Discovering life in the United States – First Month

If you have been American all your life, living in the United States, culture shock will come only when you move out. For me, it hit me when I moved in since I had lived in France all my life. I had traveled many times to the U.S. but there is a huge difference between the superficial view of the tourist or the business traveler and the view of the expat. So here we come Virginia, my number one ‘overseas’ post!

When I landed with the kids in May to join new diplomat hubby who had been in training for several months we went from 20 degrees Celsius (68F) in Paris to 33C (92F) in Arlington this day. Temperature shock!

Television boasted 600 channels! Even if you only kept the free ones you still got 300 – no wonder Americans invented the term ‘couch potatoes’. The kids only cared about number 44: the Disney Channel. I found eight Spanish networks, two Chinese, two Russian, and zero French!

We were in temporary housing; I discovered the common laundry room. The machine was massive, almost twice as large as a European machine. It did not spin much and pretended to be finished in 30 minutes. Where I come from it takes over an hour to wash a load.

Kids are encouraged to work early in the U.S. As soon as I printed business cards for my 12-year-old daughter, she found a pet sitter’s job! She needed to feed cats Mishu and Pasha for three days.

We toured DC to show the kids the principal sights. Our nine-year-old son found the White House too small. He liked the Capitol better.

I had an Arizona driver’s license. For $9 I received my Virginian version of it. I had broken my back just before we moved (indeed joining the Foreign Service was too simple, I had to spice it up!), so I flew in a cast that I needed to keep for several months so we also got a handicapped person placard – this felt weird!

We went to register the kids to school for the one month remaining of class. Despite being in North Arlington, we were in a very Hispanic neighborhood. When we entered the primary school with our white-blond-haired son, a kid exclaimed: ‘Oh! A white kid!’ I had never felt like a minority before. France is a true melting pot, marriages between people of different colors are common, much more so than in the U.S. so I had never heard anything like this nor its opposite. Also in France Hispanics are considered white, I discovered that it is a brand new ‘color’ here. In our son’s school there were about 70% Hispanics and at least 15% Blacks, Chinese, Nepalese, Indians, etc. In middle school, our daughter was assigned a Swedish school sponsor. Actually the Arlington school system caters to about 128 nationalities. A good start for the Foreign Service!

I was surprised to see so many bilingual English-Spanish signs everywhere: schools, supermarkets, bus, metro, department stores. I had not noticed this in Arizona which is much closer to Mexico.

Since the family was reunited again we needed much more furniture than when my husband was a ‘bachelor’ so I discovered Craigslist and FreeCycle. We did not want to buy anything new since our furniture was on a boat on its way. The beauty of Craigslist is that anything we bought there we sold for the same price or more three months later!

When you join the Foreign Service there is two important numbers to remember: 18,000 and 7,200. 18,000 pounds is the maximum belongings the Department of State will take care of for you for free whether in your house overseas or in storage and 7,200 pounds is the maximum you are allowed to ship overseas for free.

Culture shock – the reason behind the title

I just started this blog. Four days ago. It almost failed to be published because I didn’t know how to call it. Any excuse is good when you are a writer at heart who doesn’t write. I have been thinking about this blog for a year at least, since I have always written and wanted to update myself to a new age of communication.

How to capture everything I want to publish in a title? Especially when I don’t even know exactly what I will publish. Procrastination is evil. So I thought about what would be in that blog, what would make it interesting. Seven years ago I started a second career, following my husband also starting his second career. Why did we join the Foreign Service? He joined, I followed, reinventing myself in each country.

Note to self: in a future post, describe all my different jobs paid and unpaid ever since we joined the Department of State – it might help the spouses debating whether or not to give up their career to become a ‘follower’.

So, why did we join the Foreign Service? The short answer is:

  • all our money was used to travel anyways, so why not get paid to travel?
  • we love to learn about different cultures and living in a country would help us live a culture instead of just touching the surface of it
  • we are foodies, my husband is a great cook so living in different countries sounded very appealing from this perspective as well
  • we are raising two kids; with the globalization of the world they would be stronger, more accepting of differences and integrate better if they had this experience under their belts

In the end it was all about Culture. But when you move to a different country, even next door, you receive a Culture Shock. The online Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as ‘disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life.’  Indeed moving to a new country confronts you to different everything: people, language, landscape, food, weather, dress codes, public transport, religion, customs, smells, sounds, animals … Depending on past experience and character it could lead to homesickness, misunderstanding, dependence feeling, boredom, anger … or exhilaration and creativity!

Cultural orientation experts will tell you that your culture shock will develop in four phases: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery.

In the Honeymoon phase the differences are not a challenge, you thrive on them, you love your new country, and you are fascinated by all your discoveries. Depending on the country and the person, this phase lasts one to four months.

In the Frustration phase differences become a problem and cause anxiety and anger. At work you have passed the 100-day grace period where you could find excuses for not knowing things. Two months could be a holiday, after this you may become homesick or friend sick.

In the Adjustment phase reason speaks to your heart. You have moved to this new country for one year, four years or more – you can’t spend this big chunk of your life miserable! What made you angry for six months could have its advantages too. You push your paradigms to ‘new normal.’ Perhaps you have learned the language and this has helped you better understand the culture and be more welcome among locals.

In the Mastery phase, without being completely assimilated you act like a local, almost feel like one. You embrace the differences and you adopt part of the host culture. If you are very successful at this phase you might experience a reverse culture shock when you return to your home land.

Hence the subtitle under my blog name: Culture Shock – Staying in the Honeymoon Phase. This is a second career, it needs to be all fun by adopting a positive attitude at all times. We may reach the Mastery Phase but we have pledged to skip the frustration and adjustment phases. Have you noticed? These two phases don’t deserve cap letters!

This is over 660 words, more than I need for my 500 words-a-day challenge. More on this at http://goinswriter.com/.