The expat adjustment lifecycle….

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An explanation of why you feel fantastic at times, and downright crap at others!

Now I’m not a psychologist, but the cycle of highs and lows you can experience as an expat is common to expats the world over. I’ve done quite a bit of research on this because, quite frankly, I thought I was going slightly crazy. Thankfully I wasn’t going crazy, it turned out that it wasn’t just me on the emotional rollercoaster alone.

It turns out that I was simply experiencing the expat adjustment lifecycle, who knew? Now I’ve split the cycle into five main stages (other articles I’ve read have different stages, but I feel that these are the main ones). Not everyone will experience these stages the same way, a lot depends on your personality and support network, you may repeat stages (many times) but you are unlikely to skip one entirely. There is no timescale for the cycle, for one person it may be three months and for another three years, try not to compare since your life situation is unlikely to be exactly the same as the person you are comparing yourself to.

The five stages are preparation, honeymoon, hostility, adaptation and integration.

Preparation 

Remember the feeling of excitement when you knew you’d be coming to live in Germany, followed by the overwhelming list of things that had to be done before you left. Most anxieties are tucked away whilst you focus on packing, finishing work, planning your new life, only to suddenly surface at the goodbyes to family and friends, when the move becomes ‘real’. The second guessing may creep up and surprise you, watching your worldly belongings start their trip to Germany, leaving you in an empty house. ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ And suddenly excitement takes over as your leaving becomes imminent and by the time your plane lands, the next phase begins.

Honeymoon

Wow, your new home is wonderful, full of shiny toys and a first time for everything. The excitement makes even unpacking and going back to work things to look forward to, and even enjoy. Everyday is full of achievement. You also start making your initial adjustments to living in Germany, ‘how quaint that the shops are closed on Sunday, more time for bike rides in the sun’, everyday is an adventure. You love to (over) share this life with your friends and family back home especially on social media.

Hostility/Culture shock

The first times have now become routine. The realisation that you are now living a regular life, just in Germany, and that Sunday closing which you once found adorable is now merely annoying. Cultural differences become more apparent, waiting for the green man, queueing (or lack of it) and the staring, oh the staring. Feeling overwhelmed and annoyed that everyone around you seems to know exactly what to do, and you don’t. This is not a feeling that most adults are familiar with and this frustration can manifest itself in many ways, anger, resentment and a general feeling of wanting to get back on a plane to the homeland.

The ‘I hate Germanys’ as I like to call them are common to all expats in Germany,  and whilst there is no known cure, acknowledging the symptoms and developing coping strategies will assist in your survival. A cup of tea and some English telly, skyping with your best mate, gin, bitching with another expat and getting some exercise are all great ways, I find, to help me get back on track to a happier place.

Homesickness is hard, but the first time you realize that you are now out of the loop is harder. Your family and friends don’t want to trouble you with their problems, but all you want is to feel normal, and less like they’ve forgotten about you. It can be hard for non expats to understand that your life may not always be peachy, to them you are on one long adventurous holiday, so make some expat friends and let the whining commence.

Adaptation/Acceptance

Small changes happen almost without you noticing, you take your bottles back to the shop for the deposit and always have enough milk to see you through a long weekend. You begin to understand the ‘German way’ and accept that this is just the way things are here, for better or for worse ‘When in Germany…’

You will be building a social network, settling into your work and picking up the language. You will be less phased by surprises and more able to laugh at the moments that in the previous phase would have made you cry and hide under the duvet with chocolate.

Integration/home

Integration is very personal to you, some people place the emphasis on learning the language, others on excelling at work or having a large social circle. Personally I felt integrated when I considered Germany my home. England will always be my ‘home, home’ but I love where I live (welcome to the ‘I love Germanys’) and feel a connection to this place that I didn’t expect to ever feel towards a temporary home.

Most articles on this subject show a nice U shaped curve from honeymoon, down to hostility, travelling back up through adaptation to integration which ends at the same level or higher level than honeymoon. Whilst that’s a good guide of how high (and low) you can go I have yet to find anyone who travelled the cycle so smoothly. Mine was probably more corkscrew in shape and is still ongoing.

As I said there are no hard or fast rules for how and when you will experience these stages. It can feel like the boundaries are constantly shifting like sand, and they are, but your’e an expat now. Expats are flexible, adaptable and knowledgable people. Some days we will check the price of the next flight home too many times and eat way too much chocolate because we are missing our best friends hen do and on others we will spend an age looking at houses for sale nearby and contemplate spending half our wage packet on a new bike. There will always be something about Germany that I have yet to learn, something new to find amazing or annoying, that’s life, and not everyone gets the opportunity to try this life out. Be an adventurer and make the most of it.

Edited 15.07.15 First published on The Erlangen Expat 07.03.14

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