There are moments in one’s life when one has to stop and ask – “what the heck am I doing here??”. These moments are especially poignant when you find yourself 4800 miles away from the familiar comforts of home, family, friends and your significant other. Inevitably, as the rules of culture shock dictate, the novelty effects of experiencing a new, exciting and unfamiliar culture begin to fade away after the first 1-6 months (I’ve been here for 2.5). You start to long for the familiar, the comforting, and most importantly, you realize that the people and connections you made at home are completely and utterly irreplaceable.
So, what does one do when this realization settles in? I guess there are two options. The first is to turn off the lights, pull out all your hair, and sob uncontrollably in a dark corner somewhere (or maybe something slightly less dramatic). As enticing as that sounds though, perhaps a more viable option is this – a change in perspective.
As my cousin once told me, “think of this time in your life as an adventure” (in fact, think of any time in your life as an adventure). From this perspective, things look quite a bit different. As in any challenging time in one’s life, one must decide whether the “present moment is your friend or your enemy” – this one decision can “change your entire reality” (Eckhart Tolle).
And so – instead of longing for the savoury smell of spicy Vietnamese pho at my favourite Calgarian restaurant, I remember that I will never again have the opportunity to be 28 and doing my PhD in Zurich. When feeling pangs of homesickness for Sunday morning breakfast with my (sorely missed) significant other, I stroll over to Zurich Lake, and marvel at the swans and misty, white clouds hanging over Uetliberg.
Mind you – compared to other expats living abroad, I have it pretty damn easy. Canada and Switzerland, both highly ranked on quality of life surveys, are also both on the low-context end of communication styles. This means (generally) that what people say is what they mean. Similar to Canada, not a huge amount of effort is required to read between the lines of another’s message, through a complex decoding of eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice or other equally subtle, non-verbal cues. Also, compared to twenty-some years ago when my parents immigrated, vast technological advances have afforded me the luxury to be adequately prepared for the stages of culture shock and well-connected to my peeps at home.
Finally, seeing as how my research topic surrounds the social and cultural integration of immigrants, I, being now a (second-time) immigrant, am actually the perfect subject of study. As such, I will continue to document and curiously reflect on my own cultural adaptation process, while in the meantime, feeling extremely grateful for the countless moments of unexpected kindness, humour, and friendships I’ve found in this beautiful country.
Looking back to April – this was by far, the gutsiest decision I’ve ever made. But hey, maybe when I’m old and grey, I’ll remember this time in my life as some of the most challenging, rich, and personally significant.