Culture Shock: The long and winding road - Part 1

Many books, seminars and articles have been written about culture shock and its phases during transition. I feel there never can be enough information about this topic, as there is always something new or a different aspect that we could learn from.

When I moved from New York to the Netherlands I was aware there would be differences, but shortly after my arrival I felt more like a fish out of water. Prior to moving to the Netherlands the cultural differences were not a concern, as I thought everyone spoke English, so the blending process into a new culture would be rather simple. That was a naïve way of thinking.

But I have travelled in and out of the Netherlands many times since I made the official move. This coming and going had an effect, an unexpected effect on my ability to grow and settle roots. I went from a fast-paced, busy lifestyle to a very slow way of life. Some may compare it to almost a "halt."

I had one foot in the Netherlands and the other foot in the United States. Over a period of time I started to realise I was in limbo between two cultures. I was struggling to find my identity within the Dutch culture and still holding onto my American heritage.

So, I learned to accept the Dutch for the way they are, and keep pieces of my American heritage intact. I continued to celebrate American holidays, eat traditional American foods while living in the Netherlands. Okay, getting access to the American foods that I was used is a challenge on its own. I will touch that tidbit at a later time. Now after taking part in Dutch lifestyle and celebrations, I would say I had one foot in and the other three quarters of the way in. I’m still American.

Sounds like fun, huh? Trust me; it’s no walk in the park. I know from personal experience I clung to the familiar, such as an old photo, a familiar food item that I stumbled upon in a local supermarket, a newspaper and being in touch with people back home. This gave me a great source of comfort until I realised that I needed to remove myself from the old and embrace the new. I believe that was part of my transition from the Reintegration Stage to the here and now stage.

Experiencing culture shock

Culture shock isn't a clinical term or medical condition. It's a common term used to describe confusing and nervous feelings a person, especially an expat may have after leaving their familiar culture to live in a new and somewhat strange and different culture. It is a roller-coaster of emotions.

These emotions can trigger symptoms, such as headaches, body pain, fatigue, depression to countless other symptoms. When you move to a new country, everything is unfamiliar; weather, language, food, style of dress, humour, values, customs and communication - basically, everything you're used to is no longer at your disposal.

You'll find that the day unfolds differently, that business is conducted in a way that may be hard to understand, the stores are opened and closed at hours that you could never predict or expect. Your patterns are out-of-whack, the smells, sounds and tastes are unusual and you can't communicate with the local baker - not even to buy a loaf of bread. This is culture shock. And like any form of shock, there is a definite and almost certain reaction.

When I relocated to the Netherlands 13 years ago, I read some books about my new country. But no amount of books or articles prepares you for the shock of a new culture. That would be way too simple. When you relocate to a new place, you're faced with a heap load of changes.

Some of these changes can be exciting and stimulating, but it can also be overwhelming and can cause a down-right head scratching moment. You may feel sad, anxious, confused, frustrated, and want to go home.

Next in the series
 Culture Shock: The long & winding road - Part 2
 Culture Shock: The long & winding road - Part 3

Maria Habets


Maria Habets

Maria is a Communications Consultant//Life Coach. She has a Master's degree in Psychology and International Business from New York University and Columbia University in New York. After relocating from the...

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