Friday, November 18, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - the Reality of Culture Shock

I am not a stranger to moving. After almost 20 years of marriage, at least 10 of which I was married to a consultant, I have moved, on average, about every 3-5 years. We spent 8 years in Virginia, but only 1-3 years everywhere else. So, I know what it is like moving to a new city - finding a house, looking for a job, researching schools, and, of course, developing friendships. Some places were easier, while others seemed impossible. Strangely, but not surprisingly, moving back to Texas a year ago was the hardest move I have ever experienced. Even though I was born and raised there, I had been away from the Lone Star State for 8 years. In a Texan's eyes, I was a foreigner. I had been away too long and my kids had not grown up in the neighborhood; therefore, the cliques had been developed in their grades years earlier and so had the ones among their parents. The few friends I had were those I had had back in high school - friends who had moved to the Dallas area and whom I had reconnected with over the last few years. Needless to say, I spent the year in what felt like a strange form of limbo. I was finally "home," but I didn't feel welcomed. Today, I learned that this is actually referred to as "reverse culture shock" - when returning to your "home" can actually be more difficult and traumatic than the move away. Now, in hindsight, I completely understand the concept!

Last week I started volunteering at the American Women's Club working the front desk. I have learned through my past moves that there is no better way of adjusting to a new city than forcing yourself out of your house and getting involved, whether it is work, volunteering, taking a class, or joining a gym.  You want to meet people? You have to put yourself out there where you can meet them! My first day of volunteering was especially quiet, but this morning was actually quite busy. The club was providing a seminar for members - "Thriving in a New Culture." The speaker was actually a neighbor of mine whom I had met just a few weeks after we moved into our house. She had been kind enough to invite me over for coffee after having met me at the neighborhood patisserie. I had not signed up for the seminar, primarily because I knew I would be there, but I figured I would just listen in and that maybe there might be a few interesting tidbits of wisdom shared among the group. So, here are some of those interesting tidbits:

  • About 10 or 12 women attended the seminar, several of whom have lived in Luxembourg for several years. Apparently culture shock can linger for awhile, or even resurface as we encounter new phases of our lives - having children, leaving a job, or getting a divorce. 
  • Only 3 or 4 of us were from the U.S. The women were from various countries, primarily Europe, but all of us were dealing with the same transition issues of language barriers and not understanding local customs and etiquette.
  • Ex-pat wives (otherwise referred to as "trailing spouses") from the U.S. have the most difficult time assimilating in OTHER English speaking countries. The highest success rate is actually Americans who relocate to Singapore. Why? Because they set their expectations accordingly. It is easy to assume that moving to another English speaking country would be significantly easier than  one that isn't, but that falsely assumes that customs and beliefs are similar. To illustrate the mis-nomar, the speaker referred to an American client she had in England who came to her prior to his move to Australia. Apparently he had moved to England a few years ago with his wife, who left him 6 months later because she could not handle the culture shock she was suffering. He wanted to avoid a repeat of the experience with his new English girlfriend upon their move to Australia.
  • Culture shock can be greater when there are kids or pets involved in the move. I know this is not a surprise where the kids are concerned. I can honestly attest to the fact that the success of any move largely hinges upon how well the kids adjust. Nothing pulls on the heartstrings more than when your child is struggling with the change. The pet's adjustment, however, was actually a surprise for me. One of the women attending said her biggest struggle was that she could not go anywhere in Luxembourg without bringing her German Shepard mix. Apparently they had lived in a house before and the dog was not accustomed to living in an apartment/flat.  Whenever they went out, he would bark incessantly and disturb their neighbors. So, she was finding herself spending many hours hiking in the woods behind their building - just she and her dog. Quite a contrast for a woman who had just quit her career to follow her spouse to a new country.
  • The major challenge the women cited regarding their move to Luxembourg - the language barrier. The only reason this is surprising, given that the main languages in Luxembourg are Luxembourgish, French and German, is that we all were told that "everyone in Luxembourg speaks English". We all agreed, most city workers and professionals do, but the common lay person doesn't. So, when you are the "trailing spouse" responsible for buying groceries, mailing packages, scheduling doctor appointments, taking in the dry cleaning, or servicing the car, you are most likely going to encounter employees who will not speak English. This is not so say that they don't know English (though that may be the case), but rather, they are not comfortable communicating in English. It is not much different than living here with only 2 or 3 years of high school French - it only gets you so far. A Luxembourger with only a few years of English feels the same way.
  • The most cited opportunity about moving to Luxembourg was the language and multi-cultural environment. Yes, language was both the most discussed challenge and opportunity.  Everyone seemed to agree that over the long haul, the opportunity to meet people from such a diverse mix of cultures and to learn a variety of languages was what ultimately led them to accepting the challenge to move here.
  • Even in Europe - despite the long lunches, holidays, and vacations - work/life balance remains a challenge for Americans. In fact, in some cases, it can actually be worse. Personally, this has been the hardest adjustment for me. My husband has always worked hard and has worked late when necessary, but his new job is much more demanding and the difference in time zones between here and his people back in the States requires that he work much longer hours than he used to. So, I have had to adapt to the change in routine.  Family dinners are generally weekend events and daily communication may often be a quick text or email.
  • That strange, unsettling feeling you get standing in your home alone during the day is actually loneliness. I know this sounds strange, but I don't generally think of myself as lonely. But, it has also taken me several years to recognize that there have definitely been periods in my past when we have moved that I was overwhelmed with how alone I actually felt. The worst period of time was a few years after we moved to Richmond. Both my husband and I were working long hours, to the point that we were arguing over who would take the boys to daycare in the morning or pick them up in the afternoon. So, when my oldest son entered third grade, we had to make a choice. Did we continue struggling as parents in order to maintain a two-career household, or did one of us have to become a full-time parent? Since my husband was the so-called breadwinner, that meant, of course, me. I was raised to be independent and self-sufficient. I had earned my master's degree just years before and had only recently received a job promotion.  But the reality was - I hated my job. I was miserable and that misery was following me home. It wasn't a hard decision to make, but it was the most difficult decision to live with. I had gone from being a motivated, hard-working financial manager who enjoyed managing young people and collaborating with co-workers on a daily basis, to a stay-at-home mom that had no idea how to spend the many hours she faced each day while the kids were in school. Suddenly, loneliness settled in and I was overwhelmed. It took a good two years to regain my footing in my new role and I credit most of it with my honest hatred of day-time TV :) I couldn't stand being at home during the day, so I found every excuse possible to get out. This eventually led to a very busy volunteer schedule.
  • Finally, truth be told - the working spouse does not understand what the trailing spouse is experiencing. They are very well dealing with their own adjustment issues - new job, new boss, new office etiquette - but they are not out in the expat trenches, trying to buy gas or understand the children's new grading system. And, if they are husbands (as most are), they do not want to hear about your trials and failures at the grocery store after a long day at work. Worse, if you do share your frustrations, they will quickly move into "fix-it" mode and rattle off a list of actions that you should use when faced with the problem in the future. Well, reality is, we don't want the answers. What we want is honest, heart-felt sympathy. We know we aren't going to learn French or Luxembourgish in the next few days (or weeks), so we will still have to face that waiter or cashier the next time we venture out of the home. What we really want to know is that we are not alone in this venture and that the feelings of frustration and uselessness are not uncommon or petty. Reality is, the smallest of things - a scratch on the car, a miffed neighbor, or a misunderstood lunch order can suddenly feel like a major tragedy and send us into unexpected tears or cursing fits. We just want to know that it is normal and that we aren't the only ones who are dealing with it.
Well, even though this is my seventh move since my honeymoon, I can honestly say that so far the experience has been very positive. My kids are happy with their new school, I am keeping very busy with my volunteer work and my boys, and my husband loves his new career. I attribute this optimistic outlook to setting my expectations accordingly. I knew this move would be a challenge, but I also new it would be an incredible opportunity for our family. As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, I will continue to long for those Texas winters when you just never know what the winds may bring. In the meantime, I just look forward and prepare myself for the next challenge tomorrow will bring - even if it may just be a trip to the grocery store. At least I know, I'm not alone.


  1. That was a really great post. I am not sure what is going to happen to me in regards to culture shock this time. We arrive in Bangkok in 4 weeks. I thought it would be easier than Spain (as there are some people speaking English in Thailand but we lived in a totally non english speaking town in Spain) yet at the same time...I have never been to Asia and i get the impression from my husbands worry about me that I am going to struggle. It's not a very good thing to go into it feel a bit negative I know...I am getting nervous...and excited.

  2. I can't imagine a move to Asia, though I have had friends that really enjoyed living over there. Again, I think it all comes down to expectations. Perhaps in this case, it will exceeds yours :)

  3. Thanks for this post! I posted a comment on your main page a few months ago (I'm the one who is also originally from TX-San Antonio) and my fiance will officially find out tomorrow if we are moving from NYC to Luxembourg. Quite a change especially now that the holidays are here! I added your blog to my Favorite's Bar because everything you write is so relatable and pretty much answers EVERY question and more that I have about Luxembourg. If we do end up moving, I am definitely going to make a stop at the Women's group you were writing about, it will be nice to chat with Americans who were in my position. Thanks again for your wonderful blog! Ashley B.

  4. Thanks so much for your kind words, Ashley. Well, what's the news? Are you guys moving here? Would love to know!

  5. It's been a while since I've been on your blog but yes we are moving to Lux, it's official! My fiance's start date has been set for April 1st! Thank you so much for your blog, it's so helpful in every way! -Ashley B.

  6. Hi Rose,

    I loved your post! Thank you for sharing your views.

    I believe i met you last year in October when i came to visit Lux with my husband. My name is Elvisa by the way, i just moved from Michigan to Lux two weeks ago. As soon as i'm settled i'll become a memeber of AWCL and come and visit. Say hi to Connie and Rachel.