Culture shock is an experience that many expatriates (people who live abroad for a period of time) experience. The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful metaphor for the feelings that are typical of an expatriate sojourn. Dorothy was whirled away from home to find herself in a land so foreign, so enticing, and so forbidding.
The storm of change comes…
I will start the journey with Dorothy living life as usual in Kansas. She has a loving family, acquaintances, and friends. Life is not perfect. It has its positives and negatives, but it is home. There is, however, an incentive and desire to experience something more. Many overseas assignments begin with the desire to experience a new culture. An overseas assignment may provide professional development opportunities as well. The desire to experience a new culture is often the catalyst that begins the internal and external struggle, especially in an overseas assignment.
After the spark has been ignited, the struggle begins. The anticipation of change is like the clouds forming before the storm. This first anticipatory stage is often accompanied by an emotional roller coaster. Emotions move from excitement to concern contemplating the inevitable change. Many international assignments also require a flurry of activity such as securing visa’s, deciding what to pack, selling or leasing a home or car, and preparing friends and family. So many decisions have to be made that it often feels like one is being swept up by a storm, just as Dorothy was when she was transported to Oz.
And then you arrive…
Once a person arrives, he or she is introduced to new experiences, surroundings, people, culture. It all seems so exciting! We call that stage the honeymoon stage or the tourist stage. Dorothy felt so welcomed when she landed. She was met by strange looking people in an enchanting land. Her journey on the yellow brick road was just beginning.
Along the way, Dorothy begins to make new friends. They remind her of those she knew back home — but they are different. The friends we make and the way we make friends are similar across cultures. It may feel as if the new friends are familiar versions of our friends back home. Each new friend we meet will have some special trait or attraction for us. Just as each new friend of Dorothy’s had a different skill or gift. That skill may be displayed so differently, however, that it may be hard to recognize. That is, it may appear to us that the skill is not even there.
And living in a new culture is scary…
The uncertainty and differences that become a part of this new terrain also become overwhelming and scary. There are two many dangers that lurk unknown. Dorothy had to face new creatures and behaviors. She eventually finds her yellow brick road. Her new friends serve as cultural ambassadors to the new environment, helping her find her way. Finding friends in a new country also helps us understand the uncertainty and difference we experience in a new culture.
Dorothy has to confront the witch and the winged beasts to find her way to Oz. Similarly, the expatriate has to find a way through the strange customs and expectations of others in the new environment. Dorothy’s ultimate confrontation with the witch is much like an expatriate learning how to negotiate the new culture. In the end, Dorothy figures out, by accident, how to vanquish the witch. Our most poignant discoveries overseas often happen as if by accident. When they work, they give us a renewed sense of comfort knowing we can persevere in our new home. Once most of the hurdles are crossed, living in the new land becomes more routine and easier to manage.
Finally, when it seems there is nothing but green pastures and living in another culture becomes comfortable, it may be time to go home. Currently, expatriate assignments are approximately three to five years. By that time, the typical expatriate has become accustomed to day to day living but is ready to go home.
During the worst of the struggle, that desire to go home was strong. It exhibited itself as homesickness. Once adjustment begins, however, the pull to return home decreases and a renewed sense of enjoyment and relaxation in the new environment begins.
There is no place like home…
Ultimately, it may be time to go home. Returning home may feel as easy as clicking one’s heels: one, two, three. Once home, however, it may feel initially like walking on air. Seeing old friends and reconnecting with family is rewarding. Dining at our favorite restaurants and visiting our favorite spots are another joy we may have missed. Dorothy’s journey didn’t tell us what happened after she got home. For the typical expatriate returning home, however, there may be some surprising readjustment.
Dorothy’s journey didn’t explore her experience beyond the first few weeks home. We don’t know how she may have developed over the next year or several years. We do know what many expatriates share concerning their experiences. For the typical expatriate, returning home can add an additional roller coaster ride.
After a few months at home, the pendulum may swing downward again. The welcome home eyes glaze over and the message in other’s expression is, “I don’t care about where you have been!” It takes almost a year to get accustomed to being home again. Having a similar experience is shared by few. You have changed. They have changed. They have built new relationships and engaged in new activities in your absence. It takes some time to readjust and find your place again.
After all is said and done, though, the experience is something that will never be forgotten and always appreciated. It provides new skills and new perspectives. Like Dorothy, you may have had an unforgettable journey to your own Oz.
Writing this reminded me of the fun I had learning so very long ago. It is difficult to put into words the joy of having lived abroad. I will never forget the wonderful experiences I had. They shaped me and provided me with a wealth of skills and abilities.
I created the diagram under the heading to illustrate the journey of culture shock with references to The Wizard of Ox. All of the other pictures come from Unsplash.