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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?

As mentioned, I wanted to find a way of imparting my own experience to readers. At first I gravitated towards people who had spent time abroad, and then I sought the solution of going abroad again and again. Finally, years later, when I knew I’d be spending a good amount of time in my home country and couldn’t up and leave when I felt reverse culture shock closing in, I started to reflect very deeply on how being abroad had changed me: what had I learned from living in another country, and what do I want my life to be like going forward? I decided I wanted to live a happy, meaningful, global life. That’s how I was able to identify my Global Life Ingredients: the five things I must have in my life in order to feel happy, satisfied, and global, no matter where in the world I live. I rebuilt my life around those ingredients—which, as you said at the outset, currently involves baking ingredients. I’ve started up a blog where I share recipes for international desserts. Now, instead of feeling like I’m just biding my time at home until I go abroad again, I love my life everywhere!

I really like the idea of deep 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 can you please pass me a slice of that Bienenstich (German Bee Sting Cake)?

* * *

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!

Related posts:

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).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, when the culture shocks pile up, pull out the manual or consult an expert


Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her first guest of 2017.

Happy February, Displaced Nationers!

Meet my fellow ATCK Diahann Reyes-Lane. You might know her already from Elizabeth Liang’s lovely interview for TCK Talent. If you don’t, Diahann is a former CNN journalist and Hollywood actress who now works as a coach for writers and artists.

In her own creative life, Diahann is a blogger, writer, and performer. In Stories From The Belly, her blog about “the female body and its appetites,” Diahann addresses feminism, body image, identity culture, food and travel. Her poems and essays have been published in WriteGirl anthologies Emotional Map of Los Angeles, You Are Here and No Character Limit. She has written a number of chapbooks: Howl Naked Raccoon the Moon; Moon Goddess; and Basketball Dome of Tears. And she has performed at the Hollywood FringeFestival and read her stories at Beyond Baroque in Venice. Currently, she is working on a memoir as well as a solo show.

Diahann lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their five cats. She kindly took the time to share some of her cultural transition stories with us. Join us as we talk about TCK burnout, courting customs in Manila (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), and various forms of therapy.

* * *

Hi Diahann, welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox! So where on our beautiful blue planet did you grow up?

I was born in the Philippines. I learned to speak my first language, English, with a Kiwi accent at age one when my dad’s company moved us to New Zealand. We lived there for almost two years before moving back to Manila. When I was eight, we moved to Argentina for two years. Buenos Aires is still, to this day, my favorite city where I’ve lived. Two years later, we landed in Pakistan, where I spent the fifth grade. We stayed for a little over a year before migrating to the US. This was supposed to be our final move, but when the Marcos regime was overthrown, my father moved us back “home” to Manila in 1987.

How well did you settle down once you found yourself back in your passport country?

Our repatriation to the Philippines was brief. It was less than a year before my dad’s company moved him to Indonesia. I spent my senior year in Jakarta before moving back to the United States for college. I’ve been here ever since—going on 27 years now. I consider my long stay in this country a far more exotic adventure than moving countries all the time, which had been my norm for so long.

That’s very interesting. You mean you found staying in one place more exotic than travel?

Yes, learning to live in the same place has been a bigger adventure because moving, I knew how to do. Going to a new school, I knew how to do. Moving out/into a new apartment/house/neighborhood, I knew how to do. It was what my family did the whole time I was growing up. Until I turned 18, I moved to a new school, if not country, almost every year. I had no idea what it was like to have friendships that lasted beyond a school year. My sophomore year at UC Berkeley was a challenge because I didn’t know how to have ongoing relationships and I had to learn how to do that as a young woman. I used to think “what if”, mourning the losses of friendships and budding romances that surely would have blossomed if only I didn’t have to move again. I now know that sometimes, even when you live in the same zip code with people, friends drift apart and romances die for reasons beyond geography.
moving-i-knew-how-to-do

I hear you. And that’s a lot of moves. I’m guessing that, for you, like many of us Third Culture Kids, your most difficult re-entry shock occurred when you returned to your birthplace?

Yes, since Manila was “home”, I assumed there would be no transition. I thought I’d be like everyone else, for once, since I was no longer a foreigner. To my dismay, I still was an outsider. I didn’t know the customs or social rules any more than I did when I’d moved to the other countries. I was hard on myself about this because I assumed that I should know because I was a Filipina citizen.

Did you ever put your foot in your mouth when you were back “home”?

One example that springs to mind occurred during junior high school in Manila. A boy from another school was “courting” me. This was the eighties, so I’m not sure if courting is still what kids do nowadays. Basically, he was wooing me to be his girlfriend. But I wasn’t interested in him and I didn’t want to lead him on. I told the guy straight out—nicely, in my opinion—that I just wanted to be his friend. That’s what I would have done had I still been in living in the United States or studying at an international school. When I told my classmates about what happened, they made clear that this was a breach of etiquette. They said I should have allowed him to keep courting me until he finally asked me to be his girlfriend. Only then should I have let him down. Instead, I’d embarrassed him.
courting-in-philippines

Would you handle that kind of situation differently today?

The woman I am today would have handled the situation exactly the way I did then. But at 16, and after so many moves from country-to-country and school-to-school, I just wanted to fit in—especially because the Philippines was my country of origin. After that incident with the boy, I made more of an effort to abide by Filipino etiquette, including never calling guys and not taking the initiative when it came to expressing interest in a boy. Adapt, assimilate, and conform became my way of coping. I wish I could have told my younger self back then: “Just be yourself and honor your values. Who you are is enough. Your perceptions and choices aren’t wrong.”

Any “tools” you can recommend for the rest of us who are feeling some of these emotions?

Reading books about culture shock and re-entry culture shock helped. I discovered I wasn’t the only one having these experiences and my behavior, reactions, and mental and emotional state because of all the moving was normal. Until that point, I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t stay grounded in my body or any place or culture. Also, I wrote a college paper about re-entry culture shock, and the research I did for it was eye opening and healing. It also helps to have friends who have also lived the expat life and know what that’s like. Oh—and therapy. I recommend getting a good therapist.

youre-not-going-crazy

I like your recommendation of consulting the experts, whether it’s through books—we might call them operations manuals—or conversations with therapists who understand the TCK and expat mindset. Can you think of any transitions you made that were particularly smooth?

I’m inclined to say my move back to the United States to study at Berkeley was the easiest. I made friends right away and jumped right into college life. I didn’t miss Indonesia at all—probably because I’d lived there only for a year and hadn’t wanted to move there to begin with. (This had nothing to do with Indonesia—more that I was tired of moving.) But what I didn’t realize was that I’d not yet dealt with the accumulation of culture shocks and re-entry culture shocks I’d amassed in my psyche over the years. Inevitably, all of that would catch up with me eventually.

Yes, the compound effects of all those transitions is such an interesting subject! What advice do you have for expats or TCKs who are experiencing expat burnout or change fatigue?

I’d advise expats and TCKs to understand that the psychological and emotional fallout of multiple moves around the world are real. Recognize what is happening to you, proactively rather than reactively. Read and write about it. For me, writing that college paper about re-entry shock was a formative experience. I finally understood the effects that moving so many times while growing up had had on my development.

Lastly, do you have any advice for parents of kids like us?

For parent expats, I’d recommend letting your kids know that they, too, will be subject to culture shock. I’d suggest making space for your children to process their feelings and deal with the losses that can come from moving countries and cultures. Yes, there are plenty of gifts and benefits from being a global nomad, but there are also drawbacks. Ignoring the negative effects can be harmful. Granted, kids generally adapt more easily than adults, but this can also make it harder for them to stay grounded and cultivate a solid sense of self.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories, Diahann. I agree, some of the best advice for those who feel culture shocks piling up is to try to stay grounded: actively engage in activities that make you feel grounded in the place you are right now.

* * *

How about you, Displaced Nationers? What makes you feel grounded? And do you have any “manuals” or “experts” you’d recommend for getting through the difficult cultural transitions and/or their cumulative effect? Let us know!

And if you like Diahann’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her Website and blog. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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/year’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!

Related posts:

Photo credits: First visual (collage): Culture shock toolbox branding; photo of Sine & family, her book cover and her blog banner (supplied); View over Stuttgart-South and Stuttgart-Heslach and the “Karlshöhe”, Germany, by MSeses via Wikimedia Commons; and A rainbow over Joburg about two hours ago, by Derek Keats via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Second visual: Hamburger via Pixabay (moustache vector art from iPiccy).
Third visual: Embarrassed boy, happy faces and wrench via Pixabay; Australia v England Netabll [sic] Test, by Naparazzi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Traditional protective cup, by Scoty6776 via Wikimedia Commons.
Fourth visual: Great white shark, by Michiel Van Balen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and tennis player via Pixabay.

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expat mums, time to loosen your worry nut: relax, write funny stories & try not to embarrass your kids!

sine-culture-shock-toolbox
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her final post of 2016.

Happy holidays, Displaced Nationers!

Are you already thinking about trips you’d like to make in 2017? Maybe you’re thinking about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? In which case you’ll find it inspirational to meet Eva Melusine (Sine) Thieme, traveler, writer, and author of the hilarious memoir Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life, about climbing Africa’s highest mountain with her teenage son.

Born in Germany, Sine—whose name is not pronounced like “mine”—has moved across the world seven times, “lugging progressively more stuff and family members along the way,” as she puts it on her author site. Most recently, she and her husband, also German (they met in Stuttgart), spent three years in Johannesburg, South Africa, with their four children.

At that time, Sine started up her popular blog, Joburg Expat, as a space for recording her adventures—ranging from her campaign to help baseball gain a foothold in an African township to a series of hair-raising encounters with lions, great white sharks, and the Johannesburg traffic police.

The family now lives in Tennessee, where Sine continues to maintain her Jo-burg blog. She also writes freelance for the Wall Street Journal and other outlets, and prides herself on remaining sane with four teenagers in the house—which reminds me of a quote by Nora Ephron:

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

Sine says her next book will be about a road trip through Namibia with six people in a five-person car.

She kindly took time out from her busy life to share some of her culture shock experiences. Join us as we talk about mustaches vs. mustard, cultural differences in parenting—and the therapeutic benefits of writing…

* * *

Welcome, Sine, to Culture Shock Toolbox. So where on our beautiful planet have you lived?

I was born in Germany where I spent the first 16 years of my life. I then embarked upon a year as an exchange student in the United States, arriving full of wonder in the Deepest South of Mississippi, marveling at such novelties (to me) as cordless phones, giant TV screens and drive-through fast food. My love for America kindled and confirmed, I returned after my undergraduate studies for an MBA at the University of North Carolina together with my also German-born husband. We have since moved—with an ever-growing entourage of kids—to Singapore, Wisconsin, Kansas, South Africa, and now Tennessee. Having been naturalized in 2010, I don’t consider myself an expat in the United States any more. My most memorable time of feeling like an expat came when we lived in Johannesburg with our four children, from 2010 to 2013.

It sounds like a beautiful love story, what you said about the United States! In the context of your many cultural transitions, did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

The most embarrassing—because I was a self-conscious teenager still learning English—was the time when, as an exchange student in Mississippi, I insisted that I wanted “mustache” with my burger. I had of course confused the word for “mustard”—and it didn’t do my perfectionist self any good to be relentlessly teased about it by my younger host siblings for months on end.
burger-mustache-quote

Any stories from your time in South Africa?

Nowadays I’m not easily embarrassed, but my kids make up for that with their exponential embarrassment on my behalf, which, I’m convinced, comes with the Expat Mom territory. Take, for instance, the school sports scene in South Africa. My daughter Impatience—that’s her blogging name—was playing in a netball match, actually playing pretty well considering she’d never played the sport before in her life. But I was going crazy because no one was going for the rebound after shooting at the basket. “Get the rebound!!!” was naturally what I yelled from the bleachers for an entire half, like a good American mother with Olympic ambitions for all her children, no matter how lowly the league. Well, as any netball players out there will know, it’s not called a “rebound”. It’s also apparently not something you can “get” willy nilly, because there is some kind of zone around the basket or perhaps the goal-shooter—I learned there is actually a position called goal-shooter that comes with its own lettered t-shirt—into into which you can’t extend your arms. Impatience later informed me of this technicality in hushed tones so that I would abstain from any further “encouragement” from the sidelines. South African mothers do not seem to provide such encouragement at all, I came to learn.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it differently now? What tools do you think are most useful for adapting to situations like these?

I think in general the key is to relax waaaaay more than we typically do, not just as a tip for expats but a life skill in general. None of this is really so important, so instead of watching my kid with eagle eyes to see how well she plays, I should have socialized with the other mothers much more and dug into the goodies piled onto tables for “tea time,” which had been supplied by some well-meaning parents. South Africans are good at relaxing, as I learned during those years. “Sit back and observe what locals do” is usually a pretty good guideline when arriving in a new land.

Definitely! Looking back again on your many transitions, can you recall any situations you handled with surprising finesse?

I don’t profess to have much finesse. So just abstaining from committing a similarly embarrassing blunder in front of another one of my kids can perhaps count for such a success story. One day I was tempted to walk right into the teacher’s lounge at the prep school, brimming with indignation, to tell my son Jabulani’s geography teacher that no, contrary to her firm belief, the United States does NOT have 52 states, never had, and probably never would. And, while we were at it, zero degrees north is just as good an answer on the exam as zero degrees south, if she really insisted on splitting that particular hair. Jabulani blanched at the prospect. He begged me to abstain. It would be SO embarrassing if I talked to the teacher like that, which is apparently something South African mothers don’t do. So I listened to my child—another good rule for parents of Third Culture Kids to follow. They are so much more attuned to the perils of putting a foot in your mouth. 

Yes, that’s actually something Tanya Crossman wrote about in her book, Misunderstood, which was featured on this site last week.

Come to think of it, it was also Jabulani who found it equally embarrassing when, upon receiving the supply list before cricket season, I was the only mother who had no idea what a “ball box” was. And who then loudly inquired at the sporting goods store as to where she might find one, and proceeded to tell everyone for months afterwards, hooting with laughter, how funny it was that it turned out to be an athletic cup (which is inserted in a jockstrap to protect the genitals against impact from the ball):

Yes, if you think about it, a ball box is indeed a box containing balls, haha, and should we read anything into the fact that South African “ballboxes” are about twice the size of their American counterparts? Hahaha.

embarrassed-tcks

I’m imagining you might say “sense of humour,” but if you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Maybe I’m biased because I’m a writer, but I’d actually say the most important tool as an expat is to start writing. Emails to your friends, Facebook posts, a blog, whatever it is, it will lighten your mood tremendously. It will shift being afraid of what’s new towards seeking out the new—because you have an audience and a story to tell. It will turn frustration at yet another long wait at an incomprehensible government office into almost giddy suspense as to what ridiculous thing might happen next, and how to best put it into words to make your readers back home burst into laughter.

How did you feel when you came back to the United States after living in Africa? What was “reverse” culture shock like for you?

It was worse. Before, there was the excitement about living in a new country, coupled with the benevolence you feel towards a people you don’t completely understand. You give them the benefit of the doubt. They might seem a little quirky and weird, and you might not understand all they’re saying, but they smile at you and they’re interesting. Plus, the sun is shining and someone is ironing your laundry at the house, and that someone is not you. But when you return “home” you feel like you understand everyone far too well, and you don’t like what you think you know about their psyche. They’re all too shallow, too pampered, too full of their First World Problems, you think, and there can’t possibly be anything in it for you by getting to know them. You pine for the friends you left behind in the country you left behind, and nothing seems like it will ever be quite so fascinating and exciting again in your life as it once was.

Can you recommend any tools for handling (reverse) culture shock?

The key is to treat your home country like any other expat location—with curiosity, an open mind and heart, and a willingness to adapt. You have to overcome your own snobbishness to realize there are wonderful people everywhere in the world, and only then can you form new friendships, find new passions, and move on with your life. 

That’s good advice: it’s important to find new passions.

You might have cage dived among great white sharks and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as an expat, and now you might have to settle for the much more mundane sport of tennis upon returning home. But let me tell you: perfecting your forehand is just as challenging and rewarding as living abroad. I’m still trying to find an equally convincing story about the laundry I’m now back to folding myself in a country without domestic help. I’ll get back to you when I come up with it.
shark-forehand-quote

Thank you so much, Sine, for taking the time to share your stories and insights. As you say on your blog, “If life always went exactly as planned, there would be no stories. If you look at it that way, a crappy day can be the greatest gift!” Such a wonderful motto to live by, abroad or at home!

* * *

Displaced Nationers, I hope you enjoyed this interview. Did you turn any frustrating moments into stories? Let us know!

And if you like Sine’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her author site and her blog. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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/year’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!

Related posts:

Photo credits: First visual (collage): Culture shock toolbox branding; photo of Sine & family, her book cover and her blog banner (supplied); View over Stuttgart-South and Stuttgart-Heslach and the “Karlshöhe”, Germany, by MSeses via Wikimedia Commons; and A rainbow over Joburg about two hours ago, by Derek Keats via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Second visual: Hamburger via Pixabay (moustache vector art from iPiccy).
Third visual: Embarrassed boy, happy faces and wrench via Pixabay; Australia v England Netabll [sic] Test, by Naparazzi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Traditional protective cup, by Scoty6776 via Wikimedia Commons.
Fourth visual: Great white shark, by Michiel Van Balen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and tennis player via Pixabay.

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats and TCKs, humility is your best cross-cultural tool—and don’t forget to pack that golden triad!

marilyn-gardner-cst
This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a prominent member of the former expat/Adult Third Culture Kid community on how best to handle culture shock. They also discuss reverse culture shock, though her guest finds that term something of a misnomer…

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

I suspect some of you may already know, or at least know of, my guest this month, the multi-talented Marilyn Gardner. She is a blogger, author, consultant and public speaker. You may have come across her blog, Communicating Across Boundaries, or heard of her book, Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging, which is drawn from her blog writings and gets rave reviews from Amazon readers, who call her a “master storyteller.”

Born in small-town Massachusetts, Marilyn moved to Pakistan when she was three months old. She returned to the United States for college, became a nurse, and then tried to go “home” to Pakistan, only to be deported back to the U.S. after three months. She resumed her travels with marriage, producing five children on three continents and raising them in Pakistan and Egypt. When she and her husband finally repatriated, they arrived from Cairo at Dulles Airport with five children, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat. They now live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Marilyn has a passion for helping under-served communities, including refugees and immigrants, with their health care needs. She started her blog in 2011 after returning from a trip to Pakistan where she worked as a nurse with internally displaced people. She also works with refugees in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Turkey.

Marilyn often speaks to groups and organizations on topics related to cultural competency, including culture and health care, faith and identity, and adult third culture kids.

She kindly took the time out from her busy life and travels to share some of her many cross-cultural experiences with us. (She conveniently lives 15 minutes from Logan Airport’s international terminal and flies to the Middle East and Pakistan as often as she can!) Check it out 🙂

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Welcome, Marilyn, to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long? 

Pakistan, 20 years; Egypt, 7 years; United States, 28 years; and I have visited over 30 countries.

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

I have lots of memorable stories—some more embarrassing than others, all funny for various reasons. As a child, I wasn’t always aware of the cultural mistakes—but my mom was! At one point when I was three years old we had been invited to a feast in the town where we lived. The women were in one room and the men in another. We sat on the floor and we ate with our hands. Evidently, the minute the food arrived, I lunged toward it and grabbed the rice with both hands. The older woman in the room was none too happy—she sniffed and said loudly: “The child doesn’t know how to eat!” Every Pakistani kid knew that you eat with your right hand only! My mom was red-faced and fumbled over her words. She vowed that once we got home, she would teach us all how to eat in properly Pakistani style!
childrens-culture-shock-toolbox

Wow, I guess your mom needed a toy version of the culture shock toolbox? Did you continue making blunders as you grew up?

As an adult, the rules changed and some mistakes have to do with language and others with behavior. For instance, when I first arrived in Cairo, I had trouble flagging down taxis. Then I realized that Egyptians would just yell loudly “Taks” and wave their hand wildly. So I began yelling loudly and waving my hands wildly. One day I did this while out with one of my Egyptian friends and she was horrified! “Why are you shouting?” she said. I realized I’d been observing male behavior, not female. A woman stands calmly and daintily waves down a taxi; only the men are so loud and aggressive. It was a good example that it’s not only about observing, it’s also about observing and imitating the right behavior. Language mistakes are also common and almost always funny. My husband, for instance, once tried to tell someone he was thinner than another man—but ended up saying he was cleaner than him.

What tools do you think are most useful in scenarios like these? 

In health care we use the term “cultural humility.” You have to be humble enough to admit defeat when you get it wrong. In essence, this is a commitment to life-long learning about culture; a commitment to self-reflection and self-critique; a process whereby you continually place yourself in a posture of learning. I picture this as someone almost on their knees, looking up at another person and saying:

“You tell me what is important, you tell me what I need to know to function most effectively here.”

That’s what we expats, nomads, and Third Culture Kids all need to learn more about, continually posturing ourselves as being willing to grow and to learn.
cultural-humility

That’s a powerful image! But have there also been situations you think you’ve handled with surprising finesse?

There is something about growing up overseas that puts you in a different place from the beginning, and that has stood me well. But again I would stress that there can also be an arrogance that comes from growing up overseas, as in “I know better than you do because I’ve lived this longer”—which can be totally false. We only know what we know, and we can’t possibly have experienced every aspect of a culture, which is why we always need that toolbox. What I think is different from the adult expat is that we Third Culture Kids have been shaped, not just influenced, by cultures other than our own. That distinction is really important. When you’re shaped, it’s like a potter shaping clay. You are molded by different cultural viewpoints, which makes it much harder to be ethnocentric and think your way is best. You tend to see all sides. That in itself has its own issues, the “chameleon effect” I call it—but we won’t go there today!

If you had to give advice to new expats, which tools in their culture shock toolbox would they use most often and why? 

I have two. The first I’ve already mentioned: cultural humility. It is so easy to go as an “expert” and think you know it all. Cultural humility puts you in the place of a servant, a learner. You listen more, talk less, and observe everything. You ask questions not from a place of frustration but from a place of curiosity. In addition, I’d encourage new expats to develop what I call the “golden triad”—empathy, curiosity, and respect. All three are needed in equal measure and when even one of those is missing, we miss something in our experience.
golden-triad

I like the idea of the golden triad: that’s a great tool to add to the toolbox! Moving on to reverse culture shock: I’m not sure that we Third Culture Kids experience it in the same way as others, but can you comment on your reverse culture shock experiences as well? 

You are right, reverse culture shock is a misnomer for us TCKs. We don’t have reverse culture shock when we go to our passport countries—we have plain old culture shock. Reverse culture shock assumes a level of adjustment to our passport countries most of us have never attained. Once we are adults, and we (some of us) have lived longer in our passport countries, then we might feel a reverse culture shock.

What “reverse” culture shock experiences stand out for you the most?

For culture shock in my home country, one of the things that stands out for me is the cost of medications. I left a pharmacy in the middle of a transaction because I was given a bill for over s hundred dollars. I said with all the outrage I could muster “What? This medicine would be $3.00 in the place where I’m from!” To which the pharmacist looked bored and gave me a look that said “Well, obviously you’re not there so just pay up.” I left and said: “This is ridiculous!” I write about other examples in my book, such as paralysis in the cereal aisle and learning to speak “coffee”—I just couldn’t get the drink I wanted! There were so many choices and strange words. Expectations for who I was and how I would respond from dentist offices to work places also come to mind. Too many experiences to count!
repatriation-blues-mg

What are the best tools for dealing with (reverse) culture shock?

As I noted, my passport country was foreign in almost every way but language, so when I finally decided to treat it as foreign, I did much better. Not well mind you—but at least better! I watched and observed the rules, tried to follow the unwritten expectations. I cried a lot. I tried to find my happy places through coffee shops. I decorated my house with all the items I loved from the worlds where I had lived. I made friends with “locals.” I learned how to honor the goodbyes and to grieve even as I moved forward in the new. All of that helped in my adjustment. But what helped the most I think is giving myself time—it’s a process, and the longer we’ve been overseas, the longer the process of adjustment to our passport countries. Lastly, I’d like to note that staying in one place for a while doesn’t mean you grow stagnant. In the past I always equated stability with stagnancy, but that is simply not true. So slowly I have learned how to grow while staying in the same place.

Thank you so much, Marilyn, for sharing your stories with us. I love what you said about cultural humility. I think you’re right, once we start a life of living and communicating across cultures, there will always be a need for carrying a culture shock toolbox, and we should never forget that!

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So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any stories to share that show a lack of cultural humility, and could you have used Marilyn’s customized toolbox at that moment?

If you like her prescriptions, be sure to check out her blog posts. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’re interested in health care, you should check out the video series she has created with a film maker here and here.

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.

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!

Related posts:

Photo credits: First visual (collage): Photos of Cairo and Pakistan from Pixabay; culture shock toolbox branding; and photo of Marilyn Gardner, her book cover and her blog banner (supplied). Second visual: Set Tools – Toys, by Suzette via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Third visual: Photo of woman kneeling from Pixabay.Fourth visual: Celtic triad vector graphic from Pixabay. Last visual/collage: (top left) Breakfast Cereal Aisle, by Mike Mozart via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (top right) Specialty Drinks – menu seen at Jack’s Java in Paris, Tennessee, by Kathleen Tyler Conklin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and pharmacy cabinet photo via Pixabay.

REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: To cope with the transition back to your native land, consider vlogging!

reverse-culture-shock-morgan
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with recent repat Morgan Carver Richards about the best tools for fixing a bad case of reverse culture shock syndrome.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I wonder if you’ve already had the pleasure of encountering the videos made by YouTuber Morgan Carver Richards? If not, you’ve been missing out…

Morgan spent four years in Dubai because of her husband’s flying career and returned to her native United States in January of this year. She has been posting hilarious videos on YouTube as a way of coping with the effects of reverse culture shock.

Here are some of my favorite sound bites from the series:

“Why are there so many cereals?!”

“This doctor bill is like 750 dollars! All she did was look at my leg and give me some Ibuprofen!”

“Kids, they don’t have bus nannies here. You’re on your own out there.”

“No, you cannot walk to the grocery store by yourself. This is not Dubai. Do you want Mommy to go to jail?”

“There are signs outside the primary school saying you can’t take your guns inside. There is NO WAY I’m the only person who finds that odd!”

Originally from South Carolina, Morgan had her own career as a flight attendant for several years. That was before the “lavish Vegas wedding of the shotgun variety” that took her to Dubai and the children that followed. Her career in the airlines industry, combined with her perpetual stir-craziness (hello, itchy feet!), has inspired several books:

morgan-carver-richards-books
Something all of Morgan’s works have in common, including her repatriation videos, is that she likes to make people laugh. Why don’t you see for yourself by checking out Morgan’s very first repat video, “Gardeners, Maids, Savages”:

Despite her skill with the video camera, Morgan claims to be somewhat behind the curve when it comes to adapting to new technologies. But she has no regrets because she thinks that growing up with social media would have made her early life less fulfilling.

Food for thought…

And now let’s find out what Morgan has packed in her reverse culture shock toolbox…

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Hi, Morgan, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox—or in your case, REVERSE Culture Shock Toolbox. Where on our beautiful planet have you lived?

I spent four years in the United Arab Emirates and 27 years in the United States where I lived in Phoenix, Arizona; Rock Hill, South Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Any memorable cultural transition stories? Did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

I have put my foot in my mouth several times, mostly when in the United States. I feel I wrongly assume too often that other people have the same knowledge base on the United Arab Emirates as I have. It easily makes the conversation go from friendly to savage.

How did you handle that situation?

I’m actively working on handling these situations in a more tolerable manner. I’m slowly but surely learning to keep my conversations to a happy medium instead of overreacting. I am still developing the tools to convey my experiences in a way that helps people understand cultural differences and discern reality from what is reported on Fox News (sorry, Fox News, you’re savage).

Can my fellow Americans discern reality from what is reported on Fox News?

“Why can’t my fellow Americans discern reality from what is reported on Fox News?” Morgan Carver Richards grapples with reverse culture shock.

Can you think of any culture shock situations, reverse or otherwise, you’ve handled with finesse?

I handled the relocation to Dubai from the US with surprising finesse compared with my move back to the US, which has had a finesse level of 0%. I think it was easier moving to the UAE because I went in knowing that I would have to learn a new culture and system. Returning to the US I wrongly assumed I would be accustomed to the culture because it’s my home country.

You illustrate some of your reverse culture shock moments in your hilarious YouTube videos. I gather the transition has been rough?

Yes, reverse culture shock has been powerful for me. I know other people repatriate more smoothly, but it wasn’t the case for me. The biggest source of counter culture shock I struggle with still is the less personal approach to daily interactions and the focus on privacy instead of the strong community feel and strong communication aspect that were a part of life in Dubai.

What has helped you deal with reverse culture shock?

Publishing my repatriation videos has led to an outpouring of support, positive feedback, laughter and understanding from other repatriates. I now see that, although each person has their own unique repatriation story, I am not alone with a lot of the feelings and experiences I’ve been having. I cannot stress how incredibly helpful and amazing that experience has been for me.

Did you hear that, expats? Make sure you include an iPhone or video camera in your toolbox. It may come in handy once you have to go home.

vlogging-the-answer

Finally, because some of our readers are still expats, can I ask: are there any tools you found particularly helpful in adjusting to life in the UAE?

My best advice is to take your time and check it out before you move. Don’t go into it with a bad attitude or else your experiences will reflect that attitude. Develop a few strong relationships early in the transition. My few strong relationships were what held me together in my new environment when I had a rough time or a bad day.

Thank you so much, Morgan! Building a new community is essential for handling cultural transitions, which may be why repatriation is so hard—it’s a lonely experience. But vlogging sounds like an excellent way of connecting with others who are going through something similar. We constantly need to remind ourselves: we’re all in this together.

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So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any of your own repat stories to share?

To keep in touch with Morgan, I suggest you subscribe to her YouTube channel, check out her author site, like her Facebook page, and/or follow her on Twitter.

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

Until then, cheers! Prost! Santé!

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 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 round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: All photos are from Pixabay.

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…

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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!

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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.

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

Related posts:

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.

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats and TCKs, when choosing tools for adjusting to a brand new culture, study the safety instructions

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a fellow Adult Third Culture Kid for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

My guest this month is fellow Adult Third Culture Kid Amanda Bate, who co-founded the awesome #TCKchat, a bi-weekly event on Twitter that fosters conversation and provides insights and information for Third Culture Kids, in the spirit of mutual support.

(Some of you may remember Lisa Liang’s recent interview with Dounia Bertuccelli? She is one of Amanda’s co-hosts.)

Amanda was raised both in the United States and in Cameroon, a country in Central Africa. Her interest in navigating multicultural environments started young—and now it has become part of her career. A product of international schools in Africa and of American universities, she currently works in higher education from a base in Richmond, Virginia. She has her own consultancy offering counseling for college admissions to Third Culture Kids. In addition, she directs a college access program, helping disadvantaged students understand their options for college. She is excited about all things related to higher education, travel, and cross-cultural experiences.

Amanda recently founded TheBlackExpat.com, which has been featured on the Wall Street Journal Expat, to address global mobility and black identity. As she told freelance writer Debra Bruno:

We highlight the rich, international experiences of the Black Diaspora with firsthand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross cultural living. (…) With the black perspective so limited in visibility, we want provide a stage for the voices of the growing number of black travelers to be heard.

What else is important to know about Amanda? Well, she has an endless love for mangoes, airport terminals and makossa. Hm…what’s that?! Read on to find out…

Also read on to see what she has to say about the tango, manners (or the lack), and methods of bonding over shared interests (without necessarily sharing a language!).

* * *

Hi, Amanda, and a warm welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I have lived in the United States and Cameroon. As you mentioned in your kind introduction, I grew up a Third Culture Kid, or TCK—so split my time from age 10 to 20 between both countries. I’ve been in the United States full time since 2000. I’ve also done some traveling in South America and Europe—and am currently navigating a possible move abroad.

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

It’s probably the Third Culture Kid in me, but I actually worry about making a misstep in a new locale. I spend a lot of time observing before making any comments that could be misinterpreted. I’m careful not to embrace stereotypes about cultural practices or customs. On the occasions where I’m feeling unsure, I’ll consult with a trusted acquaintance privately. I’ve been in enough situations where other people have made borderline rude comments based on limited information—and desperately don’t want to follow in their footsteps, to extend your foot metaphor.

Can you give us an example?

I’m thinking of a time when I was in Buenos Aires watching an Argentinean tango performance. I thought it was absolutely beautiful and enthralling, but the man next to me, another American, didn’t agree. He leaned in to me while stating loudly: “Oh, they’re not doing it well enough. It’s not sexy. It’s not like how they do it in Dancing With the Stars!” Dancing with the Stars? Was he really comparing an indigenous dance form to something he had seen on an American reality show? I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything—but was embarrassed just the same!

tango and dancing with the stars

Yes, that example really argues for reading the instruction manual for the tools in one’s Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

You are right about studying the instruction manual! I tend to do research about a place before I travel. It helps to get at least basic information about the culture—especially food, music and sports—which can help me connect with folks. Once, while still in Argentina, a really friendly taxi driver, who happened to be from neighboring Uruguay, took me to the airport. His English was about as good as my Spanish. However, we were able to fully communicate over a common interest—football. I mentioned some of the Uruguayan footballers I knew, and his face lit up. I am pretty sure he wasn’t expecting that by his facial expression—but then he started mentioning the Cameroonian players he knew…and the conversation (helped by lots of hand gestures) took off from there.

Shared passion for football

Ah, yes, football, or soccer as the Americans call it! Always a good topic and at this moment rather timely, for those of us who are following Euro 2016… If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Whenever you’re in a new place, you’re struggling to take it in. Your previous experiences inform how you organize your world. You have a set of rules and routines that worked for you in those spaces. A new place has the potential to uproot that—more so if it’s very different from other places you’ve been. My advice would be to embrace your new location as it is, without condition. I think it’s easier. Otherwise, you’ll end up playing a game of comparison—and your new location will have the hardest time competing with your past home, of which you’ll have only the fondest memories. Besides, it keeps you from making new friends and having new experiences—which some day will become your fondest memories.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: What was it like for you? Do any experiences stand out?

Moving back to the United States after years of living in Cameroon was a rough transition, truthfully. My mind had fragmented memories of what life was like in America—most of which proved to be inaccurate. I was missing significant cultural references, the weather was colder than I preferred, and my family was far away, on another continent. Because my move correlated with starting university, I had a hard time adjusting. I was terribly homesick. I was calling my family every day. My phone bill was atrocious!

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Honestly, what helped me was connecting to my old friends, many of whom were going, or had already been, through the same or similar transitions. They provided much-needed support through it all. Talking about what you’re feeling is a good first step. No one can know what exactly you’re going through, especially if you’re good at hiding your struggles. Finding people who have been there helps—not just to vent but also to figure out some coping mechanisms.

Thank you so much, Amanda, for sharing your experiences with us! Research, consultations with trusted acquaintances, an unconditional embrace of your new place, and efforts to connect with empathetic friends…it’s all such great advice! Connecting with those who’ve been through similar experiences is, if I’m to be honest, one of the tools that has helped me the most. It might not change my situation but it gives me some much-needed context. Simply finding out that someone else has felt the same way makes me feel less isolated.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, have you ever plunged into a cultural situation without adequate preparation? Do tell!

To keep in touch with Amanda, I suggest you follow the monthly #TCKchat. #TCKchat is held twice at 15:00 GMT and 3:00 +1 GMT on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month. (Amanada’s own twitter handle is @bateconsult.) And don’t forget to check out her new site, The Black Expat.

Wait, I almost forgot! Anyone still wondering what makossa is? Amanda has suggested the following for your listening enjoyment:

 

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 post.

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

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Photo credits: Top visual: (top row) Toolbox and globe via Pixabay; Sobriety Test, by Eli Christman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Amanda Bate (supplied); (bottom row) images of Cameroon and instructions via Pixabay; The Black Expat logo. Second visual: Tango, by Gisele Pereira via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); 4.21.08 Dancing With The Stars, by Robbie Wagner via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Last visual: Luis Suarez celebrates his Gol to put Uruguay 1 – Netherlands 0, by Jimmy Baikovicius via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Dorge Kouemaha playing for Foolad, by Morteza Jaberian via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, know when to put a clamp on your native mannerisms, and remember: patience works


This month our transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has found a remarkable polyglot (not unlike herself?) and multi-country expat to quiz for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

How have you been? This month, I’m introducing you to the lovely Claudia Landini. She is the founder of Expatclic.com, a treasure trove of resources for expat families, provided in several languages.

A native Italian, Claudia speaks Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and (what she remembers of) Portuguese, and thrives on coming up with creative ways to communicate in languages she hasn’t yet mastered. She has lived all over the world and has had some pretty intense experiences that have taught her many things about culture shock, which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Along the way, she learned to dance salsa and to cook Balinese fish, among many other skills. She is most proud of her two sons, whom she sees as living proof that “growing up changing countries, languages and homes is absolutely beneficial to the person and to the world at large.”

Like many of us, Claudia is often glued to her computer, which she says she loves almost as much as her sons. She manages four websites, including a blog and a platform for her online courses. When not staring at the screen, she might be found with her nose in a book. Like me, she is a bookworm and prefers reading paperbacks.

And Displaced Nationers should note that she’s keen to encourage creativity. In fact her latest article for Expatclic, written in French, is about a Frenchwoman in Indonesia who has mastered the art of batik. It’s called Créativité sans frontières.

Now let’s talk to Claudia about the difficulty of overcoming one’s own, deeply ingrained cultural habits, the possibility of having one’s native mannerisms misinterpreted, and the importance of developing meaningful personal projects to help ease the trauma of moving from one country to the next.

* * *

Hi, Claudia, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I understand you’ve lived abroad for over twenty years. Which countries have you lived in and for how long?

The short answer is that I’ve lived in four African countries, two Latin American ones, Israel (Jerusalem), and am presently in Jakarta. The long answer: Indonesia, where I am at the moment, for 1½ years; Jerusalem, 4½ years; Peru, 6 years; Honduras, 4 years; and Africa, 7 years: Congo (Brazzaville) 2½, Guinea-Bissau 2½, Angola 1 year, Sudan 1 year. When I was very young, before meeting my husband, with whom I lived in all the above-mentioned countries, I spent one year in London to improve my English.

In the course of so many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

You know, as much as I strive to remember, I can’t seem to come up with anything really interesting, which is surprising given the sheer number of foreign cultures I’ve come in contact with. Like anyone else, I have the typical stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings when greeting people (such as offering hands to men in Sudan and Palestine, to be met with cold stares or looks of pity). In general I’ve had to control my overly expansive Italian manners, which are not always interpreted in the right way by other cultures. I have to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame. Sometimes I am too open and warm with people who perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Sometimes I talk too much, when the local norm would require discretion and silence.

Recently, and despite all my cross-cultural experience and my work as an intercultural trainer, I rushed to kiss my Indonesian maid good-bye. She was so shocked I thought she would resign. Indonesians do not appreciate close physical contact and intimacy, especially in a well-defined hierarchical situation.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Well, I have learned that when you do something that clearly violates local cultural rules, and you realize the extent of the offense you may have committed, it’s sometimes worse to try to take out that toolbox right away and try to mend the situation. In the case of my maid, I simply turned around and went away, knowing she would soon regain her composure (as a matter of fact, when I came back from Italy to Jakarta, she was the one who kissed me!).

Other tools I use to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame, include counting to three before I speak, and observing myself from the outside before acting. These techniques help me quite a lot.

In other words, there may be times when we expats and international travelers might need some light-duty clamps to keep us from saying or doing the wrong thing. So can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I don’t know if we can call this finesse, but all the times I left from the Tel Aviv airport, I lied with embarrassing nonchalance… Israeli authorities are hard on people who admit to living in occupied Eastern Jerusalem and to having Palestinian friends. After a few months, my ideals gave way to the fear of being searched and interrogated in isolation by the airport authorities, so I lied about where I lived and who my friends were. I had gained quite an insight on Israeli culture and understood what was okay to say and what wasn’t. I even had a list of Israeli names I used as my dear friends, and I was so convinced when I recited them, that sometimes I even felt a rush of affection for these people who did not exist…

That’s quite a story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Patience. It takes time to get to know a culture and to feel confident enough to move around in it. It takes moments of loneliness, confusion and isolation. Of course, if you can give it that time, it pays back in the end. Be patient and know that the moment will come when you’ll feel familiar with what is going on around you, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy it because you no longer have to worry about getting things wrong, or will know how to fix things when you do. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone instead of pulling out our tools and trying to fix things right away.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: Do any experiences stand out for you?

When we had to leave Congo in ’97 because the civil war suddenly broke out, I spent two years in Italy waiting for the next mission abroad. It was awful. Not only had all those years of living in Africa changed me a lot, but I also had the traumatic experience of having to say good-bye to country and friends in a matter of hours, knowing I was leaving them behind in a horrifying situation. People in Milan tried to be sympathetic but simply could not understand the magnitude of what I was going through. I felt very isolated. Besides, after having had such powerful experiences (not only the war, but also all the other amazing things I had gone through in Africa), life back in Italy seemed sort of dull. I did not want to offend anyone, so I kept that to myself. It was a pretty rough time.

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Three things helped me a lot:

  1. Realizing that if I was going through such a terrible time “back home,” it was because my experience in Africa had really touched my deepest core. That made me proud and gave a lot of value to my life abroad. It reinforced my conviction that living outside my passport country was a strong and valuable experience, and that it was okay to pursue it again.
  2. Being able to identify a few people who showed interest in my stories and with whom I felt I got along well. It was clear I should invest in those relationships.
  3. Hanging onto projects I had started back in Africa that were meaningful to me. Being able to continue gave me a sense of structure, and helped me through some very confused times.

 

Thank you so much, Claudia, for giving us the bonus of your repatriate advice! I can relate to that sense of isolation you describe when you returned to Italy. And I like the idea of building meaningful personal projects with the tools you’ve picked up in a new country. Those are the kinds of activities that can sustain you during the transition back home, or when moving on to the next culture.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you ever have to clamp down on some of your “natural” traits for fear you may offend others, and do you know when to leave well enough alone? Do tell!

And if you want to learn more about what Claudia Landini has to say, I recommend you check out:

You can also check out her blog and her online courses, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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 post.

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

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Photo credits: All photos supplied by Claudia Landini or else from Pixabay, with the exception of the two women greeting each other in the second collage, which is from Flickr: TED Fellows – The arrival[], by afromusing (CC BY 2.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, don’t wear ear protectors when neighbors offer advice, and confidence works like a charm!

Clockwise from top left: Rashmi Dalai author photo (supplied); one of her kids’ Bali t-shirts (for sale online); toolbox (Pixabay); and cover of Dail’s cookbook.

Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol talks to a star writer for Wall Street Journal Expat for this month’s column.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Today, I’m introducing you to Rashmi Jolly Dalai, a writer and communications strategist who divides her time between New York City and Singapore. Rashmi writes about cultural diversity, identity, Third Culture Kids and more on her blog and for Wall Street Journal Expat. One of her most popular articles for the latter concerns the addictive nature of expat life (yes!).

Rashmi grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the child of Indian immigrants. She claims she hasn’t retained much of her Indian heritage, calling herself in a recent blog post

“an ABCD, American Born Confused Desi, someone who should hang on to her culture but didn’t.”

Her own two children, both under age nine, have parents from America and India, grew up in China, and now live in Singapore. While raising her son and daughter, Rashmi has published a rhyming bilingual (Chinese-English) picture book called Mika the Picky Eater, followed by a bilingual collection of recipes for kids of all ages called The Picky Eater’s Cookbook and another bilingual children’s book, Sasha the Stubborn Sleeper.

And now she has helped her children launch a creative project called Smiling Designs for Kids. “The kids designed their own t-shirts in Bali and have started selling them online,” she explains. “It’s the modern-day third culture kid version of a global lemonade stand, complete with a social mission. They donate 25 percent of the proceeds to Pencils of Promise, a charity that builds schools around the world.”

Rashmi also serves on the board of Kundiman, an organization “dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature.”

She kindly took the time out of her intense schedule to share some of her culture shock stories with us. Join us as we talk about not listening to your neighbor, good luck charms and more…

* * *

Hi, Rashmi, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

Outside the United States (my home, as you explained), I’ve lived in London (two years), Shanghai (seven years), Indonesia (six months) and Singapore (since August of last year). We moved to London for my work, to Shanghai for my husband’s work, to Singapore for both of our works. Our son suffered from a lot of pollutant-related respiratory issues in Shanghai, so that explains our stay in Indonesia for six months. We took him to Bali to get healthy. Plus, I wanted to live there.

In the course of your many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

Sure, I’ve had many awkward cross-cultural moments. Like most Americans, I’ve made the mistake of calling trousers “pants” in London—“pants” means underwear in British English. When learning Mandarin during our stay in China, I frequently confused the word “four” for the word “dead”. People rolled their eyes, laughed a bit and corrected me. I find that people are very forgiving of strange foreigner behavior, especially when it’s not badly intentioned. I also once spent a month eating tofu and spinach to lose weight—blithely ignoring my Chinese neighbor’s warnings that the combination can cause kidney stones. It did.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

If given a second chance, I definitely would’ve listened to my neighbor’s advice about the kidney stones.

Photo credit: Spinach-Tofu, by Kenneth Lu via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Right! Did you hear that? Don’t wear ear protectors if it means tuning out advice from local residents. Rashmi, can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

While in Bali, I learned how to drive stick shift. This was no small feat as the roads are dangerously busy and narrow, but I was determined to experience the island on my own terms. I think my positive attitude acted like a good-luck charm. I managed to drive a local van for six months without knocking over a person or damaging the car—total wins under the circumstances.

I like that story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Ask questions before you judge. Learn, learn, learn. And make sure you consult with locals about which tools to use for coping with unfamiliar foods and living conditions.

Photo credits: (top row) Scooter, by Frank Douwes via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Shiva shell charm via Pixabay (it transforms and mutes negative energy); (bottom row) An all too common sight in Asia, by Rollan Budi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Good old stick shift, by Matt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Thank you so much, Rashmi, for taking the time to share your culture shock stories with us! We travelers can always use a reminder about the need to take our cues from local residents, or else we may need to invest in a new tool—a pop-out punch to get rid of those kidney stones?! And adding some good luck charms, such as positivity and humo(u)r, to our toolboxes is particularly welcome advice for the Displaced Nation. We’re a site that prides itself on not taking cross-cultural tensions too seriously and finding a path to a more relaxed expat life.

* * *

Have I got that right, Displaced Nationers? How long did it take you to realize the importance of seeking out, and heeding, local advice? And how about humor: has it played an important role in helping you manage intercultural situations? I’d love to hear your stories! Share them in the comments below…

If you want to learn more about what Rashmi Jolly Dalai has to say, I recommend you visit her author site and keep an eye out for her Wall Street Journal Expat posts for further inspiration. You can also like her Facebook page and follow her 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 more fab posts.

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

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, don’t let the cultural prism you carry around blind you to the most interesting facets of the experience

Culture Shock Toolbox Joe Lurie
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a world expert on cross-cultural communication for this month’s column.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! This month I’d like to introduce you to Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus of the University of California Berkeley’s International House. If you’re not familiar with it, I-House is a multicultural residence and program center that serves Berkeley’s students, alumni, and the local community. Its mission is to foster intercultural respect, understanding, lifelong friendships, and leadership skills to promote a more tolerant and peaceful world. Founded in 1930, Berkeley’s is part of a network of International Houses worldwide.

In addition to having led this esteemed cross-cultural institution, Joe has worked as a teacher, trainer and consultant. Last year, he published Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures, which contains the sum total of his knowledge about cross-cultural communication.

On the book cover is a cow, with the question:

What am I?

Divine?
Dowry?
Dinner?

Already this tells you something about Joe—the fact that he has a sense of humor along with many stories to tell about bridging cultures. As one of his Amazon reviewers says, the book is “sometimes laugh out loud, sometimes moving, always thought provoking.”

Joe also shares stories on his YouTube channel, along with information about how our own narratives can lead to incorrect perceptions. Tune in to watch him speak about an Italian student who thought his Sikh roommate was Jesus, the various meanings slurping and belching can have—and much more!

But for now, let’s hear a couple of Joe’s stories about gift giving, along with his theory of cultural prisms, the kind that can blind you once you exit your comfort zone. Warning: Joe’s culture shock toolbox may require donning safety specs!

* * *

Hi, Joe, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I lived in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years; directed international educational programs in various parts of France (Strasbourg, Toulouse, Dole and Corsica) for four years; directed a study abroad program in Ghana for six months; and studied in Montreal, Canada, for two years. I have also traveled widely in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, New Zealand and Australia as part of my career in international and intercultural education.

In the course of your many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

I recall, while living in Ghana, offering a gift to an Ashanti chief with my left hand, which caused a very angry reaction from the chief and the villagers who were present. Little did I know then that offering something with the left hand is virtually taboo in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The left hand in these areas is considered dirty, used frequently to clean oneself after a bowel movement.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Before entering another culture, it’s helpful to become familiar with its values, taboos and related behaviors, in contrast to your own values, taboos and behaviors. It is also useful to spend time with someone from the countries to be visited, asking them what they see as strange, offensive, or even unacceptable in your culture. This kind of research makes it easier to pause and suspend judgement when encountering a strange, inexplicable behavior beyond the horizons of your experience.

Of course, I apologized profusely—but to little avail until another Ghanaian, who had been to the United States, explained to all assembled that I meant no harm. It was at that moment that I fully understood the spirit behind the West African proverb: “The stranger sees only what he or she knows.” The Japanese also have a good one: “You cannot see the whole world through a bamboo tube.”

Japanese proverb bamboo tube

Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I recall an Indian friend offering me a beautifully wrapped gift with two hands—a signal that I should accept the gift with two hands, as is the custom in many parts of Asia. Also, many Americans will open the gift immediately in front of the giver, eager to know what’s there—and perhaps even feigning joy if the gift is not particularly desirable. Because I had read about and experienced the discomfort that opening a gift in front of the giver could cause, I paused and chose to open the gift in private later, in order to prevent any possible sign of disappointment that might cause the giver to lose face.

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Travelers and new expats would do well to realize that their cultures function like narrow prisms that distort their perceptions of what lies beyond their cultural ponds. As far as the Culture Shock Toolbox goes, I would advise that you take out your chisel and keep chipping away at these prisms to include facets of other cultures. The original prism never completely goes away, but you shouldn’t let it prevent you from taking in all you can from all the people you meet in other places. It’s enlightening as well as enriching.
cultural prism and chisel

Thank you so much, Joe, for taking the time to share your culture shock stories with us! Your description of one’s native culture as a prism is spot on. A prism takes light but then bends and distorts it. And I think you are right, we ought to chip away at these prisms, or at least become more aware of their refractive effects in producing cultural biases that limit our understanding of other cultural realities. We would all, whether we travel or not, do well to heed that advice, given that so much of our world is multicultural these days.

* * *

Readers, in light of Joe’s advice, why not take a moment and ask yourself: what is my cultural perspective and what does it make me see (and not see) in others? And now if you want to learn more about what Joe has to say, I recommend you visit his author site and/or consider buying his book for further inspiration (and entertainment!).

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 will soon be publishing her second book, on repatriation.  

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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Photo credits: Book cover and author image supplied; all other photos from Pixabay.

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