The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: The expat life is a craft you can practice, and there are bandaids, laughter & alone time when it doesn’t go well

Mrs EE Culture Shock Toolbox

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a seasoned expat, who like herself is an Adult Third Culture Kid, for some advice on handling culture shock. They also talk reverse culture shock.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Today, I’d like you to meet Mrs Ersatz Expat! You might recognize her from her namesake blog where she describes herself as “a 30 something global soul, a perpetual expat” and writes about her life in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan (the list goes on…). Her photo of the indoor beach in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, complete with water slides and beach volleyball court, will make you want to experience blizzards in a whole new way!

Mrs EE prefers to remain anonymous online (hence “Mrs EE”), seriously dislikes milky tea and harbors a love for gadgets which, according to her, improve “life disproportionately compared with their actual value.” Her blog even features a series of said useless doodads, with photos! They include washing machine covers, neck rings for babies, double eye-lid tape and chair socks.

Mrs EE was born into a global life. She grew up in several countries, including a stint in a scary-sounding boarding school in the UK. She kindly took the time to share some of her culture shock stories and experiences. Join us as we talk about cringe-worthy boarding school moments (including a close encounter with Marmite!), along with some self-preservation tips such as laughing your head off and remembering to make time for yourself…

* * *

A warm welcome, Mrs EE, to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I am an Irish citizen born in the Netherlands to a Dutch (naturalized Irish)/Irish family. We lived in the Netherlands for two years after I was born and returned there for a further three short postings over the following 20 years. I also spent significant periods living with my grandparents in the Netherlands when my mother was very ill and receiving hospital treatment there. I probably had more personal and cultural connections with the Netherlands than any other country up until I was around 14 years old. After the Netherlands my family had postings in Norway, the UK, Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela.

I was in boarding school in the UK when my family moved to Nigeria and only visited them for school holidays. I subsequently went to university in the UK, where I met my British husband and started my career. Nowadays I have more personal and cultural connections with the UK (my parents retired there and my sister lives there) than any other country, and many people who meet me believe I am British.

A few years after our first child was born my husband and I were offered the opportunity to expatriate, and we moved to Kazakhstan. After that we spent 18 months in Malaysia (both East and West during that period), and we are now in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That makes a total of nine countries and I think 11 or 12 postings give or take. I have never lived in my passport country. I last visited Ireland five years ago.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever end up with your foot in your mouth?

All the time! The process of handing money over is always fraught. In some countries no one cares as long as they get it. In others, you put the money down and never hand it over. In yet other places you use only your right hand while others expect you to use both. I now have this habit of putting money down on the counter with my right hand—it seems to cover most bases.

handing over money

And I think you have some memorable stories about that British boarding school you attended?

The most cringe-worthy moment I ever had was on the very first day. I was 11 years old, joined mid-year and no one in my family had ever boarded before so I was rather at sea with the whole experience. My mother had dropped me off the night before and was on her way to meet my father in Nigeria. I knew the mail service was so bad I would not hear from them at all before I arrived, alone, in Lagos airport in three months’ time. I was rather scared and, although I had lived in England for the two years leading up to the move and attended an English school, I had lived with my parents so I was not truly culturally immersed in British food and traditions, let alone boarding traditions, which most of the other girls had heard about from their mothers and aunts.

I went down to breakfast and was rather bemused by being offered tea with or without sugar. While there was sugar on the table this was only for sprinkling on cereal (yes really!): we were not allowed to put that sugar in our tea. I asked for it with sugar and noticed with horror that it came with the milk already in. I am not allergic to milk but don’t have it often so it made me gag. At the same time I spread my toast with what I thought was chocolate spread. It turned out to be something called Marmite—a salty British sandwich spread for which the advertising tagline is you either love it or hate it. Well, I hated it.

The matron at the head of our table yelled at me for being greedy, taking food I wasn’t eating and, shaming me in front of all the girls, made me eat and drink every piece of food.

How did you handle that situation?

I finished my food and ran to the loos, when we were released for the five minutes before prayers, to be sick and burst into tears. I could not have a hot drink at breakfast for the entire two years I was in that boarding school, and I retain an abiding hatred for that woman and my time there.

Horrors of British Boarding School

THE HORRORS OF BRITISH BOARDING SCHOOL: Being offered milky tea with no sugar; tasting Marmite when you thought it was chocolate spread; and being shamed by Matron.

Would you handle the situation differently now?

If someone tried to do that to me now I would stand up to them, of course! If I saw someone doing that to a child I would be furious. No amount of cultural sensitivity to host cultures should require a child be shamed by a grown up, particularly when their parents are not around to defend them. Years later when my husband was a deputy house master and we were house parents, I came home from work to find the whole of the youngest year in our flat. They had committed some minor infraction for which they had been punished. They missed their supper and the Matron would not allow them to have any replacement meal. We cooked them bacon sandwiches and put in a formal complaint to the school.

Looking back on your many cultural transitions, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

It’s very hard to say, I moved so many times as a child that adapting to new cultures and expectations has become rather the norm for me. I wouldn’t say I exhibit any particular finesse as such but I do find that the transitions are less of a shock to me than to many of the people I meet because they are an integral part of my life rather than a once–thrice in a lifetime experience. That is not to say that I don’t experience stress, culture shock, bereavement at leaving a posting or any of those feelings that are the bread-and-butter of expat life. It’s just that I know to expect them and I know how they impact me. I also have an insight into how our children are feeling because I lived their life as opposed to just seeing them go through it.

If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Resilience! Expat life is hard, and you don’t become a craftsman overnight. You have to practice and get used to handling the unexpected, which gets thrown at you every day from the moment you get through immigration control and out of the airport. Some days will be unbelievably hard but, once you get through them, put away the toolbox and rest, and then get it out again and have another go. You have to be willing to take the hits, stand up and endure. Eventually, it will get easier.

I like the idea of taking the hits and moving on. Everyone should have Bandaids in their Culture Shock Toolbox.

That’s true, and you also need to know when you’re getting close to the end of your reserves and need some downtime. Whether it’s a holiday or a trip home to see relatives, time on your own or with your spouse and children, or even just a quick coffee with a friend (in person or over Skype), make sure that you get it. And you also have to make time just for yourself.

Finally, I would suggest cultivating a sense of humour. Learn to laugh at your mistakes rather than feel too bad about them. I remember one time, a month or so into our posting in Kazakhstan, we went to a fast food outlet in a food court and ordered four burger meals (we could not read the menu or order anything more complicated at the time). We were given five Danish pastries. I remember we sat there laughing our heads off to stop ourselves crying with frustration. Of course, by the time we left we could read menus, order specific food with variations and send it back if it was not to our liking and then we had to learn the process all over again in a new country!

Bandaids laughter time for self

POSSIBLE REMEDIES/FIXES: Bandaids, laughter, and self-care should be in every expat’s Culture Shock Toolbox.

That seems like sound advice! If you can laugh, your recovery from cultural mishaps will be much quicker, that’s for sure. And now can I ask whether you have any tips for handling reverse culture shock?

I have never gone home as such, but I do get a sense of this when we travel to the Netherlands. Of course we are not moving there to live so it’s not as intense but I do experience a wave of sadness that the country I grew up in effectively no longer exists. People behave differently, the TV programs are different, I no longer speak the language as easily, and many of the people with whom I spent most of my time are now dead. I feel out of time and out of place. I don’t think I would ever go back there to live, it’s too sad. My parents never returned to their native lands, choosing instead to settle in the UK where they had based our education. I think they realised that 30 years of expat life made it too hard for them to return.

How about if you end up back in the UK, where your husband is from and where you think of as “home”?

I am not sure what will help us transition back to life in the UK when we finally end our expat lives. I think a lot will depend on our children. We are currently debating whether or not to send them to boarding school in England when they’re older. If we do we will, of course, be back there far more often than if we don’t, and our children as well as our parents and siblings will help keep us far more grounded than if we had no family around. In the meantime, I make sure that Britain is not a distant country, reading a spread of papers and news magazines every day. The Internet has been a godsend in this regard. I remember as a child Radio 4 was on constantly and people would bring out tapes of CNN and the World Service which would do the rounds; a four-hour snapshot of the news. Papers and magazines were on circulation lists and as my father was promoted we got the papers more quickly. These days I can read the news as soon as it’s published, it’s truly fantastic.

Thank you so much, Mrs EE, for sharing your experiences so openly. What you say about resilience and taking time for ourselves is so true. We just have to look onwards and forwards while managing our own energy resources, and remember that it’s not only OK but necessary to take a break and treat ourselves with a little TLC. Bandaids, laughter and alone time should be in every expat’s culture shock toolbox!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any boarding school horror stories to share? Please leave them in the comments, along with any questions you have for Mrs EE.

Hm, there’s actually a question I forgot to ask her: why does she call herself “ersatz”, which means not genuine or fake? Is it because she is enjoying the expat life so much? On that note, I’ll leave you with her photo of chair socks:
Chair sox-515
(Who knew chairs could get cold feet, too?!)

For more entertainment of this kind, be sure to follow Mrs EE’s blog. She is also on 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 and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Photo credits: Top collage: Photos of England, Ireland, Holland and Jeddah from Pixabay; culture shock toolbox branding; and photo of Ersatz Expat and her blog branding (supplied). Next visual: “Money in hand” photo from Pixabay. Second collage: (clockwise from top left) Memories of boarding school, by jinterwas via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); tea service photo via Pixabay; SHAME!, by Mills Baker via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Marmite, thickly spread on toasted bread, by Kent Fredric via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last collage: Hammer and nail, solitary woman & laughter photos via Pixabay; and 流血後の親指 (Your thumb after an accident), by Hisakazu Watanabe via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of chair socks is courtesy of Ersatz Expat.

2 responses to “CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: The expat life is a craft you can practice, and there are bandaids, laughter & alone time when it doesn’t go well

  1. eliang August 10, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    I enjoyed this and completely relate to your feelings about the Netherlands and that matron in the UK. Re: the latter, it’s remarkable how intense experiences, good and bad, will stay with us on a molecular level. At least both make good stories later.

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