10 tips for cross-cultural living
You’ve taken the leap and have moved overseas. You knew life would be different, but still, little things every day surprise you: The deep blue of the ocean that greets you on your drive to work. Those wonderful whiffs of your neighbour’s home-cooked meals. The chatter of shoppers speaking a language you don’t understand. And, a not-so-pleasant surprise—that first bout of homesickness.
Surprise, surprise—surprises can be both good and bad! While homesickness is an inevitable part of living away from home, there are ways to make sure you aren’t hit too hard or for too long a time – in the long run, it can really affect your mental health. If you want to avoid packing your bags and heading home much earlier than expected, try following the suggestions below!
- Keep in touch with loved ones—but don’t overdo it. When you move to the other side of the world, it’s always a good idea not to fall off the face of the planet. But it’s equally important to cut any ties that are restraining you from being 100% present in your new life. Calling worried parents with a daily update is not affordable. Or healthy. Communication with an ex is a recipe for homesickness. Creeping your friends’ Facebook pages is only going to make you feel sorry about what you’re missing back home. But sending a biweekly email update to close friends and family, or starting a blog—those are good ways to keep in touch and share your new experiences with those you miss.
- Explore your home away from home. There’s nothing more alienating than feeling like a stranger in your own home. Getting lost on your morning run or having to ask for directions to get to the grocery store doesn’t instill much confidence. Although there will always be a transition period while you familiarize yourself with your new surroundings, you can avoid prolonged feelings of frustration by setting aside time to explore your neighbourhood or city before you really need to know where you’re going. A do-it-yourself map is a handy way to keep you on the right path. How does it work exactly? When you head outside, sketch your route as you go. Not only will you be able to retrace your steps home, you will have made your own map for specific routes you plan to use again and again.
- Learn the language or pick up important phrases. Although English may be considered the universal language, it doesn’t mean that everyone can speak it. More importantly, you shouldn’t expect locals from your host country to speak your native language. It’s definitely a smart idea to take some language classes before you go. Although it is unlikely you’ll be fluent after one beginner course, you’ll head over with a solid foundation and may have even picked up important phrases (e.g., “Where’s the washroom?”) that will help you get by. If the decision to head overseas was a last-minute one, you may not have the time to enroll in a course. So do the next best thing: Get yourself a language book, a dictionary, or even a language exchange partner so you can get some practice time in.
- Be open-minded. Try new things. If you are planning to spend the next year studying in Europe, teaching English in Asia, or volunteering in South America, the last thing you want to do is spend your Saturday afternoons at Starbucks or eat all your meals at McDonald’s (yes, you can find multi-million-dollar corporations almost anywhere nowadays!). And contrary to popular belief, old habits are easier to change than you think. You just have to be open to change. Take cream and sugar in your coffee? Try drinking espresso in Italy anyway. Think you hate raw fish? Living by the seaside in Japan is guaranteed to change your mind. Can’t live without a hot shower? Travel to Thailand and you’ll see why it’s overrated. It’s as simple as saying “yes” to new experiences!
- Share your own traditions—with a twist. Nothing can bring on a bout of homesickness like being away from home during one of your favourite holidays. If you’re living in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, or if Christmas feels like “Christmas in Hawaii,” you may find yourself wistfully dreaming of holidays past. Looking at old photos and reminiscing about family traditions on your own is just going to leave you a blubbering mess. But taking those traditions, adapting them to your current environment, and sharing them with the locals is a way to keep the tradition going and make sure you are surrounded by people you care about. Not only will you beat the blahs, you will also be passing on your tradition to a whole new group of people—extra handy if you plan to stay there another year.
- Stay grounded. Living outside of one’s own country is often accompanied by a sense of “non-reality,” as it can sometimes feel like a prolonged vacation rather than real life. A sense of “no consequences” can lead sensible individuals to act less responsibly than they would back home. Your paycheque can feel like Monopoly money, resulting in over-spending and high credit card debt. And serial dating becomes a quick and easy solution to feelings of loneliness. The only problem is this: A broken heart can result in a whole new set of negative feelings, and may initiate a desire to return home sooner than you’d hoped.
- Forge friendships with the locals. There’s nothing worse than befriending a bunch of people only to have them leave, one by one. Unfortunately, that’s what tends to happen when you make friends with other expats like you. The best way to ensure you don’t lose all your friends at once is by getting to know the locals—they certainly aren’t going anywhere! And guess what? They might prove better suited as friends than foreign workers or international students who have adapted to a transient lifestyle. Losing your friends from around the world will likely result in some loneliness. But having a readily available group of local friends to support you when they leave is a great remedy for homesickness.
- Allow yourself some “me time.” As fun as exploring your new country will be, and as important as it is to befriend the locals and participate in local customs, it is just as important to allocate yourself some down time so that you don’t become overwhelmed by it all. Also, if you get accustomed to filling every minute of every day, that first day you spend on your own will feel worse than a case of food poisoning. Make sure “me” days are just as much a part of your routine as those days when you are playing social butterfly, and you’ll be less likely to be hit with a case of homesickness when you are all by yourself.
- Ask questions, and share your own stories. Overseas living is not the time to be introverted. Demonstrating a healthy curiosity by approaching people at parties, festivals, or even the grocery store, and asking the right questions will help you bond with the citizens of your host country, resulting in a deeper connection to your surroundings. And as much information as you take in, don’t forget to share stories from “back home” too. Keep in mind that many countries learn about North American culture through Hollywood movies, so giving them an idea of what Canada is really like will be an eye-opening experience for both listener and speaker! Engaging in this type of dialogue is a great way to get rid of the “culture shock” blues.
- Take up a new hobby or join a local club. Starting up a hobby that is related to the culture of your host country is a great way to ensure a feeling of belonging. It’s amazing how taking part in local sports, volunteering at a community festival, or taking language lessons can make you feel like you’re part of something important! Feeling like you belong to a community, group of friends, or even a makeshift family may be the number one antidote to homesickness. So what are you waiting for? Go sign up with that community group or join a language class now!