Culture Shock smacked me in the face!
There I was, 18 years old, with my life ahead of me! My bags were packed ready to set out on a new adventure! This time the destination was Italy to start my college experience with fellow international students in a beautiful campus above the rolling hills of Florence! This was going to be amazing!
I thought: I can do this: “I’ve been there, I’ve done that!”
I’m an expat through and through. Born in South Africa to German parents, raised on 3 continents . It was my father’s executive career that had transitioned us every few years. I was a ‘vested expat’ or so I thought!
Initially it was all super exciting- new city, new living arrangement, new life! I was free from the grasp of my parents and free to start my new college life in Italy.
But soon the reality hit- I did not speak the language properly, I needed to navigate around the city on my own, I was reliant on others to get information, supermarket shelves were stocked with slightly different products, if something broke in the apartment me and my three Taiwanese roommates needed to use our broken Italian to find a plumber. I soon realized that Italy functioned slightly differently than my “home” country of Germany and my last “place of residence”: Switzerland!
How come things don’t function the way I expect?
How come I cannot seem to find my way?
Why am I getting so frustrated?
Little did I know THIS expatriate experience would be different from my previous ones! Little did I know it would shake me to my German core! This was the first time I was an expat “on my own”. Although I had previously been an expat, this time I did not have the support of my parents, international school framework and social circle already set up. This time, the smooth transition was not laid out for me. I had to create the path for myself!
Same, same but different - every move has it's own challenges
Flash forward almost 15 years …. Two transcontinental moves, one marriage, two children & one global professional career later. Here I was with my bags packed again. Only this time I was not moving alone. This time I had two children in tow. As my children waved goodbye to the house in Doha they had called home for 4 years, we also waved goodbye to their Baba. We had decided I would move to my husband’s home country of Turkey, while he would stay to navigate his professional path back in Qatar. I was fully onboard, in fact, it had been my idea.
I had met my Turkish husband in New York after my time in Florence. Soon afterwards, I was part of a globally mobile, dual career couple-moving from New York to Dubai to Abu Dhabi to Doha.
As before, I thought: I can do this: “I’ve been there, I’ve done that!”
Then after a few weeks, it hit me. Why am I feeling frustrated? I soon realized this move was different yet again…. this time my ‘partner in crime’ was not by my side. This time I was moving as a “quasi” single mother and I needed to be the rock that supported my two children. I soon realized- I had to create the path for myself!
Reflections & suggestions: what always works
Reflecting back on these two experiences, what do I see as my learning and main takeaway?
Firstly, I would say what helped me get through this globally mobile life was arming myself with knowledge. Knowledge about what it means to be an expat, what you go through and that self-awareness helped me prepare.
During my college orientation in Florence, I was introduced to (what for me at the time was a completely new concept) called “third culture children” and “culture shock!”
A lightbulb went on! “Ah-ha!” my inner German voice said to me! “Now I know why you feel unsettled!” “Now I understand myself much better!”
This was a defining moment for me. The culture shock graph was an eye opener. I finally understood myself and did not feel so ‘out of place.’ I finally understood that it was ‘normal’ to feel the way I felt! I would never really “fit in” and yet I had the ability to adapt wherever my global, nomadic life would take me. I am forever grateful to David Pollock and Ruth Van Renken for defining the term Third Culture Kids and basing their research on this topic!
Upon moving with my family to Turkey, this time I took it upon myself to learn about being a parent to cross cultural children. These children were moving to their “passport country” and yet they spoke Turkish with a slight accent and needed to adapt to their new life. I also learned to find ways that worked for us as a family unit living separately in two different countries. Most importantly, I learned that as a family, each member goes through the various stages of “culture shock” and through the experience of moving differently. While one person might settle and adjust quite quickly- another might be missing their “old life” and take a bit longer to settle. Knowing this helped me prepare for and understand the ups and downs!
My second learning and take-away from my experience, is the importance of community. Throughout my entire expat experience, but especially these two instances, it was my network and the people I surrounded myself with that made my experience!
I found camaraderie in my fellow students in Italy as we were all in this new crazy Italian adventure together! All never having lived there before, all trying to settle and adjust together. We managed to make the most of our 9 months in Firenze and formed friendships that last until today, over 20 years later.
When moving to Turkey, I managed to find a new ‘niche’ as a “quasi” single Mom and build a supportive network- a ‘circle of champions’ around me. This group of women ended up going through some quite heartbreaking experiences together but we all came together and supported each other although we had not known each other that long.
I realized the power of community! Being an expat provides a powerful bond with others! No matter where you might disperse in the world, your lives are touched forever.
The Bottom Line
So the bottom line is, even as a seasoned expat, you can get smacked in the face with culture shock! However you can set yourself up for a smooth transition by understanding what you are going through and by having a supportive network surrounding you.
In the end you will manage in your own way and in your own time!
I am thrilled to host fellow global mobility professionals as guest bloggers. Today’s contributor is Caroline, a fellow Adult Third Culture Kid and Coach.
About the Author
Caroline Onuk is the Founder & Coach of Bright Future Leaders. It was through her years as a HR professional in several global multinational firms, from her life long transient lifestyle as well as her (attempt to) balance being a Mom and a career woman that she saw a need for coaching individuals to find their ‘true purpose’. Through her coaching, Caroline provides clients with a creative space to find their inner voice, understand their desired path ahead and, ultimately, find the balance between career, life responsibilities as well as the desire to have fun!
Caroline is the co-founder of Here We Are Turkey and the Global Lead of Development and Strategy for Here We Are Global. Here We Are is a community for international professionals who seek the opportunities that come with life on the move.
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