The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, don’t throw away your old coping tools—they may come in handy for your new life abroad

For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol interviews displaced creative Jessica Lipowski about her culture shock memories and coping strategies.

June 2015 Jessica Libowksi Culture Shock Toolbox
Hello, Displaced Nationers! I’m excited to introduce you to road-less-traveled (#TRLT) buff and foodie Jessica Lipowski. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Jessica moved to Amsterdam in February 2011 to be with her Dutch boyfriend, Matthijs. She has worked in a variety of jobs related to travel and is currently writing a non-fiction book that documents the stories of 83 entrepreneurs from 50 different countries who live in Amsterdam. They all have in common that they own restaurants in the city.

Jessica, who appreciates Amsterdam’s wide range of cuisines, has developed a curiosity about how all of these people ended up in the same industry, in the same city and with similar passions. As she writes on her site:

Why Amsterdam and how did so many people from every corner of the world end up in this small capital city? What drew them to the land of tulips and windmills?

But our focus today is not these expat restauranteurs but Jessica herself. While sampling Amsterdam’s rich cultural stew, has she ever had to put down her spoon owing to culture shock? And what tools did she use to restore her appetite?

* * *

Hi, Jessica, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell us a little about your background?

I am originally from the United States, born and raised in the metropolitan Detroit area. I spent the first 23 years of my life in Michigan, apart from the two summer internships I completed in Washington D.C. In February 2011, I moved to the Netherlands and have resided in Amsterdam for the past four years.

In the context of transitioning from the United States into Europe, did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Can you share any memorable stories?

While working in sales and marketing for an online group travel platform, I often had to attend business meetings and conferences in Europe. I was a regular at one of these events, which took place four to six times a year. I soon developed a friendship with another regular, a Dutch woman, whom I’d always look forward to seeing. On one occasion when we met, she complimented me on the dress I was wearing. I thanked her and then, as I leaned in to share with her where I purchased the dress (I wanted to tell her I’d paid a relatively cheap price), she cut me off and said: “Oh, Jessica, you should never tell someone details like that.” I honestly thought she would appreciate hearing my story, but it turned out to be the kind of information that is supposed to be shared only with close friends.

I got a bargain! Shhh... Photos via Pixabay.

I got a bargain! Shhh… Photo credits: “Street signs of the nine Straatjes” on Wikimedia by JSpijer via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); other two photos via Pixabay.

What lessons can you offer to the rest of us from this story?

Instead of being offended, I smiled and apologized. I told my Dutch business acquaintance how much I appreciated that she’d corrected me, and I meant it sincerely, as it would keep me from making the same mistake again in future. I think a smile and an apology can go a long way in such situations. Of course it might have helped if I’d done more research beforehand on social customs and norms in various European countries. But if you haven’t done your research, then don’t be too proud to rely on business colleagues or local friends for advice.

Looking back on your transition from the United States to Holland, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

I surprised myself with my commitment to learning Dutch. My first exposure to the language occurred when I met Matthijs, who is now my partner. When we started dating, I used Rosetta Stone intermittently; but then, once I made the move to Holland, I started taking private lessons once a week. Expats can get by quite easily in Amsterdam speaking just English as the Dutch start learning English at a young age and many speak the language quite well. However, I felt it was important to learn Dutch so that I could speak it with my partner’s family. It’s not easy but can be done. It all comes down to practice, practice, practice.

If you had to give advice to someone who just moved to a new country, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

I guess it would be pack some of your old tools. Because one of the most important things to do when you first arrive is to establish a routine. A routine will help you settle into a new country and feel at home. For instance, if you used to work out or do yoga, search for a gym or studio. Or maybe you always looked forward to grabbing a cup of coffee on the way to work. So find a favorite coffee house en route. Did you used to have an active social circle? Then make a point of joining a local meet-up group, a sports team, classes or other activities where it’s relatively easy to make friends and develop a support system. It will make the transition that much easier.

Thank you so much, Jessica, for taking the time to share your culture shock stories with us. Leaning on local friends for advice and re-establishing small personal rituals or routines: those are two nifty tools that can ease the initial stress of changing countries.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jessica’s advice? Have you ever found yourself in a situation in your life abroad where you thought, “I should have done more research”? Do tell!

If you like what you heard from Jessica, be sure to check out her writer’s site and/or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She is currently working on her new Web site and her second book.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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