Saturday, 14 January 2012

What should we expect? The Expatriate Cycle.

When Rob and I visited NC late last year for our 'decision visit' we were warned by experienced expats about the prospect of going through the Expatriate Cycle.

The Expatriate Cycle is a cultural adjustment cycle with several distinct phases. There are many studies to be found on the internet which look at the patterns within the cycle, and the average duration of each of the peaks and troughs of the phases. Depending on which study or expat blog you read, there appear to be on average about 5 phases of adjustment, each with common and distinct emotional 'symptoms' or indicators.

I`m hoping that by understanding these phases our family can somehow lessen the impact as we face them by introducing some coping mechanisms to ride them out. In any case, the Expatriate Cycle appears to be something like this:

1. The Honeymoon - This is commonly regarded as the first couple of months after arriving. Finally, you`re there! Everything is (seemingly, if not actually) shiny and new, exciting, with possibilities. Each day holds a new discovery: finding the local market, supermarket, beach or school. Now you can test your language skills, stroll the local shops in awe of the fascinating items not available at home and happily greet everyone you pass in the street (after all, you'll be a local soon!).

The mindset is similar to that of a tourist: the culture is strange, the people are different, the workplace is daunting but opportunities abound. You`re living the dream! Until....

2. Culture Shock - plummet to your first low, the first but hopefully the worst (yes, there are several lows, apparently). This is said to last another couple of months, as you realise that the language is harder to pick up than you thought, or those months spent learning the language in the sterile homogeny of the classroom doesn`t seem to mean diddly in these parts (why didn`t they teach this dialect???). Everyday necessities such as shopping for groceries, paying bills, negotiating your way to work and making friends is difficult and there are feelings of isolation.

The culture shock appears to be all about the realisation of a yawning cultural gap, where you realise that all those things you like to do, like to eat, like to read - none of it applies here, and if it does, it`s very different. And you're hating it. You are starting to regret having made the move and it might even be making you feel physically ill.

It's this period which I suspect may be when children will also realise that you're not returning home any time soon, that they won't be there for the new school term and start missing their friends. Time to hang tight and find the upside.

3. Initial Adjustment Stage - This seems to be the period where you resign yourself to the fact that you are in a different culture and the preferences and routines of home will have to be adapted or abandoned in order to truly settle in, both socially and professionally. You are seeing some progress in understanding the language and cultural norms.

A routine is developing, albeit different to your old one, but which is starting to feel comfortable. You have made some local friends and are being to feel useful in this new community.

4. Mental Isolation - Another low, less extreme than the first, but a low nonetheless. It's said that there may be several lows of varying intensity, depending on the individual and the circumstance. Those who deal with these better are often those who did not have overly high expectations of living and working in a new culture, but expected to face challenges.

Having been away from home for possibly over 6 months now, there will doubtless be feelings of homesickness and the gloss may have gone from the job as well, resulting in some lack of motivation. And if you were hoping to escape the stresses of home and the old job, forget it. They seem to have reappeared in different forms.

5. Acceptence and Integration - A level of comfort has set in. You have a routine, know where the good shops are, the good beaches, the good walking trails and best restaurants for dinner. Your kids may have started at the local kinder or school and are making friends, and there is a hello of recognition from the local butcher and baker. And you have developed a small circle of friends, both expats and locals.

The language is not so much of a bother now - you know more than enough to get by and are learning more each day. Motivation has returned and you feel like a valuable team member and are not the newbie anymore. You still miss home but don`t get so down about it.

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On the topic of assignment failure, several studies I read also make mention that the 'make or break' of an overseas or international assignment is often largly influenced by the happiness of the partner and family of the employee. Partner or family unhappiness is rated as the number one factor in early return. This unhappiness may be related to issues such as children's education, the interruption of the partner's career, or a general inability to reconcile the feelings of culture shock and isolation from family and familiarity.

And that's my interpretation of the yet-to-be-experienced-by-me expat cycle. For goodness sakes, don`t take my word for it! Surf the net as I did, do some research, look at some blogs. I have referenced some of the sites I took information from below.

So is this a case of 'Forewarned is Forearmed' combined with 'Happy Wife, Happy Life'? Will it be possible for our little tribe, with it's own unique formula of foibles, complete with toddler, disability, language gap and a slight anxiety regarding extreme humidity and mosquito plagues, to be able to stick it out in New Caledonia???

Stay tuned...

References: 'Expatriate Adjustment: Is there always a honeymoon' Reich, B.S; 'Current Trends: Family Concerns remain a hot topic in expatriation', Reich, B.S.;'If you want to solve expatriates' adjustment problems, don't forget the spouse!', Reichs, B.S; 'Adapting to Life as an Expatriate', Montabour, D.

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