Arlene at age 2, Kingston, Jamaica

When I was three years old, I went to live with my paternal grandparents along with my brother. This was a big change for us both.

My grandparents enrolled us in a private in-home kindergarten called Auntie’s School. Each morning my Grandmother would walk the half mile to this lady’s home holding my hand the entire way. And every morning I wept at the door and clung to her to no avail. After she left, I would cry all day into the handkerchief that was pinned to my blouse. A fresh one was pinned each morning for the new round of tears. All my memories of Auntie’s School literally consist of me crying. The only exception is my memory of when my brother got in trouble for splitting open his no.2 pencil and writing with the bare lead.

The following year we were deemed ready to go to proper kindergarten at the big primary school attached to the Teacher’s college a couple miles away. Come September, first day of school, all the children had to line up outside the classrooms. What I remember most was the wailing of children attending school for the first time. Crestfallen faces in crisp new navy-blue pinafores and white blouses, khaki uniforms and shiny black shoes. I stood patiently in line and observed them. I was silent and dry-eyed, but I had a deep sense of empathy. I had been there. I knew what this change represented. I could relate.

Sometimes when we observe others going through change, wrestling with learning a new language, adapting to new customs or navigating new ways of working, it is easy to be unsympathetic and want them to ‘get on with things.’ We can misinterpret their adjustment period as them ‘complaining’ or ‘whining’ but they are simply coming to grips with the scale of change they have just undertaken in their lives.

In the corporate environment, we might politely shove some training videos at them with a few slides on intercultural communication and expect them to move along and settle in seamlessly. But moving countries can be particularly challenging; uprooting isn’t easy, even when it is desired.

In my experience, both professionally and personally, it is most valuable to connect with someone else who has also undergone this type of change. In the corporate setting, this is not career coaching or leadership development, this is a ‘buddy’ or ‘mentor’ who firstly can listen and then empathize. They will be able to relate and can offer advice to help a newbie adjust to life in their new environment. They are often most helpful in suggesting service providers like where to find a great barber. It’s the little things that make a difference, especially since the website or the brochure from the relocation consultants is inevitably never enough.

If you are contemplating making a move or just made one, here are a few tips that have worked for me in each new place:

  • Ask a lot of questions and ask for what you need. This is the time that people will be most willing to help you as you are new.
  • Explore, explore, explore. Kick your curiosity into high gear. Whether you are single or with a family embrace the freedom to learn something new.
  • Join a mix of groups and associations. I find that it is valuable to form friendships with locals and expats – even if they are from a different country as there is automatically a shared understanding, which is useful as you strive to assimilate.
  • Register at your consulate or embassy. Get on the mailing list for events and news that keep you connected to your home country. Remember, one day you may be returning.
  • Start reading the local papers – all of them and then pick a couple you like and read those regularly. It helps to be able to contribute knowledgeably to conversations and lifts you out of ‘tourist status’. Language might be a barrier but I was usually able to find a local news source in English when I lived in non-English speaking countries.

Before I forget – register with healthcare providers as soon as possible i.e. a doctor and dentist. My husband fell ill shortly after we arrived in the UK and the doctor at the local surgery refused to see him because he was not yet registered.

Finally, recognize that culture shock is inevitable. You will go through it. Just ride the wave and be kind to yourself. More importantly, remember that it passes.

Keep tuning in, I’ll continue to share my experiences and tips in each blog post. Subscribe and share your thoughts in the comments.

© Arlene Amitirigala 2020. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “Adjusting is intentional; ask for what you need

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