Following on from our ‘top ten tips of things to consider when thinking of teaching abroad’, this week we focus on the problem of culture shock, and look at strategies to help make the transition into your new life overseas a smooth one.
As you may have heard us mention before, working overseas and moving away from your comfort zone is one of the big adventures, and it can be a real eye opener. It’s a chance to meet a completely new set of colleagues, make new friends, experience a different culture and become part of another community. Hopefully you’ll also get the chance to explore a different part of the world, too. Of course it’s also the start of another journey you’ll share with your students.
‘Culture shock’ however is a completely normal part of the process of adapting to a new environment. That sense of confusion and anxiety, of not knowing how things work, or even of not knowing what behaviour is or isn’t appropriate, can seem quite debilitating.
Experts writing about the ‘expatriate experience’ report that after an initial ‘honeymoon period’, when everything is new and the possibilities seem endless, culture shock, perhaps taking the form of homesickness or even depression, can set in.
Fortunately there are coping strategies to help make the transition into your new overseas life – and ‘cultural adaptation’ – run smoothly and enjoyably. Here are just a few of them.
1. Go with the flow
The best way of coping with culture shock is to acknowledge that it may well ‘happen to you’, and that it’s quite possible you’ll feel anxious when you’re thrown into a completely new environment and new ways of working. Preserving some ‘me’ time and space, and perhaps staying in touch with loved ones at home, while making the effort to adapt to your new culture, is the best thing you can do.
2. A little local language can go a long way
Not being able to understand the local lingo can be incredibly frustrating, and make simple tasks ten times more complicated. Even though English is in common use within international schools, it’s well worth genning up on a few key words and phrases in the local language, and even signing up for a crash course. Some employers may help with courses, so be sure to ask.
3. A sense of place
This is surely something you’ll want to do anyway out of curiosity and excitement before you move, but it’s worth mentioning that the more research you can do about your new school / village / town / region / country, the easier it is likely to be to make the transition. As well as the usual tourist guides, seek out the literature – on and offline – written specifically for expats, and even for locals if you can read the language.
4. Different interests prompt new adventures
You probably don’t limit your social circle to your work colleagues in your home country; likewise it can be important to make wider contacts and friends when you’re living overseas, so you can start to become part of the community. Attending classes, events, or pursuing hobbies can be a great icebreaker, so pluck up your social mettle, get out and about early on, and see where it leads!
5. Orientation programmes
Most international schools worth their salt will offer an orientation or induction programme of some sort, ideally providing a programme that’s fun and practical, giving you a welcome to both your new school and your new home. The best will offer information to help you settle in, on topics that in the UK you might not give a second thought to, but in your new country could be a complete mystery: how to get a phone installed; whether to drink the tap water; where to get your dry cleaning sorted out; and which sim card to buy for your mobile phone – these can become huge challenges, but they can, with the right support, be overcome!
6. Make the most of being a mentee
If you’re assigned a mentor to help you find your feet, then make the most of being a mentee! A good mentor can be an excellent resource, filling you in on all you need to know about your new workplace and your new home, as well as being a general giver of support when it’s support that’s most needed. If you’re not allocated a mentor, maybe you could find a way to choose your own, unofficially?
7. You do not have to do it all on your own
Remember that it’s in your employer’s interests that you make settle in smoothly, so ask for help when you need it. Chances are, you will be among others who are either at the same stage of acclimatisation or who are slightly further down the line, and they’ll be more than happy to share their knowledge, friendship and offer support.
8. Budget wisely
Remember that you’ll usually need to find more funds at the start of a new posting overseas, to cover one-off expenses such as equipping and even decorating accommodation, installing services like phones and broadband, and perhaps even acquiring a vehicle. However there are many posts advertised at eteach.com that come complete with accommodation, so choosing one of these might reduce up front costs – and save a fair amount of stress into the bargain.
9. Look after yourself
As well as registering with the relevant health care professionals when you arrive (rather than leaving it until there’s a crisis!) remember to look after yourself, and again, to ask for help when you need it.
10. Time: the great healer
And finally, it’s true to say that you are embarking upon an adventure, and there will be an adjustment period. Allow yourself time to settle in, build your support network – and don’t beat yourself up for sometimes feeling confused, frustrated or homesick; most people do successfully acclimatise themselves, and have the adventure of their lives!
This piece was inspired by, among other sources, ‘The Essential Guide for Teachers in International Schools’ by Mary Langford, Richard Pearce, Debra Rader and Coreen Sears. We hope to be giving away copies of this book shortly: watch out for details in your Eteach International Newsletter.