The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, take the measure of the new location first and, as far as reentry goes, pack a roadmap


Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is here with her final guest in her Culture Shock Toolbox series. We’ll miss her, and her column, dearly but wish her well in starting a new life in Montreal. (Hélène, don’t be a stranger!)

Happy April, Displaced Nationers!

For my last Displaced Nation column, I’d like you to meet Cate Brubaker. Some of you might know her from her website, Small Planet Studio, which focuses on addressing re-entry challenges. As the banner announces:

MAKE GOING HOME
THE BEST PART OF GOING ABROAD.

Cate first experienced reverse culture shock as a teenager when she returned home after spending a year as an exchange student in Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All she could think about was going abroad again. She majored in German in college so that she could spend a year abroad in Stuttgart, and then she became an English teacher after graduation so that she could spend another year abroad. Her next move was to enter graduate school, which, because she was earning a PhD in German Applied Linguistics, gave her the perfect excuse to continue living and traveling abroad.

As much as she thrived on her time overseas, Cate had a lingering feeling that something wasn’t quite right. She began asking herself questions like:

Who am I if I’m not living abroad?
What does “global” mean to me at this point in my life?
What’s most important to me right now?
Who am I and what do I want?
What is it about traveling and living abroad that makes me feel so alive?
If I move abroad again, what do I want the experience to be like?

It took some time, but she finally resolved her re-entry issues and is now helping her fellow global adventurers thrive before, during and after they go abroad. Toward that end, she recently published The Reentry Relaunch Roadmap: A Creative Workbook for Finding Happiness, Success & Your Next Global Adventure After Being Abroad. As the title suggests, it’s designed to help expats navigate reverse culture shock but still retain their love for the global life.

Cate’s other creative projects include a website launched last year called International Desserts Blog, where she invites visitors to join her as she bakes her way around the world (she offers two free e-books,  Easy Mini Tarts and European Christmas Cookies); and a young adult novel that she just started writing. Although fiction, it is heavily based on her year as an exchange student in Germany.

Cate kindly took time out from her busy life to share some of her culture shock and reverse culture shock experiences with us.

* * *

Hi Cate, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox! Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I’ve lived in Germany for four years as well as in three very different regions in the US. I’ve also worked, traveled to, and had extended stays in many other countries within Europe, Central and South America, and Australia.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

So many times!

Any memorable stories?

Here’s one I’ll never forget. I was enrolled in a German university, and it was the beginning of the semester. My literature professor announced he was trying to organize a weekend class trip. He went around the room asking our opinion of the plan, and when he got to me I said “I don’t mind” in German…or so I thought. From my classmates’ gasps and chuckles, and the dismayed look on my professor’s face, I realized that the phrase I’d used had came off as sarcastic and flippant rather than relaxed and agreeable. Oops!

How did you handle the situation?

I tried to quickly rephrase and hoped that they’d forgive me as I wasn’t a native speaker. The problem was that by that time, my German was pretty good, which meant that people who didn’t know me well would assume I meant exactly what I said and was in control of my tone.

Looking back, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse? Why do you think that was?

Not so much particular situations but I was able to finesse my overall approach. Before I went abroad the second time, I made a conscious effort to reflect on the challenges I’d encountered during my first stint abroad and how I could do better in future.

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

I guess I would tell them to take out their tape measures. Don’t judge until you take the measure of what’s going on and have more information—and you’ll also need to figure out culturally-appropriate ways to gather that information.

Yes, and sometimes you have to get used to a new way of measuring things, literally as well as figuratively.

If the shoe doesn’t fit at first, don’t worry! It just means you need to take the measure of your new location.

Let’s move on to reverse culture shock, which has had such a big impact on your life.

It was simultaneously easier and harder than I expected. Easier in that I actually enjoyed the first few weeks of being back home with my friends and family. I easily adjusted to the visible aspects of reverse culture shock (food, language, cars, etc). I had a much harder time with the invisible aspects I felt but couldn’t articulate.

I like that you make a distinction between the visible and invisible aspects. Feeling conflicted seems to be at the heart of most re-entry experiences. Do any of your reverse culture shock experiences stand out for you?

There was one that occurred when I first returned home after a year abroad a teenager. As my family sat down at the table for our first dinner together after my return, I found my brother sitting in “my” seat. He tried to convince me that it was “his” seat at the table, as he’d been sitting there all year. I got really upset and ran off to my room. Through my tears, I kept telling myself, “It’s just a chair, it’s no big deal”; but in my heart it felt like a really big deal. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but that one experience summed up how I was feeling in re-entry…as though I no longer fit in with my family and friends or at “home” in general. My life back home felt a size too small. I was conflicted because, while I was happy to see everyone at home, I missed the life I’d led in Germany. I was also questioning everything: my identity, my future plans, friendships, expectations…everything!

Did you develop any tools to handle these feelings?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any tools or people to help me navigate re-entry or reverse culture shock, so I didn’t handle it as well as I could have. I mostly relied on the so-called 3 Cs: crying, complaining, and contemplating my escape. 😉 That’s ultimately why I created the Re-entry Relaunch Roadmap workbook. I want other global adventurers to have an easier time than I did!

Indulging in the 3 Cs? Then it may be time to invest in Cate’s creative workbook!

What kinds of tools do you offer in the workbook?

At the beginning of the workbook, there are several activities that focus on things like feelings, identifying reverse culture shock coping skills, finding a way to reframe re-entry into something you find appealing, reflecting on how being abroad has changed you, intentionally creating a support ecosystem and an adventure passport, and much more. The rest of the workbook helps you find your unique Global Life Ingredients, which you can then use as a compass for identifying your best next steps. Readers have told me that going through the workbook felt like having a friend guide them step-by-step through re-entry—I love that!  

I really like the idea of reflection as a reverse culture shock tool. By delving into the facets of our experience that enriched us, we can go from being a collection of loose patchwork pieces to becoming a beautiful patchwork quilt, strong seams and all! Thank you so much, Cate, for taking the time to share your experiences with us. Oh, and when you mentioned ingredients just now, it made me think of your new international desserts blog. Hm, can you pass me a slice of that Bienenstich (German Bee Sting Cake) before you go?

* * *

How about you, Displaced Nationers? What are your Global Life Ingredients? Let us know!

And if you like Cate’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her website, Small Planet Studio, where she occasionally blogs and also holds (online) events for expats and travelers who are looking to find their next global adventure. While you’re at it, don’t forget to check out her creative workbook on repatriation. You can interact with Cate on Small Planet Studio’s private Facebook page or on Twitter. Oh, and don’t forget those international desserts! Finally, Cate is serving as a Webinar coordinator for Families in Global Transition (FIGT) so would love to hear from you have an idea for one. Please contact her at webinars@figt.org.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” for a good long while as I bid farewell to this column…but not to the Displaced Nation! (Thanks, ML.)

Prost! Santé! Thank you all for being such great readers!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and 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.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: All photos supplied or from Pixabay, apart from the “complain” photo in the last collage: [untiled], by ttarasiuk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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One response to “CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, take the measure of the new location first and, as far as reentry goes, pack a roadmap

  1. eliang April 10, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for this column, HE and ML! Lovely way to bring it to a close since I’m a fan of Cate and her smart advice re: maintaining the 5 ingredients we need to be happy anywhere.

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