Tips For Adapting To A New Culture
07/09/2003 by Ray Theron
After 24 years of marriage, Ray found himself divorced, without a family home and facing an uncertain future. A timely reconnection from the past saw him pack up his life and start afresh on the other side of the world. This is his story…
Two mottos I have always tried to live by; one could say that they form the two sides of the imaginary talismanic coin I carry with me:
Always follow your heart and Never give up on your dreams.
Most of the time I have been able to live by these mottos, although there have been periods in my life when it was extremely difficult to do so. However, there are times when following one’s heart can lead to great difficulties, or to situations where one finds oneself strenuously challenged…
Like many others, I have found myself following my heart literally into a foreign country, and that poses difficulties one is not always warned against, or which are easy to underestimate because one is intoxicated with love.
So, if this tale of mine can help others who are in this situation or who are considering leaving home and all that means to be with a loved one in another country, then it would have been worth writing.
Starting A New Life Abroad
After living and teaching in the same place for almost 24 years, I one day found myself cast adrift from all that had been familiar: my wife at the time had decided that she wanted a divorce and I was totally burned out by too many years of coping with the stresses, strains and demands of teaching teenage boys a subject most of them had no desire to learn (English).
I was about to lose my wife, my family and the snug and cosy home life I had started to take for granted.
Into this fog of uncertainty there came someone from my distant past; M and I had had a brief relationship about thirty years earlier, but then our ways parted and we lost touch.
Now she suddenly found me on the Internet again and we started corresponding. She had moved to the Azores (Portuguese islands in the middle of the North Atlantic) and eventually we decided that I would pack up my life and go and join her.
Of course I knew pretty well what difficulties faced me beyond obtaining a tourist visa and my tickets. I was going to find myself on a small island, surrounded by people who hardly ever spoke English, who were culturally vastly different from me.
I was about to enter into what we both hoped would turn out to be a long-term relationship with someone in a far-off place where I had no friends, no family, no support network at all. But, as it turned out, I coped… and this tale is about how I did.
I suppose I am fortunate that I learnt very early in my life how to adapt quickly and repeatedly to new surroundings, because the nature of my father’s work meant that we moved around a great deal, and three years in one place while I was at school was an eternity!
Before I moved out to the island properly, I went for a visit. So I spent about three weeks around the start of 2000 on the island. It was an essential visit, because I had to determine whether I could cope with living on a small island (dreaming about it and doing it are two very different things!) and, most important of all, whether M and I could start a new relationship.
I also wanted to see as much of the place and people as possible before I made a final decision, because it had to be an informed decision, not a hasty clutching at a straw one. As it turned out, all went well, and by the middle of March that year I upped and moved to what was to become one of my most favourite of all places, to a place where I was to be intensely happy and where I ended up fitting in extremely well.
So why did this move work so well? I was fortunate that I instinctively did the “right” things…
1. Always expect a challenge
Only a fool, would think that placing himself in a totally foreign environment without any family or friends will go off easily, because it hardly ever does. I knew, before I stepped off that aeroplane in April 2000, that I was in for an exciting, but challenging time.
It does sound a bit like pre-emptive worrying, yes, but be prepared for the worst, because that way, if it happens it is no shock, and – even better – matters are quite likely to go much smoother!
2. Keep an open mind
There is no greater guarantee for unhappiness in a foreign environment than to take one’s prejudices with you. Forget about the way things were done back home; if you are going to make value-judging comparisons, you are going to get hurt and to antagonise the people you most want to accept you.
If you are used to good wines or special delicacies back home, find new good wines and new delicacies in your new home. If people back home are very inhibited in their displays of affection, whereas you are now surrounded by huggers and kissers and touchers, become a hugger/kisser/toucher as soon as possible!
People truly and deeply resent being thought inferior or being criticised for the way they are and how they do things. So shut up and join in, no matter how hard it is – it will become easier as time passes!
3. Learn the language
You cannot understand a person or their soul fully until you can speak their language. It doesn’t matter how broken and badly your use of the language is, you will find people will smile and help you, rather than ridicule you.
After all, you are paying them a huge compliment by trying to speak their language; you are in fact saying to them, “I’m battling like crazy and not succeeding too well yet, but you are worth the effort of my learning your language”.
Very often, too, people who at first said they cannot speak any English, will try to do so to make life easier for you and to return the compliment you are paying them.
And, as a language teacher and linguist, I can assure you that, surrounded by mother tongue speakers only, you will learn the new language must faster than you ever imagined.
4. Go out of your way to make friends
Your starting point will be your new partner’s friends, family and colleagues. Be open and friendly to these people, even old boyfriends/girlfriends! You need to strengthen your position, and for that you need to establish your presence as a valuable and worthy addition to your new partner’s life in her/his environment.
You do not want to alienate these people, because you are the only one who will lose. You want to win them as your own friends too, because they will lead you to other friends. Of course being an open and friendly person does not mean that you go around panting to be accepted!
Be yourself and kind, open-minded and honest to yourself. Be willing to make compromises and you will soon have lots of new friends, not only mutual ones with your new partner, but also your very own. And please don’t become disheartened if not all first contacts turn into friendships. Remember how difficult it often was to make new friends back home…
5. Don’t become dependent
It is a terrible trap to fall into, that of focussing all of your time, attention and life on your new partner, just because she/he is the only one you can communicate with. Of course the two of you CAN communicate, otherwise you wouldn’t be where she/he is!
Remember that you are a person in your own right, that you have to be able to live in your new environment with or without your partner’s assistance.
In this respect M was very helpful (although I didn’t think so at the time!). One day she said to me, “I haven’t got time to pay these bills, and they are urgent, so please go and pay them for me, will you?” It entailed finding a number of businesses, speaking to the people there in my broken Portuguese and generally having to behave as though I was a native.
It was painful the first time, but the reaction I got from all concerned was so helpful and kind that it became a pleasure! Go shopping on your own. Take a train or tram or bus on your own. Go hunting for a special book or flowers or map or information on your own.
Act as though you have no support, because that’s true – apart from your partner you have none yet, you must develop your support network in your new life yourself.
Also avoid the pitfall of getting bogged down in any expat group there may be in your area. It is good to mix with other expats, yes, but only if you can stand on your own in your new environment.
Don’t rely on social contact with others from your homeland to carry you through, because it will not.
6. Get to know your new world
Explore as much as you can, on your own or with someone else. Ask questions, read brochures and other tourist information. Remember, back home you belonged because you knew your surroundings, among other things.
Make yourself at home where you are now. I learnt so much and so quickly about the island that I not only fell in love with it, but mere months later I could work as a local tour guide, and I knew much more than many of the locals.
That helped me to be accepted, as well, because people will know that you are worth knowing if you care so much about their home town or country.
Go out of your way to see the good, the beautiful and the interesting in your new home. Take a camera, if needs be, to record your impressions of these aspects of your new world. Share these things with friends and family back home… NEVER complain, because that puts you into a negative frame of mind, and that spells only doom to your efforts to be happy where you are.
7. Keep yourself active
Continue practising the hobbies or pastimes you had back home, or start new ones. At all costs avoid spending your free time moping about the differences between here and “back home”, because you are going to depress yourself and your new partner, believe me!
8. Never ever feel sorry for yourself
(Well, at least not in public!) If you come across as happy and appreciative of what you have, who you are and where you are, then becoming part of your new world will be so much easier, because the people around you will see it and think the better of you for it, and that all helps!
Perhaps I was fortunate because of the kind of person I am, but I did not experience much more than twinges of the pain of adapting. It was a different story in Japan later, but that was for different reasons and also because I was guilty of not following my own advice fully!
I have now been in Australia for almost ten months, and have settled in very well here (yes, for a South African, Australia DOES present an alien culture!). I am happy here because I have followed my own advice. Exploring Melbourne and the local vicinity for photos for my Cam page on the Internet has also been a tremendous boon, because it has helped me focus on the beauty of my new surroundings…
Also, over the years I have learnt a very valuable lesson, and that is my last tip for you…
9. You and you alone determine your happiness
As long as you think others can make you happy or not, you will not find true and lasting happiness. There are things we can change, and if we need them to change, we must do so. But daily we are surrounded by things over which we have little or no control, and to wail about them will only make us unhappier.
So be your own best friend and nurture your own capacity for happiness… then your new surroundings will not be able to get you down. This, then, is what advice I can give as a man who has three times made the cultural leap into the new.
My experiences are different from the typical male resettlement experience, yes, because I have not moved into a new work environment every time, so I did not have to adjust to new office politics, new faces at work and the stresses of fitting into a new job, but the strategies that have stood me in good stead these last few years will, I believe, help even there.
Whoever you are and wherever you now find yourself, I wish you only joy in settling in. Remember that you owe it to your heart and to the heart of the one you came to be with to be as happy and as well-adapted as possible. May all go well with you!
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