You’ve probably heard of the Kübler-Ross model, otherwise knows as the “five stages of grief,” but if you haven’t, it’s the idea that everyone grieving about something goes through five different stages of grief. The stages unfold in the following order: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and—finally—Acceptance. “Why is she talking about grief?” you may ask. “That’s kind of a bummer for something on Nerds and Nomsense.” Well, you’re right. That is kind of bummer. This blog post is actually about becoming an expat, not grief, but much like grieving I believe that expatriatism has its own five stages that most people experience. It makes sense doesn’t it? In one situation you’re upset because you’ve lost something beloved to you, and in the other you’re upset because you’ve lost everything that’s familiar and home to you.
I decided to write this post because in three days I will be boarding a flight from Nashville, TN to move to Bordeaux, France for at least the next year. And, for the past month or so of telling my friends and extended family about the move, the general reaction has been one (or a mixture) of three things:
“Oh my gosh that’s going to be so exciting! I’m so happy for you!”
“You’re totally going to fall in love with a French guy and end up living there.”
“I hate you right now. What even is your life?”
I feel even sillier when I try to explain that even though I am excited… I’m even more terrified. At first my fear and apprehension was so strong that I started getting the acne of 14-year-old me, cold sores, and—much like a corseted damsel in a Victorian novel—dizzy spells. Now the dread is sort of this constant but underlying tame thing that I’ve masked with faux-zen.
Yes, the core of me understands that this is an amazing opportunity (#blessed, right?) and that I’m bonkers for having even a moment’s hesitation at leaping at this new adventure . . . but, another larger part of me knows that although this is going to be incredibly rewarding it’s first going to be really, really hard and really, really scary.
The only other time I’ve lived outside of my native U.S.A was during a six-week study abroad program in Great Britain during the summer after my sophomore year of college. Granted, six weeks isn’t really enough time to have actually “lived” anywhere—but the experience (and a mandatory “living abroad prep course”) did teach me that, much like with grieving, there are stages to adjusting to life outside of your home country.
The Five Stages of Expatriatism
Stage 1: Enchantment
This is the honeymoon period. At first you’ll be soaking up all the newness like the happiest of sponges. You’ll probably feel like you’re on an extended vacation. Traveling around Great Britain, my Anglophilia went into overdrive and I would go into rhapsodies about how I was standing where Shakespeare(!) and Jane Austen(!) and David Tennant(!!!) stood. Even something as mundane as riding the Underground was an exciting adventure that made me feel imbued with an aura of metropolitan sophistication. I had an Oyster Card like a native Londoner, thank you very much, and with just a swipe of the plastic card I was visiting places drenched in history and culture that preceded anything America had to offer by centuries. In short, The Enchantment Stage is a truly magical time.
Stage 2: Disillusionment
Your happy haze of excitement and curiosity at all the things that are different around you will start to fade as you realize that you aren’t on a vacation and that you’re going to have to do the normal everyday things here that you’d have to do at home. Groceries must be bought, bills must be paid, toilets must be cleaned. You start to realize that going to get groceries at a Tesco isn’t exciting just by nature of it being different from your usual neighborhood Kroger. Those aren’t exciting foreign candies and cheeses anymore that Tesco is offering: they’re just your new native options. A grocery store is a grocery store is a grocery store—except at this one you can’t figure out which brand of toilet paper is the good one and the aisles don’t make sense.
Stage 3: Culture Shock
Where in The Enchantment Stage “Everything’s so different!” might be said with childish delight, in this stage, “Everything’s so different!” is said with furrowed eyebrows, glazed-over eyes, and generally befuddled stupid expressions. You start to come to terms with what you’ve done to yourself. Everything. Is. Different. You realize that you were naive to feel like a native back in The Enchantment Stage, and you don’t actually understand this new culture at all yet. As the shock quickly pours through your body you suddenly change from feeling like the worldly sophisticate to the overwhelmed rube.
Stage 4: Frustration
This is your Ugly American Phase (or Ugly Wherever You’re From Phase). You’re like an older, angrier Phoebe from The Magic School Bus. Remember how Phoebe would always say things like “At my old school, we were never allowed to be digested!” or “At my old school, we never rode on bees!”? This is now your catchphrase: “Back in my country we never [insert whatever you’re having to do now]!” You’re not just shocked that everything is different, you’re also kind of peeved about it. You no longer have easy access to 24-hour stores and restaurants, burritos, or your favorite TV shows. The cultural gap between you and the natives makes you feel isolated and resentful, and things you used to rely on and take for granted are now very missed.
Stage 5: Assimilation
There is hope for you, however! Over time your frustration and confusion at the new culture will fade as you begin to get the hang of your new digs, and even begin discover things about the country that you really love—things you’ll actually miss if/when you ever move back to your home country. As long as you don’t hold fast to your old ways in a furious fit of jingoism and refuse to let yourself actually experience the place you’re in, you’ll settle into the ability to actually be comfortable in and enchanted by your new home.
Right now I feel like I’m at a mix of stages 1, 2, and 3 before I’ve even arrived in France, and I’m sure I’m going to be feeling a heavy dose of stage 4 for a while after I get there. But I’m optimistic for the future! Yes, I may be scared into paroxysms now, but if I can push through the fear and just let myself go for it I know that there are so many things I’ll come to love about my experiences living there. So, à bientôt, America! The next time I see you I’ll be a little more French than when I left you.