August 13, 2015

5 Ways to Emotionally Prepare for Belated Culture Shock

We all have certain expectations for our new life abroad and it’s wonderful to feel the sheer delight of moving to another country and wondering what the unforeseen adventures will be like.  There are a lot of things to think about. It can be stressful and somewhat daunting taking care of all the preparations that are necessary for a move overseas, but what about our emotional preparation for such a move? Are we prepared emotionally?  Here are five things we’ve learned:

1.  Do NOT Hold (certain) Expectations of How You Want Your New Life Abroad to be Like - When you get here, you will soon learn that many things will not be how you thought it would be, or how you think it should be. Some newcomers to Cuenca have certain expectations and needs they want fulfilled and when these expectations and needs do not get met, it can be a huge disappointment. Did I say HUGE disappointment?

Culturally Challenged Abroad = Belated Culture Shock

The disappointment of having unmet expectations can make us feel a myriad of things such as sad, homesick, angry, despair, or resentful and these emotional feelings come out in our interactions with the community we live in and then we get labeled as “rude or ugly expats”.  But maybe some of us are NOT really “ugly expats”?  Perhaps we are just having belated culture shock. Let me explain.

Did you move abroad not prepared emotionally for the cultural differences? Did you expect certain things to be different for you?  Are you having a difficult time adjusting to the changes in environment and community of people? Did you think you would be speaking Spanish like a pro by this time? Are you homesick for what you left behind? If you are having a hard time adjusting to one or all of these things you might be having belated culture shock.

We’ve heard many remarks from expats who expected life in Cuenca to be different for them and now we’re going to share them with you.

1. We moved to Cuenca to save money but I’m spending just as much because we’re taking taxis every day.
2. We didn’t know the smog was this bad; why didn’t someone tell us before we moved here?
3. I thought I’d learn Spanish by now.
4. I didn’t realize it was so hard to learn a new language.
5. I miss my wide open spaces (front and back yard) back home.
6. Our doggie is not adjusting well; maybe we should have not brought her.
7. We’ll have to leave, my husband is getting sick from the altitude.
8. I’m having a hard time adjusting to the slow pace of life.
9. I didn’t know it was going to be this cold in the homes.
10. I don’t like seeing the garbage and the homes not painted.
11. Why the sawed off shot guns, that’s a bit intimidating?
12. If Cuenca is so safe, how come the tall walls and electric fences?
13. I’m tired of being gringoed everywhere I go!
14. Does the sun ever come out in Cuenca?
15. There are no road rules; I’m scared to cross the street in Cuenca!

If you notice, most if not all of these comments are about how we feel and how well we have emotionally adjusted to the differences of living in another environment abroad.

How can we emotionally prepare ourselves for living in a developing country abroad? Don’t bring any expectations and needs with you, period. Some people are so used to a certain standard of living they can’t and don’t accept anything other than. They might not be “ugly expats” but belated culture shockers instead.

There are two types of people that have a more difficult time accepting things in a developing country: Felix Unger the "neat freak” and Speedy Gonzales the “fastest mouse” in Mexico.  We think you understand why.   Do you think you fall into one of these two types?

2. Don’t EXPECT to Be Speaking Conversational Spanish in 6 Months –More like ‘get by’ Spanish is what we should expect.  Most (older) people, me included, who have never spoken another language (only English) will not learn Spanish in 6-months, so do not expect that you will. I don’t care what Spanish program you use, unless you APPLY the new words you learn every single day to your daily life, you will not be speaking Spanish in 6-months or even one year.

Myth: If I go to Spanish classes and study real hard, I’ll be conversing with the locals in Spanish within 6-months to 1-year. Most people believe this but it’s not usually correct, unless you are a young person.

Reality: In 6-months to one year you will know some basic phrases and numbers so you can “get by” but you will not necessarily be conversing in Spanish fluently; you probably will not even understand half of what they are saying; but that’s ok because as long as you are trying that means you are progressing and that’s good.

You have to emotionally prepare yourself for the let-down of not being able to speak Spanish like a pro, in 6-months! Some older people set it in their mind that they just don’t/can’t do it.

3. Saying Goodbye to Family. If you already have a close-knit family back home and they live in the same city or town as you, and you see them often, it is going to be emotionally more difficult for you to be separated from them, especially once the newness of living abroad wanes. This is just something else to think about before moving your life abroad.

4. Don’t Think You Can Bring Claims against Those Who've Wronged You --  One of the biggest differences between North and South America is how people receive retribution for wrongs done to them. Some N. Americans sue over the smallest of issues, but here, personal responsibility is key.

-If you accidentally spill coffee on yourself and the coffee was piping hot, you’re not going to be able to sue McDonald’s because the coffee was too hot. Heck, you won’t even get a free meal out of it. And to top it off, if you behave like an “ugly gringo” about it, they’ll think you’re loco.

-You’re coming to a place that does not watch-over you like you are a still a baby in a playpen like they do in the states. If you accidentally fall out of the bus onto the pavement, because the driver took off too fast, and you weren’t hanging on tight enough, who are you going to go running to? They’ll just get a new bus driver, maybe. Thinking of suing a foreign transportation department?  Good luck.

-If you don’t realize the ocean on the day you are there has a lot of rip-tides in the water and you drown, it’s your fault, not Ecuador's. You can’t sue the city because there was no life guard on duty or no signs stating the waters were dangerous. Ecuador does not have life guards watching over people and most beaches do not have signs letting people know the water can be dangerous. Swim at your own risk

- If a young guy working in an established business makes sexual remarks to you, you won’t be able to sue that business for sexual harassment.  All of Latin America is labeled machismo culture for a's best to learn to ignore it or consider moving somewhere else. We're not defending disrespectful behavior but rather letting you know it's just the way (some men are) in Latin cultures.  It has nothing to do with you; it's their problem.

-If your iphone gets stolen from a passing thief, it’s no big deal because it’s normal here. Steal from the rich to feed the poor. You are a rich American, right? We’ve even heard it said, “It is the gringo’s fault for flaunting their electronics.”   We have to realize that we’re not being watched over and when we move to Ecuador, we’re outside of the playpen.

5. Bring Diligence and Patience with You – Your best defense against the savage beast of a foreign land is diligence and a patient heart. You won’t need anything else.   Learn how they work together and leave the expectations at home.

Why diligence and patience? Some people don’t seem to understand how things work here, even if they have been doing research for years!  All the issues I mentioned above don’t have to happen to you if you come here with South American diligence and patience. These two things will prepare you the best emotionally and financially.  Believe us!

We're an Expat Family of Five, Living Frugal, Healthy and Happy Abroad. We live in Cuenca, Ecuador and travel the Ecuador coast whenever we get a chance. We just adventured throughout the country of Panama for five weeks! Come along and enjoy some of our experiences with us!

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