The Expat Curve is a roughly sinusoidal wave that many laowai are sure to find familiar. It illustrates six different phases expatriates go through after moving abroad for work and living.
Expat consultants Living Institute put the following video out about a year ago, but it’s new to me and I think it’s well-worth a watch for any new or soon-to-be China expats, as it offers some insight into a common series of ups and downs living abroad can result in.
Honeymoon Phase: As its name suggests, this initial phase is basked in the warm glow of newness and excitement of having moved abroad. Differences are brushed off as “interesting” or “charming”, patience and understanding are at all-time highs. The feeling is similar to being a tourist, as discovery is around every corner. Living Institute advises using the abundance of energy during this phase to get settled, create a support network and establish routines.
Initial Cultural Shock: Shit gets real. Often initiated by relatively minor conflict or problem of some sort, such as issues with your employer or an illness. What would have been no big deal back home, in your new environment is exacerbated. You may be asking yourself for the first time, “What am I doing here?”. Living Institute recommends being careful about taking a trip home in this period, as you may wave the white flag and not bother to return. Instead you should rely on the relationships and routines established in the Honeymoon Phase to help pull you through.
Superficial Adaptation: Assuming you don’t pack it all in and head for comfortable shores, you will enter a phase of “superficial adaptation”. You’ll quickly learn survival skills by mimicking what’s around you, and the basics leave you feeling a bit more confident in your new life.
Culture Shock: Not long after entering the phase above, you begin to realize there’s a striking contrast between the values, priorities, and ideas that you hold and those of your host country. It’s here you can experience full blown culture shock, where you begin to feel everything is just too foreign. Living Institute explains, “you conclude that the people you live with are either barbarians, or maybe just plain evil/immoral/inhuman, or simply just dead wrong on essential issues of life, work, faith, or social approach.” This is a difficult phase to navigate, and it’s common to turn inwards and isolate yourself from it all. The best thing to do is force yourself into contact with your location and its people, which will eventually lead you out of culture shock and into the next phase.
Integration: Once you push past the culture shock phase, you gain a greater respect and understanding of the place you live and the people who live there. You “realize you don’t have to become like them, you just need to understand why their world makes sense to them.” Language/cultural skills and locale know-how, along with a well-established support network, have you moving comfortably around your new life abroad. Until…
Re-Entry: Also known as reverse culture shock, this happens when you eventually leave your expat life and return to your home country. It likely hasn’t changed very much, but you have. If you don’t prepare for this differential, you may start to feel that “you don’t fit into the one place in the world where you thought you belonged.”
What are your thoughts? Have you experienced these phases and feelings?