Before moving to China, I did hours and hours of online research, read everything I could lay my hands on and asked countless questions to friends who’d lived out there. By the time I left, I was as prepared as I could ever have been and felt confident that I would be able to avoid the BeBeyondBorders shock.
The first few months seem to validate my optimism. It wasn’t until over half a year later that the shock caught me off guard. At first, I didn’t know what it was… I’d suffered from a BeBeyondBorders shock when living in the US but this seemed different.
When I moved to the US, I wasn’t prepared at all so some elements of the culture stunned me. On the contrary, this time in China, I was over prepared and my reaction had very little to do with the culture. Loneliness, stress and irritability are how it manifested itself. I felt as though something was going wrong with or rather within me…
It wasn’t until I’d spoken to other people who’d been or were going through the same experience that I realised it was actually quite common. With this in mind, I created the model below in an attempt to help world travellers anticipate, recognise and ultimately cope with the different phases of the BeBeyondBorders shock.
Congratulations, you’ve decided to move abroad!!! From now until you arrive in your new country, you will be going through this initial phase filled with a mix of apprehension and excitement.
I love everything about this part of the journey, apart from having to pack… I usually leave it to the very last-minute and curse my way through it. Surprisingly, I turned out to be an “obsessive organiser” according to Lonely Planet’s fun packer quiz. And you, which packer are you?
To find out which packer you are: Lonely Planet Quiz
You’ve just arrived at your destination and everything is A.M.A.Z.I.N.G!!! You find the food delicious, the language melodic and local customs fascinating. You spend your time exploring your surroundings and marvelling at how unique and extraordinary things are. It’s as if you and your new country were on some kind of honeymoon…
When I first got to Norway at 18, I spent several months in this phase. Everything around me felt so exceptional and unbelievably exciting! Keen to embrace it all, I said “yes!” to everything whether it meant exploring, listening or tasting – even the strangest food…
To find out more about: Norwegian delicacies
“All good things come to an end” and so does the “Amazing!!!” phase sadly… The shock is the trigger that concludes it. It can come after days, weeks or months and can be fairly mild, extremely strong or anything in between. Examples of shock could be witnessing a behaviour perceived as offensive, struggling to be understood, getting lost or falling ill.
The trigger which led to my BeBeyondBorders shock in the UK was when my granddad passed away. I’d been living in London for about a month and was loving it! Suddenly, losing him, made me feel both homesick and guilty for not being physically close to my family.
This phase is the consequence of the shock. Depending on who you are and the situation you’re in, it can last days, weeks or months and can materialise in different ways. Anger, stress, sadness, irritability, withdrawal, isolation and panic are common symptoms. You may also feel homesick, hostile towards locals, have a lack motivation, trouble sleeping and either overeat or the opposite.
In the US, my housemates’ endless questions such as “Is Paris the capital city of Europe then?”, “So, France shares a border with Russia, right?” or “Did you learn how to make spaghetti Bolognese on YouTube?” made me feel misunderstood, irritable and isolated. The lonelier I felt, the more I withdrew myself which didn’t help… even F.A.O. Schwarz’s cuddly bears weren’t able to console me.
In some cases, the shock is too strong to overcome and you might decide to return to your home country. Take your time and exhaust all other avenues before making such a drastic decision. However, if this is the right move for you, go for it. Your health, well-being and that of your family are the most important.
I almost opted for that option after I broke my hand in China and went back to Europe for 3 weeks of sick leave over Christmas and New Year. It took a lot to convince myself to head back to Shanghai for another year but, in the end, I’m really glad I did!
If you decide to stay and manage to push through, you will eventually start to acknowledge both the environment around you and the ongoing feelings within yourself. You will stop resisting, questioning everything and start adjusting instead. What seemed so foreign at the beginning will slowly become familiar whether it’d be the layout of your new city, the food or the language.
When I first arrived in Melbourne, I went for a walk to the beach with a friend. The next day, I tried to follow the same route but got completely lost. Determined to find my way, I wandered around and made it to the waterfront eventually. Day after day, that walk became more familiar and I bet I could now do it with my eyes closed!
Once you’ve adjusted, the process of adaptation will start and soon you will feel at home in your new country. That doesn’t mean you’ll embrace absolutely everything about it but you’ll take in what resonates with you and accept the rest without judgment. You may find yourself adopting some of the practices and behaviours that surround you.
By the end of the 2 years I spent in China, I’d adopted several local customs and had become addicted to tea in all its forms and colours: green, black or white, hot or cold, with or without milk and even with or without bubbles. Have you tried bubble tea before? If you have no idea what I’m on about, check out the link below.
To find out more about: Bubble Tea
If you stay long enough in a new country, it might not seem new at all after a while. In fact, you may become so integrated that you feel like a local and never want to leave!
I often look back and think that this is what would have happened to me if I’d stayed in Norway for longer. After just a year, I felt more at home there than I did in France. Keen to fit in, I’d dyed my hair blond, was learning the language diligently and couldn’t wait to be able to afford one of the country’s traditional outfits.
However, staying isn’t always an option. Returning to your home country might be the biggest challenge of them all. Not only have you changed, your home has too. This reverse BeBeyondBorders shock may cause you to feel like an alien in your own country. People around you will be talking about movies you haven’t seen, artists whose names you don’t recognise and music you’ve never heard of. They might even use new slang words that mean nothing to you.
To be honest, I struggle with this sentiment every time I go back to France, even if it’s just for a holiday. It’s one of the many reasons why I don’t think I could ever go back permanently… I mean, look at me 😉
There you have it: The BeBeyondBorders shock summarised in a 9 stage model. Stay tuned as in a couple of weeks I’ll share tips on how to overcome some of the challenges mentioned above.
How about you… have you suffered or are you suffering from a BeBeyondBorders shock? Share your story in the comments ~
Keen to keep up to date with Be Beyond Borders? Subscribe below ~
Amazingly insightful Solene!! Love the model to help explain it all too
Thank you very much Jenny! I’m glad you liked the model ~ I had so much fun putting it together 😉
Solene – you have nailed this path! In Liberia I made it all the way to adoption, while in China I made it to adaptation and was just approaching adoption. In both cases I experienced alienation upon returning to the US.
Hi Curt, thank you so much for your comment. I’m so glad to hear that you could relate to the model and its different stages! I had no idea you lived in Liberia, how was that? How long were you there for? I’d love to hear all about it!
Yes! I am going through this phase right now. Two weeks back, I had a nervous breakdown. I moved to London from India about 5 months back. I almost felt like I want to leave everything behind and head back as if I don’t care anymore. I could relate to every single thing you have mentioned in the post except the adoption part of it because I haven’t reached there yet and I am not quite sure if that would happen. People at work are super nice and they are trying everything possible to make me feel at home. It’s just that it gets very lonely after work. Initial 3 months, I think I never really cared but now it has almost turned into a harsh reality that I am faced with which just seems highly demotivating 🙁