. For example, when I moved to Tokyo, I didn't experience culture shock at all, even though Tokyo was possibly the most foreign city I've ever lived in. Conversely, when I moved to Berlin in Germany, I experienced a lot of culture shock and I think a lot of it is to do with familiarity. There's a familiarity to a European country, or, for example, if you move to, say, Australia or America, you expect it to be the same as home. But it isn't. And that's where the culture shock happens.
So with lockdown, we were certainly experiencing a very unfamiliar way of life. You may have been locked down in your home country in your familiar with familiar surroundings, and yet you're probably experiencing culture shock, too in a way. It's a new way of living; not allowed to go out and do your normal day to day stuff. It's one thing being on lockdown or self isolating in your home country, but going through the same situation in what may be unfamiliar surroundings compounds all the worries.
Culture shock is hard to define as the symptoms present differently for everyone. Some of the psychological symptoms can include depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, overwhelming and irrational fears, not feeling safe and secure, which in the current situation, however, I'd say is completely rational! Developing obsessions, perhaps about health and cleanliness. Again, completely reasonable right now, I think. Not wanting to understand or follow new behaviour rules or etiquette in your new culture or situation.
Sometimes the rules that were given about lockdown and quarantine are very confusing. There's also sadness, loneliness, and a lot of people are feeling exceedingly isolated. As the weeks of lockdown have gone on, we've become somehow more comfortable with it. Our comfort zone is closing in and now that lockdown is being eased. We're feeling some kind of anxiety about actually getting out into the world.
Your comfort zone refers to the set of environments, boundaries and behaviours with which you're comfortable without creating a sense of risk. Stepping out of your comfort zone raises anxiety levels. In normal times, this means a perceived, usually non-existent risk. These are not normal times. Your comfort zone is comfortable because you generally know what to expect. But the COVID lockdown comfort zone wasn't like that at all, because we didn't and we still don't, know what to expect. And there actually is a dangerous risk out there.
COVID lockdown has gone on for a very long time and some people have completely settled into new comfort zones, meaning that they don't ever want to leave them. The more you cling to your comfort zone and the less you move out of it, the narrower that zone becomes. And that's what's happened during lockdown. We had to stay at home. We weren't allowed out of our comfort zone soon. We grew comfortable in our 'at home bubble', much like the so-called expat bubble, where you only mix with other expats; perhaps other expats only of your own nationality.
So I'm actually recording this on the 4th of July. Happy Independence Day, America and in the U.K. or in England, that means some pubs are opening and some people are really looking forward to going out and others are still going to stay inside. So, at this point, nobody really knows what's going to happen. Those of us who are expats or ex-expats sort of familiar with this way of life.
When you first arrive in a new country, it was quite similar to the way the lockdown affected us.
You're usually in your new home with just your family, your immediate family, so your partner, your children, and you have to rely on each other for support. You don't generally have any friends outside of your home. You're not sure how to get food or where to get food. And it can be very isolating.
However, expat life is new, exciting and although difficult at times, we know we'll soon become used to our new normal. And it's a lot quicker than getting used to lockdown and now post-lockdown life.
The difference being, of course, that you can actually leave the house as an expat. So expat families must rely on each other in their new home until they're able to get out and make new connections and friends. For experienced expats, this is simply another step in our expat life. We are used to doing without all kinds of normal things. We wait for weeks until our household goods arrive. We don't really know where the best shops are. We aren't able to find any familiar food. Toilet rolls may well be in stock, but you never know!
Having our kids at home for an awful long time before they start school is also something that we're well used to. When we moved back to the UK in 2018, my daughter wasn't able to start school. We arrived back in February: she couldn't start at college until the September. Before that she'd actually finished school in November, I think it was, in 2017. So it was almost a year before she was back in formal education.
Other expats may move at the beginning of the long summer break, meaning they've got several weeks with their children before their children can go to school. So this isn't really something us expats are unfamiliar with.
We're not familiar with having to homeschool them. In general, having our partner working from home full time is also not normal, but neither is not being able to go out and explore. Some countries are living a very, very severe lockdown and nobody is even allowed out of their front door at all.
At least in the UK, in England, we've been able to get out and about within our small area - walking distance only. Online chats are the norm. During lockdown, we couldn't visit our friends or family even if they lived just down the road. As an expat, you can't see your family because they live on another continent. Thankfully, we're used to technology and technology rose to the challenge, with Zoom, Skype and FaceTime a regular feature in many, many households. It used to be a staple of expat families, remote workers and global nomads. Now everybody's onto it. Apart from my mother, of course, she refuses to embrace any kind of modern technology. So we're still chatting by good old fashioned telephone.
The good news is our kids are OK with all this. Unlike local children, they're used to not seeing their friends in person all the time. Leaving a school midterm is often a feature of expat life for children. And making do with whatever is at hand in the house is something many are familiar with.
Saying goodbye is also a fact of life for them. So rather than the hideous shock that many long term local school kids faced when the schools closed, our expat kids just sort of shrugged their shoulders and got on with what they're used to.
Home education is often used to tide us over with a midterm move. So we tend to do that to varying degrees of success. Many expat parents learn to pick their battles early on in their overseas parenting life, which certainly stands us in good stead these days with the schools closed.
Thankfully, my daughter is coping remarkably well; she's used to leaving places without closure. Tokyo after the earthquake, for example; Berlin after school problems. She's used to actually not being in school. Her college classes continued via online learning. The teachers experienced more difficulties with the technology than the pupils did. Luckily, she was furloughed from her part time job and is now actually back at work some evenings during the week.
But let's be frank, we're all getting pretty fed up with it now and we're very much getting used to it. And that's where problems arise.
Lots of people don't actually want to go back to work right now, whether they're furloughed or whether they're working from home. The future of work is looking very, very different indeed. As I say, we're peeking over the parapet of going back to some kind of normal life. Non-essential shops are open. Apparently hair salons are open, but mine seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth! And a lot of people are just generally feeling very, very anxious about getting out and about. They really want to, but we know full well that the virus hasn't disappeared and isn't likely to at anytime soon.
With expat culture shock, some people actually never get over it. They're never comfortable in their new home country. That generally means that that country is not for them. Culture shock is something that you should get used to and get over quite quickly, and if you're not getting over expat culture shock, then it sounds like you're probably in the wrong place. It doesn't work out for you.
You may decide to move back or move somewhere else. Not every country is suitable for every family. Coming out of lockdown is similar. More people are going to find it hard or impossible to get over lockdown. Back to a 'new normal' or back to normal life just isn't for you. You enjoyed the slower pace of life, you enjoyed time with your family, your kids, you enjoyed working from home.
Perhaps it's time for you to make a new move? Perhaps you want to move overseas. Give us a call, if you do, I can help you out.
Moving overseas takes you a long way out of your comfort zone in every way possible. Expat life made us practised at pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone every single day. By our very nature, and by taking that step to move to a new country in the first place, expats push boundaries and get further away from our normal day to day life than most people ever will.
Moving out of your comfort zone will feel uncomfortable. That's the nature of it. The words kind of give that away, really! The sensation lasts only a short while. Once you've conquered one step, you'll find it easier to venture further afield, physically and mentally. If you don't challenge yourself, you run the risk of stagnating and becoming stuck in a rut that is really hard to climb out of. You need to try and gain some confidence that's possibly lacking from all of this time in lockdown.
Start off with self care; healthy eating, exercise, sleep. All this build stamina and stamina builds resilience. If anxiety, worry and stress take hold, use the HALT Action - HALT. Are you hungry? Are you angry? Are you lonely? Are you tired? If you're hungry, eat something. If you're angry, deal with the issue in a healthy way. If you're lonely, reach out to someone. Remember, we've got this fabulous technology. If you're tired, rest.
Your body's trying to tell you something. Fix one of those things and then try again. Indulge yourself. Treat yourself to something nice. There's a good excuse to go out to the shops, eh? Stay informed, use sensible, non-inflammatory media, to keep on top of information. Trust your own risk assessment, trust your own common sense and build confidence by taking your steps outside into the new normal, slowly. Perhaps take small journeys for a start.
We adapted quite quickly to our new 'lockdown normal'. Some people coped well. Expats coped better than others because, as I say, we're used to this weird way of life and everything being a bit adrift. But it's gone on for an awful long time now. If you're not coping, the hardest thing you'll have to do is to ask for help. And it's important that you do ask for help. Just reach out to somebody. Don't suffer in silence, share your feelings. It's OK to not be OK.
Try not to think too much about the what ifs or the worst case scenarios. Just do it.
So as we come out of lockdown life, what have we learned? I think we're beginning to realise that we don't need as much stuff as we thought we needed. And as expats, I think that that will ring true with many of us who remember those times when we're waiting for all our goods to arrive from the shipment and actually when it arrives, "why have we got all this stuff?" We've managed perfectly well for the two months that we haven't had it. And while it's nice to have familiar items around, do we really need it all?
So we've become used to having not much around us. We found enjoyment in the little things during lockdown. And again, this is something that expats work out quite quickly. We become appreciative of our own family. Maybe we become appreciative of what we've left behind. Little things like peace and quiet, which I think at the moment is rare for most parents.
We like nature, we're enjoying the natural world a little more. Perhaps we are reconsidering our work-life balance. What's really important? Is status and career progression really important? Or is it finding time to spend with the people around you, doing things that make you happy, doing activities that you enjoy? Prioritising mental and physical health. Don't put off life, don't put off living until next week, because next week may not happen, as we all learned back at the beginning of 2020.
Keep on keeping on, keep strong, keep safe, keep washing hands, wear a mask and whatever rules of the country that you're currently in and this too will pass. It will get easier.
Going through lockdown and quarantine is very much like landing in a new country. You know that you can get through it. It is scary times, but we're all in it together.
So that was my take on COVID, lookdown life and comparing it to the culture shock of moving overseas for the first time and also looking a bit ahead at post lockdown life and how to get out of your comfort zone of the 'at home bubble'.
If you've got any questions, please get in touch. You can get me at hello[at]expatability[dot]net or find me anywhere on social media. I look forward to talking to you again next week.
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