The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, when it comes to culture shock, it’s best to measure your progress in increments and be patient

Photo credit: Cecilia Haynes at Cappadocia, Turkey (supplied).

Photo credit: Cecilia Haynes at Cappadocia, Turkey (supplied).

For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol interviews a fellow Adult Third Culture Kid and freelance writer, Cecilia Haynes.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

I’d like to introduce you to this month’s guest: fellow Adult Third Culture Kid Cecilia Haynes. A self-described “state department brat,” Cecilia is the product of a Chinese mother and an American father. As she writes on the About page for her blog, Unsettled TCK:

Moving is all I have ever known.

Cecilia tells a number of stories about herself in one of her blog’s most popular posts, 10 TCK Quirks. I really like the first one, when she says she’d rather not admit how old she was when she discovered that “Visa” didn’t simply mean “that thing in your passport that allows you to go to different countries.” She says it took her a long while to realized it was a credit card brand as well. For me, this anecdote beautifully illustrates a line I keep seeing on social media that reads:

Collect memories, not things.

As an adult Cecilia continues to travel the world while making her living as a freelance writer, photographer, web moderator and editor. She’s the co-host of the awesome biweekly TCK chat on Twitter where participants discuss all things TCK. Her work has been published in The Worlds Within Anthology, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35 and Among Worlds.

Cecilia has kindly agreed to share some of her culture shock stories. Read on to find out where this seasoned traveler has lived, what she’s experienced—and the tools she recommends for others who are going through cultural transitions…

* * *

Hi, Cecilia. Welcome to The Displaced Nation! As a TCK and an ATCK, you’ve lived all over world. Tell us a little about those places…
I was born in Hong Kong and then we went to Calcutta, India, before moving to Taipei, Taiwan, for two years and then to Beijing, China, also for two years. That was before going to New Delhi, India, and then Mclean, Virginia, USA, each for four years. Then it was back to India (Chennai) for three years, and then on to Manila, the Philippines, for one year, where I graduated from high school. After high school I went to the University of Virginia for four years before moving to Hong Kong for a year and then backpacking around the Tibetan Plateau and northern India for about a year, after which I spent a year in Alanya, Turkey before finally moving to Florida, where I currently live.

Wow, that’s a lot of transitions! Did you ever accidentally transfer the wrong customs or behaviors to a new culture, thus ending up with your foot in your mouth?
I was brought up in so many cultures that weren’t my own that I was pretty culturally sensitive from an early age. Even in Hong Kong where my mom’s family lives and in Ohio where my dad’s family lives, I’m an outsider. I sometimes have this internal awkwardness as I feel out a new cultural situation. Take off shoes or leave them on? Eat with hands, chopsticks, or knife and fork? Moment of silence before eating—does that mean I have to pretend to pray or say amen? But I can’t really think of a truly humiliating cultural transition story where I acted out of turn. That said, I do have plenty of hilarious misadventure stories, such as sitting between two of the nastiest toilets you can imagine on a third-class train in southern India for eight hours(!).

Say amen take off shoes

Photo credits: (top) The big yawn, by Ali Edwards’s sister via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Please take off shoes when reading the paper, by antjeverena via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It sounds as though you fit in everywhere you go, even on an Indian train! What tools do you use?
I model my toolbox on those around me. I observe the local people and mimic their actions. If I am truly confused, I will just ask since it’s better to err on the side of caution than make a social blunder through being overconfident. My number one rule is to be respectful of other people’s customs.

Indian train misadventures

Indian Railways, by Grey Rocker via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Absolutely, respect is paramount. Can you think of a situation you handled particularly well? 
Since I am a mix/hapa, I can blend into much of Southeast and East Asia, which means that local people often assume knowledge I don’t have. When you’re an invisible immigrant, you need some special tools. For instance, I’ve developed a certain finesse for handling the times when people approach me speaking the local language, asking for directions, or even just attempting to bond over food or jokes. Inevitably, they are disappointed when they think I have lost my cultural heritage and become “Americanized”—so I hasten to clarify I’m an outsider to their culture because I am only partially from the United States, the other part being from Hong Kong.

hapa predicament

Parsons Chameleon, by Leonora Enking via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first and why?
I would tell them to develop patience. Maybe you need a folding ruler to measure your progress in stages. Be patient while you adjust to your new home as it won’t be the same as your old one. Be patient as you adjust to the customs of the local community because they are likely VERY different from what you are used to. The pace can be slower or faster, you may have access to less, and people’s ideas of personal space vary widely—those are just a few examples. And, most of all, be patient with yourself. It will take you a while to navigate and feel comfortable within a new cultural landscape.

Photo credit: Folding rule via Pixabay.

Photo credit: Folding rule via Pixabay.


Thank you so much, Cecilia! Observing and mimicking are two great tools to smooth over cultural transitions. Plus that’s part of the fun, in a way, to experiment with other kinds of behavior. Who knows? You might change your behavior permanently and maybe even your sense of identity if enough of the culture resonates. And three-pronged (for your home, the culture and yourself) patience will definitely help bring down any walls that may be preventing you from becoming a part of your new community. I love the idea of a folding ruler for measuring progress in increments: great tool!

* * *

Readers, what do you think of Cecilia’s advice about practicing patience and not trying to do everything at once? If you like what she has to say, I recommend you visit her professional site, ceciliahaynes.com, where you can find her blog, Unsettled TCK. You can also, of course, get to know her on Facebook and Twitter.

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 recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

STAY TUNED for the next fab post.

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3 responses to “CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, when it comes to culture shock, it’s best to measure your progress in increments and be patient

  1. eliang October 24, 2015 at 4:06 am

    Good read! Thanks, Hélène and Cecilia.

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