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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: How to pry open your mind to new cultures—and keep them all sorted

Yelena Parker for CST Displaced Nation Columnist H.E. Rybol never saw a culture clash she didn’t want to fix. A “transitions enthusiast,” she credits her Third Culture Kid upbringing with giving her a head start in this department. That said, H.E. is always on the lookout for shiny new tools, and toward that end has been interviewing other displaced creatives about their culture shock memories and coping strategies. Today she speaks to Yelena Parker, a Ukrainian expat, executive coach, and writer who, through her many international moves, claims to have mastered the art of “moving without shaking.”

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I’d like you to meet today’s guest, businesswoman and author Yelena Parker. Yelena is Ukrainian but has lived in the United States, Switzerland, Tanzania and now the United Kingdom, and has conducted business in many more countries. Last year she published a book titled Moving without Shaking, which made the Displaced Nation’s “Best of 2014 in Expat Books” list. Described as a “guidebook-meets-memoir,” it aims to help women “who are interested in building their new global life styles whether through working, studying, volunteering or simply living abroad.”

One of Yelena’s contentions is:

Once you are on a serial expat path, new relocations get easier.

Can we take this to mean it’s possible to get better at handling culture shock?

Let’s find out by asking Yelena to describe a few of her own culture shock experiences. She may advocate for moving without shaking; but how does that line up with her own adventures? Has she never shaken like a leaf at some point during her various international moves?

* * *

Hi, Yelena! First can you please tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I came to California from Ukraine in my 20s to get an MBA and ended up living there for more than nine years. I didn’t make it till the very end of year 10 as an opportunity came along to relocate to Switzerland for work. After two years in Geneva I moved to London to continue working in tech. I’ve now lived in the UK for four years, only interrupted by a four-month volunteering stint in Tanzania, with a Kilimanjaro climbing break in between.

You’ve certainly made your fair share of cultural transitions. Did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

I travel to Moscow frequently for work. During the last trip the taxi driver asked me where I was from. This question is always complicated since, like many here at the Displaced Nation, I now feel as though I’m from everywhere and nowhere in particular. I tend to focus on the most recent location when giving an answer. To be polite, I share where I am coming from literally (versus where I am from). On this occasion, the last port of call was St. Petersburg, which in Soviet times was known as Leningrad. Some wires in my brain must have crossed as I blurted out: “From Leningrad.” The driver said “Really???” We ended up engaging in a much longer conversation, about my Soviet childhood in Ukraine and so on. I think I had a reverse culture shock reaction after being away from where I grew up for so long.

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

It’s a bit of a strange example, but what I am trying to get across is that keeping your life truly connected to multiple worlds is very difficult. You are bound to lose some of your identity, forget the basics, replace them with new realities and then, perhaps, come full circle as you find yourself back in your good old comfort zone. You and your memories have many layers now. It can be challenging to keep them sorted. That toolbox of yours needs to have quite a few compartments!

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

Moving to Tanzania, I was surprised at how quickly I embraced the pole pole (slowly-slowly) way of life. Until I went on this amazing adventure, I had always been a workaholic. But then I found myself living enjoying the most beautiful sunsets and spending a lot of time talking to people in front of me instead of using various digital ways to connect with people remotely. I didn’t complain about the lack of speedy or efficient services anywhere as I no longer expected that kind of thing. I was not rushed or overwhelmed so wasn’t concerned about being late or other people being late or not showing up to meetings. I just enjoyed every moment of this new experience: no deadlines, no crazy work hours, only things I truly wanted to do. You could say I felt burnt out after working non-stop (or being in school) for 23 years. I do believe, however, that something in that culture was appealing to my natural preferences, which had been suppressed by years of working in the corporate world. I also realized that I wanted to teach again. My first career was in teaching English at a university level in Ukraine—work I’d chosen to abandon when I took a degree in business. That said, I am back on the corporate path again.

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

I guess it would be some kind of crowbar to pry open your mind to new experiences, no matter how many times you relocate. Learn everything you can about your new home country. Explore it thoroughly. If you end up moving back home, you will regret that you didn’t do enough. If you stay, the more you learn, the easier your assimilation into your new life is going to be.

Thank you so much, Yelena, for taking the time to share your experiences and reminding us that keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn about other cultures can be effective tools, sometimes in unexpected ways! I love your example of becoming immersed in an East African culture and learning more about your own (suppressed) natural preferences as a result. And I of course love the idea of moving without shaking! That’s what this toolbox is for…

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Yelena’s advice? Have you ever found yourself having a Rip-Van-Winkle moment like hers? How about discovering your “true self” in a vastly different culture? Do tell!

If you like what you heard from Yelena, be sure to check out her author site and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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EMERALD CITY TO “KANSAS”: Amy Rogerson on seeing the Wizard of Expat Life and returning home (for just six months)

Amy Rogerson wrapping up warm in the UK at Christmas (her own photo); the Ruby Slippers (CC); corn path (Morguefiles).

Amy Rogerson wrapping up warm in the UK at Christmas (her own photo); the Ruby Slippers (CC); corn path (Morguefiles).

Welcome to “Emerald City to ‘Kansas,'” a series in which we focus on expatriate-into-repatriate stories. This month our subject is Amy Rogerson, an Englishwoman who blogs at The Tide That Left about trailing her husband (aka “Mr Tide”), at breathless pace, all around the globe. The couple now live in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, but in the past four years have also made homes in South Africa, Angola, Qatar, Russia, and Libya. As we catch up with Amy, she is back to the UK (as of April 7th) for a six-month stay. What is it like going “home” again after such a life of adventure? Without further ado, let’s dig into a slice of Amy’s “back to Kansas” story.

—ML Awanohara

To Oz? To Oz!

I didn’t really choose expat life. Rather, it chose me when I fell head over heels in love with a nomadic man. I met my husband five years ago in his final weeks in the UK before he moved to Libya. We continued our relationship long distance for a year, but eventually knew that one of us had to move. I was in a job that made me miserable, whilst he was welcoming new opportunities at work, so it seemed for the best that I move to Benghazi to be with him.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Moving to Libya was so far beyond my comfort zone that I shocked both myself and those who loved me most. All I knew is that I wanted to be with the man I loved. I never expected my life to become that of a serial expat. As well as living in Libya, we’ve also lived in Russia, Qatar, Angola, South Africa and Tanzania together. In fact, my home is still in Tanzania; repatriation to the UK is just a temporary move for a project I am working on, and I fully intend to return to Dar es Salaam and my wonderful husband in just under six months from now.

We’ve been gone such a long time…

I’m surprised at how much I’ve grown to love my new lifestyle. I’d never wanted to travel or live abroad before I met my husband, but now I struggle with the idea of ever “going back to Kansas” permanently (not that I don’t think I will one day!). I’ve discovered that life can be different from what I was brought up to believe. If choosing the expat life has meant I’ve had to say goodbye to any dreams I had of the picket fence, the family home, the stable job—that isn’t going to happen, at least not for a while—it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What have you learned, Dorothy?

Living in six countries in four years, I’ve learned to adapt to change. Nothing stays the same, and I’ve had to be flexible. That flexibility doesn’t just apply to where we live and work, or what our holiday plans are. I’ve also had to learn that there is not just one way of doing something, especially once I started working for a South American company in the Middle East and now in Africa. I’ve had no choice but to get my head round different ways of doing things that I used to believe we do best “at home”. As a Brit working with people from different parts of the world, I’ve often felt as though my colleagues and I weren’t talking the same language when it came to business practices and relationships. But I’ve come to see that instead of believing the British way is right, it helps if I can open my mind to other approaches, some of which may work if you’re willing to give them a try. With time I’ve been able to overcome the differences and pick up skills that will no doubt help me in future.

No place like home?!

Repatriation is bitter-sweet for me. I didn’t really want to return to the UK right now, but circumstances have dictated otherwise. Having been gone from the UK for four years I’m really struggling with settling back in. Much of what I knew before now seems unfamiliar. My time abroad has coloured my behaviour and expectations. In a sense, I’m having to relearn some of that most basic stuff that I found so hard to let go of when I became an expat.

Oh dear! I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas!

I once thought huge shopping centres where I could buy everything I needed in one go were the perfect solution to hectic British life. Now I find myself shying away from the crowds of people, the flashy goods, and the elevated prices for things with a short shelf life. During my life abroad, I often missed the choices that were available to me in the UK, be it in the supermarket, on the high street, even on the television, but now I just feel overwhelmed and a tad spoilt by all the options. In adapting to new ways of living and thinking abroad, I no longer completely fit in the country I was born and raised in. Perhaps I need to look at this six-month repatriation like a new expat assignment and approach it like I would any other move. I need to be open to adapting. I need to forgive myself for not “feeling at home” immediately when I wouldn’t ask that of myself anywhere else. I’m incredibly lucky to have so many wonderful connections here in the UK. I expect it won’t be long before I feel more settled at home than I do after a few weeks. One thing I do know: the call of expat life hasn’t quietened yet.

* * *

Thank you, Amy, for such an honest, heart-felt account about what it feels like to go home again, if only for half a year. It’s interesting that you’re now having to apply the adaptability you learned from expat life to feeling more at home in your native UK. Readers, can you relate to what Amy says?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

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And the February 2014 Alices go to … these 3 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not (and why aren’t you? off with your head!), listen up.

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honours February’s three Alice recipients. Starting with the most recent, they are (drumroll…):

1) MICHELLE WELSCH, writer, traveler, founder of Project Exponential

For her post: “Quitting everything to go to Nepal was the best thing I’ve done” on Medium.com
Posted on: 27 December 2013
Snippet:

And everywhere I went, there were EYES. Always eyes. Constant staring, asking the same questions: Where are you from? What are you doing in Nepal? How long have you been here? How old are you? Are you married? Why not?

Sometimes I just wanted to “blend in” and not be reminded of my whiteness and the privileges that come with being an American…

So no, not every day was perfect. But even the imperfect days added to the experience.

One of the monks asked me, “If there is no night, how can there be day?”

Citation: Michelle, the monk’s line of questioning puts us in mind of the cross-examination to which Alice is subjected upon encountering the Caterpillar:

“You!” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are YOU?”

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. Alice felt a little irritated at the Caterpillar’s making such VERY short remarks, and she drew herself up and said, very gravely, “I think, you ought to tell me who YOU are, first.”

“Why?” said the Caterpillar.

Also, if you were bothered by all the eyes staring at you, imagine how poor Alice felt when being scrutinized by a creature with twelve eyes. Yes, that’s what caterpillars have, a dozen eyes. That said, the Caterpillar, whose one and only job is to eat (it increases its body mass by 1,000 times or more), would undoubtedly admire your fortitude in being able to drink tea with sugar and consume lots of carbs without obsessing about food or weight or calories. All told, while your post helps us to understand the charms of this South Asian land, we are still shaking our heads at the notion of monks enjoying water balloons. As the Caterpillar will tell you, water balloons don’t rate, their potential to become psychedelic hallucinogens being rather too limited.

2) AMY R., blogger and British serial expat

For her post: “Expat Life: Love Lessons Learned” on her blog, The Tide That Left
Posted on: 14 February 2014
Snippet:

We ended 2013 by moving to Tanzania. It was the year of learning to be flexible; most importantly to be flexible with each other. I used to be the kind of girl who needed her life mapped out, but since we started our expat life together we’ve both had to find a way to go with the flow. We’ve chosen a lifestyle that throws up the unexpected, and we wouldn’t be able to cope if we didn’t roll with the changes.

Citation: “Roll with the changes”—Amy, that’s exactly what Alice decided to do when her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table, which turned out to contain a very small cake, on which the words “EAT ME: were beautifully marked in currants:

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice, “and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door; so either way I’ll get into the garden, and I don’t care which happens!”

As you can see, in a land where cakes can make you grow larger or smaller, there is little point in mapping out one’s life, especially when you have reasonable hope of getting into the garden eventually. We’re ever so glad you realized that, and just in time for entering your own Garden of Love! (Hope you and your hubby had a happy Valentine’s Day!)

3) MANAL KHAN, journalist, poet, essayist, photographer, and storyteller

For her post: How to Make Friends in a New City—Tip #5, on her blog, Windswept Words
Posted on: 28 January 2014
Snippet

So, if you ever find yourself lost, alone and friendless in a new city, wondering why on God’s earth you ever transplanted yourself in the first place: don’t worry! It takes time for a plant to adjust to new soil, a new atmosphere. But once it gets over the wilting, drooping, moping period—”transplant shock” in botanical terms—it thrives.

Citation: Manal, imagine yourself, like Alice, having landed in a garden where the flowers can talk “very nicely,” for no apparent reason:

“Put your hand down, and feel the ground,” said the Tiger-lily. “Then you’ll know why.”

Alice did so. “It’s very hard,” she said, “but I don’t see what that has to do with it.”

“In most gardens,” the Tiger-lily said, “they make the beds too soft—so that the flowers are always asleep.”

That’s some transplant shock, don’t you think? In any event, we agree entirely that the botanical analogy goes a long way towards explaining why some of us feel displaced when attempting to put down a few roots in our new culture. Until the process is complete, there is little else we can do but indulge in the occasional wilt/droop/mope, as you say. And just think, if the soil proves sustaining, we may one day flower to the point of talking “very nicely” in the native tongue…

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award?  We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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