The bad news: Most people will experience some form of culture shock.
The good news: It is manageable and you can overcome it.
Culture shock tends to hit every individual in a different way, and even members of the same family can have a vastly different reaction to the change. The key is to understand the phenomenon and prepare for it.
Stages of Culture Shock
First stage - After arrival most people experience initial euphoria. This is sometimes called "the honeymoon period". This period can last from a few weeks to a few months, but it will almost definitely end.
Second Stage - Sudden disenchantment, irritability, confusion, maybe even resentment toward your adopted country. Differences between your new home and place of origin become sources of frustration. This is where people often note "culture shock". This is the toughest part of the process, so expats can be comforted that if they hang in there - things will get better.
Stage Three - A gradual adjustment into foreign life. Almost imperceptibly you will find that you are comfortable with things that were difficult and you may stop generalizing about your adopted country and countrymen. You may even concede that some things are better.
Stage Four- This is the final stage, where you are truly experiencing adaptation or bi-culturalism. Rather then losing a part of yourself, you have become a more multi-culture person. You have successfully passed that barrier of immigrating in the mind.
Not everyone reaches the 4th stage. It takes diligence, flexibility, determination, and a slew of other adjectives. In other words, it's hard work. But as can be seen from the many successful expat bloggers that have been abroad for years, it can be done.
Steps to Overcome "Culture Shock"
If your are sent abroad by your company, most large businesses already have a detailed plan. They will often have established benefits to facilitate the move (company housing or agent, language classes, cover moving costs), as well as a guide or advisor to help answer questions and make you comfortable in your new home. Confirm these details in your negotiations and contract and then use them! These resources and support systems can really help.
If you are making the move on your own, their will be less ready resources at hand, but there are still many things you can do to plan and be successful.
Establish a time line considering your work requirements and children's school schedule. In some areas, it may also be beneficial to consider the time of year. There is nothing quite like moving to Moscow in December during a snowstorm!
Keep an open mind. Do not automatically perceive anything that is different to be "wrong" or "negative". Different just means different. Try to be an objective observer and learn about why things are done differently- it may be better. For example, Americans often use the phrase "How are you?" to mean "hello" or "I acknowledge your presence." In another country, a person may wonder why Americans don't respond in detail or ask the question repeatedly. Thus they may interpret the behavior of walking away before one has a chance to respond to the question to be superficial or rude. These are merely different social customs and by learning them you can have an easier time integrating.
Think about where you would like to settle and what your needs are. It also important to consider your family and their needs. Consider your values, interests, and goals and if they can be fulfilled in a particular location.
Research the area and customs. Minimizing the shock factor can help you feel more comfortable in a new environment. Reading expat blogs can help you be prepared, as well as reading City/country guides.
Begin making contacts in your new country of residence. Both for business and social reasons, you will need to expand your circle. You might do this through social and professional networking sites, sports clubs, or for groups focusing on newcomers to the city. EasyExpat's forums are an excellent place to get acquainted with other expats in the area.
Get excited! You're moving abroad and it is a great adventure. Allow yourself to fantasize about all the wonderful things that you're going to do.
Learn the Local Language
If the dominant language in the place you are moving is different from your own, learn the language! It isn't always necessary, but it will greatly decrease your sense of isolation, increase your ability to communicate and make friends, and add an important skill to your repertoire. Language is a key to a culture- unlock it.
Shut Down Your Current Household
Start making changes in your current life preparing for the move. many of these things take time, so prepare early.
- Give notice at your current position if you are not going abroad with them.
- End your current lease or sell your home aboard. Note that ending your lease early will usually result in a penalty so try to time your departure so that it coincides with the end of your contract. If selling your house, employ an estate agent and start early as selling a house can be a very slow process.
- Cancel your utilities upon leaving your residence.
- Provide contact information so all important contacts can still reach you and set-up a forwarding address.
Apply for a Visa
If you are moving with the help of your company, there should be advisors to help you find out what paperwork is necessary and how to proceed. The process is usually long and complicated so start early.
If you are moving independently, it is in your best interest to contact your local embassy. They should be able to supply with the proper paperwork and give you information on documentation and processing time. Make sure to start the process as soon as possible as visa can take a considerable amount of time to acquire.
If you have the luxury of time- use it! The better plan you have in place, the more seamless your transition.
1 year Before You Leave
- Research and apply for any necessary visas or permits required for your move. Waiting for a visa is stressful and situation you want to avoid by starting early.
- Determine if you need to sale the home you are in, rent it out, or end your lease. If you are selling your home, employ an agent and begin the process as selling a home can take a long time. If you are terminating your lease, try to leave when the contract ends as leaving early can result in high fees.
- Slim down on material things and organize. Evaluate what you need and what you don't. Also resist the temptation to buy new things.
- If you are going to require the services of a International Removal Company, start complying quotes and reviews to find the right company for you.
- If you are flying to your new home, research the trends in airfare and consider their luggage allowance. If you have a lot of luggage it may end up cheaper to fly business class, so take this into account when searching for fares.
- If you have a car or pets start planning what you're going to do with them when you leave. Find out what import regulations entail. Consult the EasyExpat article "Expat Pets" to find out more about importing animals.
- If you have never been to the place you are moving, try to plan a vacation there so you can get a look around and better understand the environment. Don't psych yourself out with small snafus, but note if this area poses any serious long-term problems. It's better to know now then when you've already moved there.
6 Months Before You Leave
- Research neighborhoods and pinpoint where you would like to live. Start searching on-line for available housing to get an idea of what is available and consider hiring an estate agent or company. They know the area and can do the legwork for you.
- Pick an International Removal company and find out what their policies and procedures are for the move.
- Take out any additional insurance you will need for the move. Movers usually provide insurance for your items, but see if there is anywhere else you need to be covered.
- Consult international health advisory boards to find out if you and your family are in need of any shots, boosters, or medication.
2 Months Before You Leave
- If you have not yet found a house of flat, book a hotel/hostel for a few days to help you find your feet. You can also look into short-term accommodations. Some locations offer short-term apartment rentals that can be extremely helpful in allowing you to settle somewhere before picking a permanent place.
- Confirm your information and move date with the removal company.
- Request your & your children's vital records like medical and educational documents. You can make digital copies of all important documents for easy access and transport. It is also a good idea to store these documents online so these files are accessible wherever you are, with another copy in a safe deposit box, or in the possession of a friend or family member in another area. If you are moving to an area with a different predominant language than your records, have them translated.
- Get rid of stuff. Have a garage sale, sell on eBay or craigslist, donate, or throw it out. This is the time to slim down your belongings to just the necessities.
- Decide if you are keeping you bank account abroad and research your options where you are moving. Some banks have partnerships which makes transferring easy. If your account does not have high monthly charges, it may be worth keeping it open.
- If you haven't already or are not expatriating for your job, inform them of your plans. You may still need these contacts so try to make the split as amicable as possible. Also get a letter of reference.
1 Month Before You Leave
- Arrange for a postal re-direction service to a relative's address, or your new address.
- Set-up a blog, if you haven't already. Your story in interesting and could even be of use to other expats. It also allows you to keep in touch with friends, make new friends, complain when you need to, and chronicle your adventures.
- Start packing. Now that you are clear of things you don't need, start preparing everything that is coming with you. Put any travel documents and things you want to have available during the move to the side.
- Cancel your bills and any monthly direct debits.
- Notify your bank that you're leaving. If this means closing your account, find out what actions you need to take to do this.
1 Week Before You Leave
- Clean out the fridge and pantry. Donate what you won't use and throw out anything that isn't good anymore.
- Clean your residence. Whether you are leaving a rental or sold your home, leave the place in good working order.
- Pack your suitcases for the items traveling with you. Make sure anything traveling with the removal company is ready. Check and re-check the household for any forgotten items.
1 Day Before You Leave
- Confirm your flight and check in.
- Double check your luggage to make sure you haven't forgotten anything.
- Arrange for transport to the airport whether it is taxi, family, or friend.
- Relax. Anything that is not done, is probably not going to get done. This is the time to sit back and enjoy the ride.
- Get on the plane or transport with your suitcases, family and/or pets.