It is almost the end of 2017, and much of the world has entered the end-of-year holiday season. This is traditionally a time to spend with friends and family, to unwind from the previous year’s exertions, and to connect with loved ones. But for many, this time of year comes with a significant amount of added stress and anxiety that can develop into depression. One of the primary drivers of this effect is social isolation – an experience every expat can tell you something about. Despite the joy and good cheer that apparently defines the holiday season, it is at this time of the year that the distance from family, friends and one’s roots is felt the most.
It is never easy to leave the country of one’s birth. Sometimes we are forced to leave, sometimes we are lured away by opportunities abroad, sometimes we walk away in deliberate defiance of all that we have called ‘home’. But regardless of the reasons for leaving, in most of us there resides a primal link back to the place of our upbringing. Susan Clayton, an environmental psychologist at the College of Wooster, says that, for better or worse, the place where we grew up usually retains an iconic status. It always remains a part of our self-definition, whether we embrace it or reject it. And at this time of the year, the nostalgia and yearning for that place of deep familiarity can create a powerful sense of alienation.
Globalisation and the expat diaspora
Alienation is something that every expat needs to face. In fact, being an alien in a new country is part of the definition of an expatriate. And, for human beings, this is a profoundly difficult experience – from alienation comes loneliness. No culture is the same, even those that speak the same language, eat the same food and play the same sports. Many long-time expats report still feeling a nostalgic pining for their country of origin – the food, the climate, the people – and all of these sentiments are piqued during the holidays. In his novel, Ignorance, Czech writer Milan Kundera, himself an immigrant from his home country to France, investigates this pull we feel in our hearts:
“The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So, nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
Suffering. It sounds dramatic, but for anyone who has felt a sense of exile, it is not. Humans are by nature gregarious creatures – we need relationships to thrive. In fact, we need relationships to survive. Research shows that social isolation shortens lifespans, so powerful is the impact of being or feeling alone. Yet, for expats, this an unavoidable part of their experience. In a recent Internation’s Expat Insider Survey, more than half of the expats surveyed identified the loss of their personal support network as the number-one difficulty they faced, tied closely with the challenge of making new friends. Ironically, expats are not alone in these circumstances. Thanks to globalization, skills deficits, multi-national corporate spread, and lower cost barriers to travel, expatriation
Same same but different
But, despite growing expat populations, the individual’s response to the difficulties of cultural change is extremely personal.
Deborah Swallow identifies 4 stages of adjusting to a new culture:
Fun: The excitement and adventure of experiencing new people, things, and opportunities.
Flight: Disorientation can bring the urge to avoid everything and everyone that is different. This stage is when you experience homesickness.
Fight: The temptation to judge people and things that are different as bad or foolish.
Fit: Creative interaction with the new culture that includes a willingness to understand and embrace.
All expats go through these stages, but it is in stages 2 and 3 that they feel culture shock – a difficult, but ultimately rewarding, transition into autonomy and independence within a new culture. It is during this time that individuals are most susceptible to low moods, negative states of mind, and more serious conditions like anxiety or depression. How each person deals with these feelings is unique, but few are able to successfully overcome these challenges without support.
So, how do I find support?
There are no quick solutions to isolation or culture shock, but here are some sources of support to help you get through the tough times:
1. You. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to move out of your comfort zone, and into a new culture. That courage is your ultimate resource. You will need it every time you move out of your comfort zone again, as you try to create new connections. Never forget, you are brave and you are strong.
2. Digital Community. The web is a rich source of online communities that are themed around your expat circumstances (industry, country, city, interests etc.) Struggle to make new friends face-to-face? Start online and transition into real-world engagements.
3. Clubs. Pick a strong personal interest, sport or hobby and find a local club that offers it in groups. A strong common interest is the easiest way to get a conversation started.
4. Coaching. A coach can be tremendously helpful in mapping out your current challenges and finding a clear way through them. With so many issues to deal with at once (relocation, language, isolation, new work etc), the expat can often feel overwhelmed. A coach can be an invaluable resource that helps steady the ship and allow you to see the bigger picture.
5. Work. Most organizations have support structures – some are formal internal operations (think ‘orientation’), while others are naturally-occurring social groups. You might not connect deeply with your colleagues, but you never know who you might be introduced to through another person. If you’re asked out with a group of colleagues, learn to say yes, even if – or especially if – you’re a born introvert. That idea makes you nervous? Refer to point 1.