It’s imperative I write this post while I’m still feeling the way I am. By the way, I have been feeling positive for the last twelve days. The words of understanding and strength sent by my friends, far and wide (online and offline), may have something to do with how I feel. Realizing that there were people who understood what I was going through, did not judge me for the way I felt, and cared enough to write back to help me through, added fuel to my efforts to survive my predicament of moving to a new country vastly different from anywhere I had lived before.
Anyway, after my repeated attempts to be friendly ( I smiled at a lady in the park and two women at the parlour) resulted in a return stare and no smiles, I began having serious doubts about what my face looked like when I turned my lips upwards. Did it look like I was smiling or did I look like I was doing a facial stretch?
When the people ( I’m talking about other expatriates) I smiled at either looked past me like they hadn’t seen me or simply turned away, I, whose very name means a smile and am known to have a ‘smiling’ face (not silly like the smiley emoji), suffered a moment of an identity crisis. What the hell was happening? Had I even forgotten to do what I do best, i.e., smile, in this new country?
Panicking, I looked at the first reflective surface I found- the steel walls of the lift in the building in which I stay; it didn’t matter that the walls showed me a blurry image of me, thanks to the coating over them to make them less mirror-like.
I stood in the caged enclosure and stretched my lips in what I knew to be a smile for the last forty-odd years of my existence- my face showed all the markings of what could be characterised as a pleasant expression: my lips curved upwards, the corner of my eyes creased and there was, I think, a sudden light in my retina which could be termed a twinkle. A wave of relief swept over me when I viewed my image. Then why were people not reciprocating?
Armed with a cup of coffee, I scurried to my laptop and typed, ‘Why do expatriates not smile?’ and lo and behold, Uncle Google coughed up a number of answers – all I had to do was pick and choose which one suited me the best.
I was surprised to see an article titled, ‘We were surprised when we were advised not to smile randomly.‘
Apparently, in Lithuania, if you smile, people consider you crazy or think you are laughing at them.
I typed again, ‘Which cultures do not smile?’ Google threw up some more answers.
I clicked on the post titled, ‘What smiling means in different cultures?’
An article written by Charlene Solomon of Culturewizard stated,’Americans are the most smiley of the lot. Americans smile to show happiness, gratitude, and even when they’re nervous.’ That Charlene is an American herself may make the statement appear a little skewed. As per Charlene, Russians and Chinese do not smile because it’s considered to be manipulative and is not a sign of security while in Japan, smiling is a way to show respect and hide what you’re actually feeling; on the other hand, Australians and Canadians have smiling cultures and smile to show they’re content; Germans do not smile at strangers; Chinese do not smile at strangers, foreign or not and Brits think you’re being flirtatious if you smile and make eye contact (this last piece of information came as a surprise to me). I did not find anything about Indians or Bangladeshis.
So, I typed, ‘What happens if an Expat doesn’t fit in?’
I found this article on LinkedIn by Anne Waful Anderhofstadt, titled, ‘Expats who don’t fit in.’ This article is what helped me. Anne says, ‘Not every country has to be your cup of tea. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the country or with you.’ As per Anne, the maximum cases of depression happen amongst expats and also a large number of divorces. She’s mentioned a few early warning signs, and on the surface, I pretty much seem to fit the bill. As per Anne, ‘Sometimes, the culture shock is so severe that you just don’t enjoy the things that the locals or even the well-adjusted expats enjoy. So you sit among them, smile and nod, while they are having the time of their life! And this happens to almost all the groups of people you have met.‘ I can’t say that I don’t enjoy the things that locals or well-adjusted expats enjoy because I haven’t had an opportunity to meet anybody yet. This is also not to say that I have resigned to the fact that Dhaka is not for me.
As per Anne, “So here’s the deal, if you have implemented all the advice given but find yourself unhappy in a particular culture, there is a clash between your personality and that of your host country. Stop trying to fit in, because the harder you try to fit in, the more you’ll realize you don’t. It’s an endless cycle.“
Reading this made me realize that it’s perfectly okay to feel like I do. And the moment I had accepted my feelings as being alright, the pressure of having to fit in disappeared; I felt at ease. So, the next time, when the person appointed by my husband’s company to provide expat support called to check how I was doing, I said, “I’m doing perfectly fine.” She asked, “So, have you met people, made friends?” And I replied without flinching, ” It takes time to make friends; it doesn’t happen within a month of moving into a new country. It’s crazy to even want it.” She persisted, ‘Maybe you need to join a club.’ And I said, ‘I will, and I have. We are waiting for our request for membership to be approved. But, I’m okay if it’s delayed; I’m not in a rush to make new friends or, for that matter, just make idle conversations. I have good friends… just not here. “
It made me laugh when she said, ‘Wow! I like how confident you sound. It’s like this whole new person I’m speaking to.” I said, ” This has always been me. But I lost sight of myself in the chaos of moving. I’m back now.” I thanked her for her support in helping me get settled and for checking in on me and that I did not need it anymore. She graciously complied with my request, and we ended the call, agreeing that I would get in touch with her if I needed anything in the future.
Here are a few of Anne’s suggestions that I found helpful – I believe these points will help not just expats in my situation but also students moving to other countries to study or even for those who move within the country. For example, the culture in India varies to a great degree through the length and breadth of the country and can provide a similar culture shock despite the person being an Indian and the move being in the same country.
- Accept that you don’t fit in and relax. It’s ok and it’s normal. No one is the bad guy here. You are just not each other’s cup of tea.
- Expat assignments are sometimes on a limited contract. So focus on the benefits of your situation, for example, career progression.
- While still in the country, increase the frequency of communication with your close friends and family back home or elsewhere. Share your experiences and don’t pretend that everything is fine. Speak about it. Let it out.
- Embrace and make use of technology. For example, have Skype dates with your friends and family. You can have dinner or enjoy a glass of wine together, all via Skype. Having WhatsApp chat groups with them also prevents you from feeling lonely.
- Get away from the environment whenever you have a chance. For example, drive to a neighbouring country for the long weekend and plan your vacations abroad.
I stopped waiting for people to connect. I reached out to friends who tried to connect with me but I avoided them (obviously because I was depressed). And those who hadn’t the time to check in on me, I simply let go of. I told myself that maybe we weren’t each other’s cup of tea and that was perfectly fine.
Over the last 10 days, I’ve been connecting with those who cared enough to check in on me through this time- we’ve had coffee meets and dinner dates (with those in the same time zone as me), and breakfast-dinner dates (with those on the other side of the Pacific) – and it’s been great.
I’ve also been listing down all the places I wish to visit in the coming year and dreaming of them. In addition, I’ve been focusing on my health- doing light exercises that make me feel good. Looking good comes later.
One thing good that came out of this experience and upheaval was the poems that I wrote during the period. 3 of my poems got published by the Chicago-based online literary magazine, Thieving Magpie, in their 5th Anniversary issue yesterday. I’ll share it in another post.
For all those who’ve experienced the expat life (I’m not talking about cultures where the percentage of expats far outnumber the locals, like the Middle East) or those who are going to be moving as expatriates, I recommend reading Anne’s article. Let me know if you have ever felt like this or if you understand what she’s talking about.
Also, let me know what your experience was, of a culture you lived in that was new to you. And if you have first-hand experience of the cultures Charlene talks of in her article, do share it. It will be good to know.
As I write this post, I am in India reversing the culture shock I experienced. We travelled here for the holidays; it strikes me that I’d only been in Dhaka for 2 months and 3 weeks. It’s hard to believe that this entire avalanche of emotions that came over me was the result of eighty-one days. No, not even eighty-one, for I had been feeling upbeat for the last ten-twelve days. I’m not sure if the optimism was the result of some hormone tablets I had been taking over a period of two weeks or your kind words of wisdom based on your own experiences or if it had to do with the knowledge that we were flying to India in ten days’ time or that my older one was returning home from Uni after 5 months or because I finally decided not to put too much pressure on myself to make friends in the new city and to be comfortable in my skin. Whatever it was, I’m going to make sure I do all that I can to make the feeling last. Thank you all for being with me.
I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas on the eve of Christmas. May we all find the light within us and may the light lead us to peace and joy in the coming year. And may the festival ring in a good cheer that lasts through the coming year.
P.S. I’m linking this post to LindaGHill’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday. The prompt was given on 17th December 2022.
Your Friday prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday is “start your post or one paragraph with the word ‘anyway.’” Bonus points if you start your post with “anyway” and regular points if you use it in a paragraph somewhere else in your post. Enjoy!
My writeup is a week late but I posted it, anyway 🙂
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