I’m not sure why I thought moving our family to a foreign country would be easy. But if your family ever decides to take the plunge, let me share some things so you will be more prepared than I.
Will your family experience culture shock? Yes! (most likely)
Will it be harder than you thought? Yes! (unless you are a true realist)
Will you get through it? Yes! (and you will be glad that you are choosing this experience for your family)
While I can only speak to my own personal experience, I have talked with and read many accounts of expats who all concur. Culture shock is common. It’s real. And it passes.
Myth vs. Reality
Myth 1: We won’t experience culture shock because we have already lived in a foreign country.
Mark lived in Mexico for 2 years, and I lived in Argentina for 1 ½ years. We were missionaries. We lived in simple houses and used public transportation to get around. And we mainly walked the streets and talked with and helped people all day, every day (and also ate lots of alfajores). We bought and cooked our food and took care of our basic needs. We lived and worked in companionships. It was hard work. So we figured we could do it again, no problem! Plus, we spoke Spanish with reasonable fluency. And we had traveled to Mexico and Nicaragua together previous to moving our family down. Finally, moving to Latin America has always been our dream.
Of course we were not going to experience culture shock, right??
Reality 1: You will experience culture shock because you just moved your family to a new culture.
First of all, living in a foreign country as a single 20-year-old is totally different from bringing your children down here. Children who don’t speak the language, and who miss their friends and their school, and who can get zika or malaria or stop breathing in the middle of the night–it puts a whole new twist on things. Living with rats and scorpions as a single woman is cool. Living with rats and scorpions with your little one year old sleeping in the house feels like downright tomfoolery.
And on top of all of those things, we were just homesick. Thoughts of “what were we thinking” filled my mind. I missed drinkable water coming out of taps, air conditioning, food that didn’t have to be bleached, washing machines and dryers, bathtubs. Sleeping was hard, as I would imagine all the things crawling on my children at night.
A kind expat friend here introduced me to an expat facebook group called “I am a triangle.” After reading through various posts, I realized that I (and we) were experiencing the typical symptoms of culture shock.
Symptoms of culture shock include homesickness, isolation, depression, sadness, irritability, sleep and eating disorders. I mainly experienced homesickness and anxiety for my children’s safety.
Gratefully, as we became more comfortable in our new country, this all passed. Aside from the occasional mouse and scorpion, I feel like we are fairly safe. We have made great friends, we know where to go and what to do, and how to work and relax here.
Myth 2: Our kids won’t experience culture shock because, well, they are just kids.
As an idealist, I thought, we’ll just put our kids in a local school and they will play with the kids at recess and learn Spanish. And it will work out just fine (isn’t that what we are led to believe often?).
Reality 2: If you just moved your kids to a new country and culture, they will experience culture shock. And you might have to make allowances to help them get accustomed.
Guys, it was hard for our kids at first. And from talking to other expat families, our experience wasn’t unique. We put the kids in a local school. I think this maybe can work in some areas of the world, or with some kids. But for us, the change was too great. Going from first world to third world living conditions in the schools. Going from a typical US education to the typical form of Nicaraguan education (this is a whole other post). And going from English to Spanish in a school where no one spoke any English. It was TOO MUCH. And after valiantly going for 3 months with some fairly frustrated kids we called it quits.
Abouot 3 months later, we have found a different, private Nicaraguan school that has more resources to welcome expats, and the kids have started happily attending.
Myth 3: We will be fine living just the way others live.
This was another big surprise for us. We live in one of the nicest neighborhoods in our city. That basically means our house looks like the average 1200 sq ft house you would find in the states. Nice counters in the kitchen, doors between rooms, screens on the windows, indoor plumbing for toilets and showers and a tank that means we always have water even when the city turns it off, insulation in the roof (to help with the heat). The only things missing–no dishwasher, no air conditioning, and no dryer, no bathtub. We pay $500 a month.
We did not plan to live like this!
Again, as missionaries we had lived in much simpler circumstances. As that was our only experience, and we were planning our trip on a budget, we figured we would just do something similar and make it work.
Reality 3: It is hard to lower our perceived standards of sanitation and safety.
In the first two weeks we were looking for housing I just could not feel comfortable in living in a typical Nicaraguan house. They are often open air, which means mosquitoes. I worried about the kids getting zika, chikungunya, malaria. We also worried about safety and security. I imagined people scaling our roofs and entering our homes through central courtyards. And while Nicaragua is quite safe for people, property theft is still an issue.
After considering all our options, we decided to rent in a guarded, gated community (which is what all the expats we know here do). We even traveled to Nicaragua’s new Walmart (see photo above) and found some typical United States house goods (except that the Walmart fans only last about 2 weeks before they die and there definitely is not the kind of return policy in the Nicaraguan Walmart here as you would see in the states. Not bitter though, just some constructive criticism).
The Good News about Culture Shock
Experts say culture shock usually lasts anywhere for 6 months to a year. After we had been in Nicaragua for 4 months we went home to the US for a month. When we returned, we felt different, better. It was wonderful to come back and not have everything be so new.
I had figured out how to get rid of rodents, knew from experience that we were safe in our house, realized no one had ever gotten seriously ill, and knew how to take care of the day to day. We were involved in our church group in the area, and had growing friendships and responsibilities there. We had connected with a small group of wonderful expat families.
I was able to step out of my concerns and see our experience in Nicaragua from a different perspective. A short time in our lives, an opportunity. I realized that I couldn’t see all of the ways we were growing and adjusting. And that the kids were having an experience that would forever shape their sense of self, and their understanding of other cultures. That we would survive without an oven and that the darn rats who ruined it were just trying to survive like the rest of us. 😊
Okay, nope, that’s a lie. I still have no sympathy for the rats.