By Carrie Jones, LCSW
When my husband Dewayne and I left Texas and landed in Beijing 17 years ago, we knew we were in for all kinds of change. Obviously, we expected to be surrounded by different people and places, to eat exotic food, to hear a foreign language, and other such obvious changes that come with moving overseas. What we didn’t expect was that from the moment we stepped off the plane, we’d hear my husband’s name seemingly every time we turned around – “Dui, dui, dui (对，对，对!)” This was a bit disconcerting at first, but with time, he grew to really enjoy his name here basically bestowing on him the title Mr. Right…and there’s nothing he loves more than introducing me as “Bu Dui (不对)” – Not Right.
While just a fun light-hearted example, in many ways this story perhaps is typical of how most of experience transitions when we first arrive here – some are anticipated and expected while others surprise and catch us off guard. Either way, it’s important to recognize that they are just that – transitions – and that any change, whether positive or negative, can be stressful. With this in mind, it can be helpful to be aware of some of the common stages of transition people experience when they first arrive.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Phase*
People often arrive in the honeymoon phase where everything seems new, exciting,
and intriguing, and they are ready to begin the great adventure with energy and enthusiasm. I vividly remember riding in a taxi (new experience for a small-town Texan!) past Tiananmen Square everyday on my way to work and thinking how surreal and “sophisticated” it felt that this was now my “normal” life here.
*Not everyone arrives in this stage. Kids sometimes arrive feeling forced by their
parents to come and sometimes even supporting spouses come with a bit of reluctance.
Stage 2: Distress
The novelty starts to wear off and individuals may feel stressed, confused, inadequate,
homesick, or isolated as they try to adjust to their new life here. I definitely had days where the
sea of people, language bloopers, and radically different ways of thinking and doing things that
were so fascinating and amusing just a short time ago suddenly grated on my nerves. This can take a toll physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Stage 3: Adaptation and Adjustment
Individuals begin to accept the differences and similarities between this new culture and their
home culture and start to feel more relaxed, confident, and even like an “old hand” as they get
used to life here and learn how to cope with the challenges and celebrate successes. In
some cases like that of my husband and I, people even fall in love with life here and stick around
for years and years (our original plan way back in 2002 was to stay one year)!
Stage 4 : Graduation
Wishful thinking! This stage doesn’t actually exist. With time and adjustment, life here does
generally become more manageable and enjoyable, but the adaptation process is
more cyclical than linear. Even after a good amount of time here, it isn’t uncommon to cycle
back through various stages, especially on “This is China” days when culture shock
hits afresh or in a new way. The adaptation stages also often come back into play as major
life transitions occur here. The birth or leaving home of a child, change in marriage/relationship
status, change in health status, etc while abroad all can cause one to relate to and experience
life here in a very different way and thus have to transition anew, even if to a milder degree.
People often ask what the timeline is for each stage. It would be nice if it was simple, straight-forward, and easy to predict, but it isn’t. Each individual arrives with different circumstances, personality, temperament, and expectations, all of which influence the process of adaptation. With time, intentional decisions and choices, and the support of both local friends and an international community, and hopefully a sense of humor, at some point though most of us are able to move beyond the distress stage. Live here may never feel like “home,” but does become more comfortable and familiar. Many people find that it is around the one-year mark that they have overcome the biggest and most intense adjustment phase and start to feel more settled and ready to really start thriving in this new environment. By then, there has been a chance to experience every season, holiday, and milestone that comes in any given year at least once. This provides at least an idea of what to expect and anticipate the next time around and allows one to plan around the times and experiences that were most challenging and build on the ones that were most rewarding. It must be repeated though that everyone is unique and that situations and circumstances vary tremendously. Some may adapt a bit quicker while others may need a bit more time. It isn’t a race or a contest; we each settle in at our own pace and in our own way.
It is also equally important to manage self-expectations. Most members of our international community are high achievers, whether sent here as yet another advancement in an already very successful career or having chosen to come here pursuing personal ambition and goals. This is commendable, but can make the transition challenging when suddenly even very basic things like reading, communicating, shopping, and paying bills become a struggle for individuals with high self-expectations who are accustomed to being very productive and accomplished. Also, for many, the move here marks a change in role or identity, whether a new job or position, a move from student to professional or vice versa, or from working professional to supporting spouse/partner. While we all expect the obvious external transitions of language, food, environment, social circle and such, sometimes these more subtle internal transitions come as a surprise and require a bit more time to work through in a healthy way.
Practice self-care and compassion, invest in relationships and build and reach out to your personal support network, and when needed or helpful, don’t hesitate to seek professional counseling support. Though varied in the specifics, we all experienced the transition, so no need to do it alone – we’re all in this together!