Expatriating: Culture Shock

Being a first time expat is a lot about being swept up in various excitements. Everything is new. Everything is beautiful. But culture shock is not only real, it's an important part of the expat experience and transition. Everything is a little scary, too. Everything is different. There's also the added complication of language, even when you begin to understand words and phrases in, say, Norwegian, that moment of necessary translation back to English costs you time and clarity. Actions as simple as grocery shopping or booking a dental appointment are suddenly more complex, and thus more time consuming. And then you have social norms which differ between countries. You think you're doing something normal (smiling at strangers on the street, for instance), and really you might as well be walking around wearing a sandwich-board that says 'I'm an American! Regard me with disdain!' Or you put on socks with a hole in them because they'll be hidden in your boots all day, so who cares, but then you enter a Scandinavian house and must remove your shoes at the entrance. Hello, Big Toe! It's happened.

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Culture shock is real. It's important to recognize this curve up front, because culture shock is also not something you overcome in a week or a month or six months. Some would even argue that, for an expat, a perpetual outsider, culture shock never ends. The tremors simply become less shattering after a while. So the above wave continues endlessly, but appears shallower and shallower at every interval.

When you first arrive in your new home city, you'll be cruising on the same happy endorphins that make vacation so fun and memorable. Adrenaline will push you out the door and into the cold air in search of adventure. You'll take lots of photos, chronicle your neighborhood and the local harbor and the way your cats are adjusting (they sleep a lot, FYI). The honeymoon continues even as you contend with life's practicalities. Receiving your new residence permit will make you gleeful. Completing a grocery shopping trip and cooking a meal will make you want to take a bow. And along the way, you'll start believing that you're already adjusting to this new place. It will feel easy. Look at how well I navigate this tram line, you'll think. See how expertly I order coffee at the corner cafe. Nailed it! 

Then one afternoon you'll be standing at a bus stop on your way to hunt down and buy a yellow onion for dinner, and a middle-aged woman in a fur-trimmed coat will approach you and begin speaking rapidly in Norwegian. She'll speak to you so directly and so quickly that you don't have time to do your standard Sorry-I-don't-yet-speak-your-language head duck and smile. Though you recognize her expression as friendly, her torrent of words will bounce off your high, surprised forehead and scatter across the pavement near the bus stop, around the feet of the other people waiting there, all of whom are, thankfully, ignoring you and the speed-talker completely. That's the Scandinavian way.

But the fur-trimmed woman will keep on going, and the longer she talks without taking a breath, the more you feel as though you're about to drown in the deluge. It occurs to you that, maybe, you'll recognize a word or two somewhere in the mix, just a scrap, and if you could grab onto it, you might be able to deduce the context and respond to her in English. 

Then, as suddenly as she began, she is finished. Silence swells between you as her eyebrows raise inquisitively. You will gulp, preparing to explain that you've understood none of this, but before you can utter a sound, something registers on her face. Her perfectly lipsticked mouth settles into a grim line of acceptance and disappointment. She knows.

Standing before this woman, you are childlike. Illiterate. Dumb. You've wasted her time. She will snort her disapproval, loud enough to make the other people at the stop look up, and stride to the other end of the platform, as far away from you and your helpless, hopeless foreignness as she can get.

The bus will arrive then, larger and noisier than you remember past buses being. Doors will fold open. Passengers will disembark. New passengers will step into the body of the wheezing, red beast. Doors will unfold shut. The bus will rumble away. And you'll still be standing at the bus stop. Red-faced, confused and small.

You'll hurry home, worried that if you slow down for even a second, someone will reach out and tap your soldier and ask you for something else in that baffling language. When you're safely inside your apartment, you'll press your back to the closed door and shut your eyes, grateful for this space that is entirely your own. Grateful for the English language and its universality. After a moment, you'll compose yourself and walk deeper into your apartment, shedding your coat and shoes. You'll empty your pockets onto the bookcase in your front hall: keys, wallet, phone, and a reusable shopping bag, which will fail to trigger your memory. Only later, after watching several back to back episodes of Friends and checking Facebook to Like photos of your cousin's four-year-old daughter playing in a fountain in your old hometown, will you remember the yellow onion.

It takes a calling out like this one to draw the honeymoon to a close. A reminder that the new city and country aren't entirely allies in your cause of adventure. They have an adversarial side. 

Recognizing your true descent toward culture shock crisis isn't easy at first. Occasional mistakes, like the first time you get good and lost or the first time you accidentally order pizza with shellfish on it, don't count, and probably won't trigger it. Because these things will be easy to blame on yourself, you'll blow by them. Learn the difference between Tøyen and Skøyen. Avoid the word blåskjell on the menu. Not until the problem you're faced with is rooted deep in foreign soil can the kind of exasperation and resentment build that will carry you down into that valley of disintegration.

For instance, after your encounter with the fur-trimmed Norwegian woman at the bus stop, you may find yourself thinking, It's hardly my fault that I don't speak Norwegian. I've only been here three months. And besides, there are only five million people in the world who speak Norwegian as a first language. That makes it practically obsolete. English, meanwhile, is the native language of more than 359 million people. Burn on you, Norway!

Thus placated and resting on the proverbial high horse, you may proceed with your life. And this little seed of malcontent will grow every time a Norwegian doesn't say 'please' or 'thank you' or 'bless you' after a sneeze. And it will grow when a slouching Norwegian teen in black skinny jeans and headphones fails to give up his seat on the tram to the elderly woman tottering aboard with a cane. And it will grow when the sun starts rising at 9:00 and setting just after 15:00. And it will grow when you tire of dealing in military time. And it will grow when a Norwegian reminds you they don't call it 'military time' but 'twenty-four-hour time'. (In your increasing bitterness, you'll just barely keep yourself from retorting, here, that they might call it 'military time' if Norway actually had a military to brag about. Burn again, Norway! Later you'll be ashamed of living the cliche of invoking America's military might, even privately, as demonstative of American superiority. But not now. Now you're too disintegrated.)

I found myself in this valley of the culture shock cycle during my first February in Norway. I'd been in-country for 10 months, and though the winter had been historically mild, I had nothing to compare it to, so this Californian had had her fill of snow, ice, darkness, gravel on the sidewalks, walking like a penguin, and static electricity building between the woolen layers of her clothes.

I hated the way people ignored one another on the street, even when someone might be in need of help. I hated the Norwegian concept of janteloven, a cultural term that doesn't have a direct translation to English, but boils down to making certain no Norwegian believes he is special or especially capable. And when I tried to sit down and list all the cultural strong points in my new home country, ones I'd been fawning over in the beginning, I couldn't list a single one.

So, what's recovery like?

In my case it was slow, but corresponded with the seasons. By summer, I was flying up through the clouds toward autonomy and independence. I remember thinking that the roofs of the city buildings around my neighborhood seemed particularly pretty that summer. Only later did I realize I'd been walking around Oslo for almost a full year like a tightrope walker, afraid to take my eyes off the wire in front of me lest I misstep and fall to my doom. Looking down, both figuratively and literally, had been safer. When I finally began to look up, chin high, independent and in command of my surroundings, I could enjoy the experience even more than I had during the initial honeymoon. And my admiration for many of Norways' cultural nuances returned, too.

Today, I'd say Jonathan and I are fairly well adapted to our life in Norway. We've got reflectors strapped to the arms of our cold weather coats. We've got candles in all of our windows. We're addicted to our heated bathroom floor. We eat pølse med lompe (hotdogs with potato pancakes, rather than hotdog buns). We take full advantage of every mode of public transportation, from bikes to buses to trams to trains to ferries. We say vær så god when we pass things across the table. We own cross-country skis. Adaptation has taken just about two and a half years.

Will we ever assimilate? I doubt it. That would take fluency in Norwegian and some idea that we'll be staying a longer while. If we had kids here, say, or purchased a house. Until then, we'll settle for adaptation. And I can tell you that the only secret to becoming a a well-adapted expat is to take time and beware the culture shock curve. 

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This page contains a single entry by Audrey Camp published on September 16, 2013 2:35 PM.

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