Culture Shock

I remember her vividly, she was an incredible athlete, our star soccer player, but with the worst negative attitude you can imagine. Of course, we didn’t care, we all tried to talk her through it every day. She had her moments where she let down her guard when she relaxed and you could see she was enjoying herself, then, she would turn.

Charlotte and I had moved to Caracas, Venezuela at the same time. She was American, and of course I was Canadian. We both left a great group of friends, and a home we loved, well, that isn’t all true. Charlotte left a great group of friends, so did I, but I chose this posting with my parents. I wanted to move again. Charlotte on the other hand, was not open to this new experience. By new, I don’t think she had ever seen a poor neighbourhood even in the U.S. In Caracas, the barrios surrounded us, you could turn a corner, and there was someone who was way worse off than anyone you had ever seen homeless in North America. Charlotte was negative, scared, and in paralysis the moment I met her. She had blinders on, every great thing that she could experience in Venezuela, was always topped by something greater that she was either missing out on, or could do back in the U.S.

In one of my many bathroom breaks to either cry, or sort through my own culture shock. I found her curled up on the floor, crying softly, rocking herself. I knew she had to have hit rock bottom, she was sitting on a floor o a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned in years (not all international schools are created equally), it was beyond disgusting, it was coated with years of filth from sheer neglect. It was an odd sight, she rarely showed any kind of vulnerability. At that point, I barely knew anything about her, only that she was an incredible soccer player, and was American. I sat down on the sticky floor, and put my arm around her, and just sat with her while she cried. I knew she didn’t need to talk, she just needed to let out all her anxiety, and frustration. We sat on the floor for an hour, our teachers had checked up on us, but like all International Schools, they knew there were few places to find us in the gated complex. I never found out what set her off that day, we never spoke about it again, but I knew, her pain must have run pretty deep. She never got off her negative cycle. She just kept pushing everyone away, and not knowing what to do with herself in the new environment.

Charlotte and I weren’t really friends, I never found out what happened to her after that year. All I knew, was she was the perfect example of things spiraling out of control when you let Culture Shock take over, and become a permanent state of mind. Most people will be happy to point out that Culture Shock is a temporary state, it is, but not always. I have known people to never snap out of culture shock for a whole posting, that is 3 years not enjoying any aspect of the environment around you, missing out on incredible experiences, all because you are terrified to let go.

This is what most parents need to know. Culture shock is something you have to help guide your kids through. Kids are not resilient, I still hate that saying. Kids have just as big feelings as adults, but they haven’t yet learned any tools to help guide themselves through those feelings. Charlotte was 15, she had complex feelings and anxieties, but she never got the guidance to navigate through all of the complex feelings she had going through what I suspected was her first face to face with Culture Shock. She was most probably resentful of her parents for forcing her to move.

No. 1 lesson, don’t ever put down your kids feelings about moving!

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2 thoughts on “Culture Shock”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. I couldn’t agree with you anymore on not dismissing kids feelings when moving abroad. I am in some online groups and I often here people saying things to the effect of “kids are resilent and will adjust” and while many do, that can’t be expected with every single move. I think there are many factors that can affect whether or not and how they adjust. In some locations, they may adjust very well. In others, they may not. They need a lot of support and care should be taken in preparing them. In your experiences as a diplomatic child, what suggestions do you have for parents raising children abroad?

    1. I think it is always important for a child to be heard, even when they can’t express themselves verbally, they do communicate through their actions, anger, anxiety, depression, withdrawal are all signs that there is something off. I always say to parents, have one sport or activity that is consistent through each move. If a child loves soccer, make sure that is the first activity you get involved in during a move. Creating that consistency around something they are passionate about outside of school creates a subtle but important building block for a child’s confidence. Confidence is always lost at school, changing schools, moving and being immersed in a new language and culture can shake any child’s confidence up, but a sport, music or art cuts through all of the language and cultural barriers. Always think as a unit. Sometimes moving for the sake of a career path, isn’t always the best for the family as a whole. I had a colleague who decided to move his family to China, even though his daughter was deathly allergic to peanuts. After a near death experience, children and mother moved back to Canada after 6 months, they got divorced shortly after that. Sure his career went went after that, but it destroyed his family life. When it is the right decision for the whole family, it is the right to decision for each individual family member.

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