Culture Shock and the Expat Holiday Season
An episode covering three topics!
- Expect the Unexpected
- Culture Shock
- Expats and the Holiday Season
These three topics were planned for separate episodes, but life events meant it made sense to see if I could fit them all into one episode, just in time for the Holidays! I think I succeeded.
I wanted to talk about how strange and different, and sometimes upsetting these special holidays can be for expats living away from their home countries and families.
And the reason these special, family-oriented dates feel so different and sometimes difficult is ultimately down to culture shock!
As for the Expect the Unexpected bit? One of my favourite expat-mentoring mantras is 'Expect the Unexpected'. Some of the ‘unexpected’ is funny, some of it can be a bit frustrating, but we can usually steer ourselves through it all.
Sometimes, however, that unexpected is a complete and utter blind-sider that nothing could have prepared me for.
What happened? Well, listen and find out...
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Welcome to yet another slightly different than expected topic for this episode of Expatability Chat. Culture shock is one of the topics that I probably should have done and talked about in season one, but I forgot. And then I talked about reverse culture shock recently in season season two. And so finally finally I remembered what to record. This, however, things changed and I've already altered this one from my original idea because, well, life, basically.
As I explained in my podcast about expat emergencies back home, I record episodes long before publishing, if I can. My life can be a little bit chaotic and so it's good to be prepared with a few episodes ready to upload. And this one has definitely gone off track for my originally planned episode, which I was going to publish early next year. I'm getting confused. You don't need to know about that.
Initially, I was simply going to talk all of science about culture shock in and of itself, but had a bit of a light bulb moment while I was talking with my lovely Facebook group about the number of topics that I've got podcast ideas about. More about that in a moment. The thing is, I also have ideas in my head to plan episodes on Expecting the Unexpected and also the holiday season experiences as an expat, all terribly organised. But then something cropped up and I decided that it was easier. Well, not easier, but I decided to attempt to cover all of these topics in one episode.
So I'm recording this on 10 October 2022, ready for publishing in November. This ridiculously precise information will become relevant in a moment anyway. Now the plan is to have this episode go live in time for the holiday season, for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for Hanukkah and all of that, because I wanted to talk about how strange and different and sometimes upsetting these special holidays can be for expat living away from their home countries and their families. And the reason that these special family oriented dates feel so different and often difficult is ultimately down to culture shock. See what I did there?
There is sometimes a method in my madness. But what about the expect the unexpected bit? Well, that's the bit that's caused me to redo all of my planning and to redo this episode again and basically try and bundle everything in together. If you follow me anywhere on social media or if you're on my mailing list, you'll know what I'm about to share. So here I go again.
One of my favourite expat mentoring mantras is expect the unexpected. Because life is uncertain at the best of times, and because expat life is uncertain all of the time, one way or another, expect the unexpected is really something that we should all consider and basically try and live with. The unexpected usually makes life interesting. I often like the unexpected. Some of the unexpected is funny, some of it can be a bit frustrating, but we can usually steer ourselves through it all.
You can go with the flow, you can adopt, adapt and survive and all those other good clichés. As I say, I'm pretty good at dealing with the unexpected. I've had a lot of practise, and if you followed me this year, you'll have read just how much practise 2022 has provided in the sheer amount of crap the universe can throw my way. Sometimes, though, that unexpected is a complete and utter blindsider that nothing could have prepared me for. And this is the reason for this mishmash, hastily created episode that I hope actually works out OK.
Back in September, I got called to my GP for a standard blood test, which is three years overdue, thanks to COVID I've got hypothyroidism. So regular blood tests are a thing, but the doctors here are catching up, I guess. Anyway, a casual comment from me to the phlebotomist about some vaguely annoying symptoms and the occasional recent appearance of a lump in my neck changed the whole experience and put a rocket up the butt of everybody, including me. Very swiftly, I've got a face-to-face appointment with a GP. Most people in the UK will understand just how rare that is these days, and he put me on what's known as the two week pathway.
If you're not familiar with this British NHS phrase, it basically means very urgent, because cancer is highly probable. Since then, I've had a nice gentle ultrasound on my neck, plus a very, very painful biopsy. And that biopsy produced pretty scary results and scary instant results, enough to direct me straight into the consultant's office. The lump is not small and it is not normal and, well, you don't need me to go into details. Besides, I'm trying to ignore it as much as possible right now so I can get on with things.
Basically, we won't know for sure whether I've got cancer until the whole lot is removed and analysed. So I'm booked for a rather major operation on the 12 October just two days away, which, ironically, is my daughter's 21st birthday. And the maternity ward where she was born is just across the road from where I'll be operated on. People tell me that this is a good omen. I don't know.
Anyway, this is why I am desperately trying to record and upload podcast episodes in advance, and why this particular one has changed from what was even planned last week. Because the lump is in my throat and the poking and stabbing at it with needles has angered it. I found it actually quite hard to talk for very long. In the good old days, on a good, quiet day with no interruptions, I could record three or four episodes, but one I recorded last week put me out of action for a good few days afterwards. And, of course, once the surgeons have sliced through my throat, I won't have a voice at all.
For some considerable time. And after that, well, who knows? We can't foresee the future. We can only hope. All of which is a real bummer.
On the positive side, though, because I've got to try and look for a positive, have I? If this had happened while I was overseas, the company rules would have meant that I would have had to relocate back to the UK for treatment on the NHS all on my own and pay for my own accommodation. Can you imagine such a cruel rule? Anyway, that is not the point of this at all. The point is that however well practised we are with coping with uncertainty and the unexpected, sometimes the unexpected is a complete bastard.
So even the strongest and most capable of us may not be doing so good. Right, that's enough wallowing and so on about me. Let's get on with it. The show must go on. So that was the expect the unexpected bit of the episode.
I have enough material to go into this topic in more detail another time. Now let's see how I can talk about culture shock and link it in with the holidays. What is culture shock? According to the Oxford Dictionary, culture shock is a noun, it's a thing, not a verb, or in my school language, it's not a doing word. This differentiation will become important later in this episode.
The Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes. Culture shock describes the impact of moving from a familiar culture to an unfamiliar culture. It includes the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a new country. Our culture, our home culture is what makes up a massive part of our identity. So when we're away from that, we do feel like we're on another planet.
Sometimes, however, there's a lot more to it than that, obviously. I started this Expatability chat podcast in 2020, right in the middle of COVID Lockdown, and I did talk about culture shock in the context of Lockdown. You can find it in episode two called rather Unimaginatively COVID Lockdown and Culture Shock. Quoting myself on that here Lockdown left us feeling shaken, afraid and disoriented. Nothing could have prepared most people for the culture shock of Lockdown.
We found ourselves suddenly having to deal with a great change in our daily lives, our daily routines. But we got used to it pretty quickly, didn't we? Same for expat life. So is culture shock a long, definite, expected and exhausting experience for all experts? In short, no, absolutely not.
When I first wrote about culture shock very early on in my expat child sites life, so maybe around about 2012, 2013, culture shock was considered to be a kind of an ongoing problem caused by everything and creating all kinds of psychological and physical problems. However, I have since changed my mind about that. So I was talking with my lovely tribe of people in my private Facebook group for examples of culture shock. And I was talking about holidays and unexpected and all the other ideas that I had. And without fail, each person spoke about a singular incident or one particular difference that caught them by surprise.
See, my tribe are well prepared for expat life. Some examples of these include I find the culture shock in moving to the US really difficult. I was overwhelmed by the size of everything, the highly scented products, and sugar in absolutely everything, even the most savoury of foods. Another Expat says Walmart in Quebec closes at 05:00 p.m. On a Saturday, as do all other retail stores.
What's an American to do on a Saturday night? All I can say to that is try Germany, where everything shuts on a Saturday afternoon. Another difference I miss doing a supermarket shop and recognising what I'm actually buying. Now this is something that I personally find great fun, particularly in Japan, although it was a little bit wasteful. Sometimes I'd buy something that really we did not like at all.
I'd try and buy something unrecognisable each time I went to the shop. As I say, quite often it was okay. Sometimes they were really not to our place, and other times they weren't even edible, such as the plastic New Year decoration I bought thinking that it was a cake. Another culture shocked topic that arose quite a lot was about the bureaucracy, all the paperwork and seemingly random regulations. German regulations are quite well known, such as no mowing the lawn on a Sunday, no washing your car by your house.
And other countries, I think Switzerland have similarly strange rules too, and yet other countries have what seemed to be no rules. And of course, that depends on where you have lived before. You may be used to those kinds of rules, or no rules already. And then somebody said, I found it much more of a culture shock moving to LA from the US east coast than I did from moving to the US from the UK. And there we have it.
Culture shock hits harder when we move to a place that is similar to the country we are from, because we expect it to be the same, but it isn't. Those who move somewhere that seems the same as home, for example, UK to Australia, US to UK, and vice versa expect that because the language is the same, that the culture will be too, and it really isn't. And therefore it is more shocking than when we move somewhere really foreign. For example, I didn't experience culture shock at all when I was in Japan, even though by all logical accounts, that extreme foreignness should have worked me. But it didn't.
I loved the culture and felt weirdly very, very at home. Germany, however, was another matter altogether. So culture shock really isn't the phrase that I want to use. Yes, you get a momentary shock at something that surprises you that was unexpected. But many people, myself included years ago, seem to think that culture shock goes on for a very long time.
It doesn't, or it shouldn't. In my opinion, culture shock ought to be only used to describe fairly minor incidents sudden, unexpectedness, nothing continual and nothing you can try to change. What you can be changing, though, is your attitude, your outlook and your expectations. I mean, culture shock can be something as simple as having to drive on the wrong side of the road. This will make you hyperaware on each journey, as it's really strange to you is a bit of a shock, a bit of a bizarre situation, sometimes difficult.
I hate roundabouts in my own country, but when driving on the wrong side of the road, well oh my God. Obviously you wouldn't try and change the whole country's driving to suit you and you do get used to it, usually just before you move somewhere else and then have to unlearn it all. But that's what I mean by culture shock, it's kind of minor. It is something that can keep cropping up if you're driving, but you get used to it. If you find, however, that you're still at odds with your new country and you're just not enjoying the experience, maybe even hating it, maybe just blaming the country for all your worries and upset.
May I suggest that something else is going on here? There is a deeper issue here. Perhaps we can call it a cultural transition problem or maybe transition fatigue. Regardless, you shouldn't still be feeling like that, so why not book a call in with me so we can unpick it together? The holiday season, see, I got there in the end.
The holiday season for expats can be tricky, for want of a better word. And this is generally to do with a couple of things. Firstly, culture shock, see what I got there? And the second is family and expectations. These are family centric celebrations, that's the whole purpose of them.
And you may be used to huge family get togethers back home and you have many layers of culture at play right here. You'll have your home country's culture plus your specific family's culture and they all join to make a certain way of celebrating these in the most traditional and familiar way possible. You may be intent on continuing to celebrate in the same way as you would do if you weren't living abroad. These big holidays are a fusion of traditions taken from your family and your partner's family. Remember when you first got together for your very first Christmas together and things were slightly different?
Well, that's what I mean, they're a fusion. So when you have your own children, you create your own joint set of traditions and so it is with spending these holidays abroad. The holiday season evolves to suit your changing life. The holiday season overseas is always a bit weird if you have spent most or all of these times in your home country doing the same thing in the same climate, with the same traditions and the food and the same people, or you may be taking this holiday time to go back to the family country to celebrate with everybody. And the reason we tend to place a lot of significance on these particular festivals is that they may be the main or only chance for us all to get together in one place.
And especially now, after the dreadful trapped years of the COVID Pandemic. This year may be ultra special to you, or ultra difficult, depending on your personal circumstances. Regardless, this is often a difficult period for expats due to expectations from our families and our home country and the pressure we put on ourselves to try and make everybody happy. Holiday season culture shock comes from a couple of main differences between your home country and your current host country. Climate is one of them.
As this comment sums up, we moved from Europe to Australia and the biggest change for us is the difference in temperature. Celebrating Christmas in over 40 degrees centigrade is a completely different feeling to having a white Christmas. We have adapted and we've now traded our usual pine tree for a Christmas palm tree. I love that. And, yeah, I find it difficult to really feel Christmassy in the South African summer.
And yet Christmas in Germany was exactly what you'd expect from Christmas cards, snow decorations, candles, galore, blue vines, a lot. And the other main difference is food. It's interesting how these festivals are all centred around food. And, yes, the family is obviously very important, of course, but it's food that can cause the most issues when overseas. I said before that there is a weird thing with expats and food.
It's all about familiarity, basically. But, yeah, expats and food is a thing. It causes problems because what you want, what you'd normally have for these occasions, simply is not necessarily available. My friend Megan says autumn only becomes official when all the expat groups become flooded with Americans searching for tinned pumpkin, cranberries and turkeys. It reminds me of overhearing a very angry American woman in a South African supermarket.
She was losing the plot because she couldn't find everything she needed for her Thanksgiving feast. Because apparently everybody celebrates Thanksgiving, don't they? Well, no, and it was the complete indignation that other countries didn't know what Thanksgiving was that got to me such outrageous entitlement. So, anyway, now is your time to adapt. You don't have to have a turkey, make new foodie traditions, adapt to what is available to you there.
Heidi has a wonderful story. I love Thanksgiving, so wherever we are, I do my best to keep up the tradition. My husband always says that I'm trying to convert the world to celebrating it. We were spending a year travelling and Thanksgiving fell when we were in Peru. It was one of our last nights there, so we decided to make a celebration and cook for our host family and the volunteers we were working with.
Knowing we couldn't pull off a remotely traditional Thanksgiving meal, we turned to an easy Dutch meal, because my husband is Dutch and this is relatively easy to cook just about anywhere, except when you are at high altitudes. Oops. The water boils at a much lower temperature at high altitude, so cooking the vegetables took forever. We made two trips to the shop for more wine while we waited. I think we only managed to eat at around 11:00 p.m.
Not at all traditional, but one of the most memorable Thanksgivings for sure. And that, to me, shows Heidi has really grasped the idea of adapting. And because ultimately, the perfect Thanksgiving, the perfect Christmas on paper, aren't the most memorable. It's the accidental, the funny events like this that provide the happiest memories. So try to adapt to where you are.
Karen has the right idea with this. I'm a real family girl, she says. Three years ago, we had our first Christmas in the Middle East, far from family and all our usual traditions. So we didn't try and emulate the usual festivities. We started new ones, we started new traditions.
We went for a morning swim in the sea, got together with friends for a shared meal that we all joined in the cooking of and had a wonderful day. Yes, we missed the UK, but we still made some wonderful memories. So I'm not saying change everything, but just be open to being adaptable. Putting too much pressure on yourself is not going to make the holiday season easier. It is quite helpful to try and keep a few of your home traditions if you have children, it helps keep their dreams alive and gives them a sense of their home culture, which includes a familiarity and a continuity, which is really important in this peripatetic lifestyle.
Christmas stockings, for example, are fairly easy to set up wherever you live. Small gifts are usually easily found, decorations, not so much. Our first Christmas in Tokyo was very definitely undecorated, as Japan does not celebrate Christmas in the Western way, obviously. And it's a great opportunity to create new traditions and customs which in future years you can take with you to the next place. If it works, I collect Christmas tree ball walls from around the world.
Even from countries that don't necessarily celebrate Christmas, there's usually something you can find. And so each year, when the magical box is open to decorate the tree, these gorgeous pieces remind me of special Christmases and countries past. If your life is made up of living in different countries, then it makes sense to celebrate this and to adapt. Embrace where you are right now, perhaps keeping one eye on your home traditions. Don't get too wrapped up trying to completely recreate home rituals that just aren't possible.
Let it go. And with time, it does get easier. Being away from home on these special occasions is often hard, but as time goes by, you get more and more used to it and it becomes easier to deal with. As ever, being prepared is key to minimising this culture shock. Don't make assumptions.
Don't expect to be able to buy Christmas wrapping paper or to find a Thanksgiving turkey wherever you are. So culture shock, in my opinion, is a series of minor incidents. Things you weren't expecting because, let's face it, we can't know what to expect in every situation. And it's often the subtle differences that make the shock happen. With regards to the holiday season, figure out what's most important to you.
Whichever it is, make it happen. If you're experiencing almost permanent culture shock, I think this is more of a problem with transition and it needs to be discussed at a deeper, more personal level. My booking link is in the show notes. As ever, I'm here for you if you would like to talk about it. But I reckon you are adjusting and adapting just as you should be.
Yeah, some of the shocks can be as frustrating as hell, but hey, you're not in Kansas anymore. Toto these are the normal ups and downs of a big life change. Remember back to when you had your first child? Yeah. Similar adjustment period.
Hopefully a bit shorter and less painful though with a lot more sleep. Remember? You moved overseas for different, didn't you? Or did you really think everything would just be exactly the same as in your home country? Just better?
Whatever better means for you, it's okay. You wouldn't be the first to think that and you certainly won't be the last. You had your honeymoon period when you first arrived, when everything was fresh, new and exciting. Now it's coming up for the busy and family based holiday season and that's a definite time for all sorts of feelings and emotions to come up. Don't worry, that's perfectly normal.
Especially after the last few years that we've had where we've been physically kept apart. If you are travelling home, I wish you all the very best and I hope you have a marvellous time. You are successfully transitioning into a new country, a new language, a new culture, a new home and a new way of life. Don't fight it, embrace it. Adapt and thrive.
Now I've got this episode recorded, I want to wish you all, and it sounds very strange saying this in October, but I would like to wish you all a happy Christmas, a happy holiday, a happy Thanksgiving and a happy anything else I've missed, which will be many, I am sure, and for that I do apologise. Oh, and I'm not publishing an episode in December, so happy New Year to you all as well. I'll catch up with you again in 2023. My goodness, that hurts to say that this year has gone very quickly. And if you want to stay up to date with me and my news, please sign up for my newsletter.
I'll pop a link in my show notes and follow me on social media. Perhaps you'd even like to join my lovely private expat parent support group on Facebook. I'll put the link in the notes as well for you. So that's me over and out for 2022. I'll see you around the internet in the meantime, and I will be back with a new episode in the new year.
Take care now. Thank you for listening.