Trudi Penkler is a psychologist, psychotherapist and ‘Intercultural Consultant’ with her own practice, Active Adaptation Counselling, in Grenoble. In the second of a two-part interview, she talks to Grenoble Life about the experiences families can have adapting to life in France.
Grenoble Life: What kind of difficulties can families have adapting to life in a new culture?
A lot has been written about culture shock, but in my experience few difficulties in adapting to a new culture can be attributed to this alone. Certainly there are some very real challenges to be faced in making our lives work in unfamiliar surroundings. Actually living day-to-day in a new country is very different from a holiday visit. Sometimes we can feel completely ‘outside’ of what is happening around us, disconnected, as if we’ll never understand or be part of where we are. There can be a sense of loss when nothing seems to be as it was before.
Although we have risen to the challenge of relocating to a new country and find the differences we encounter interesting and stimulating, we may not identify with anything within the culture around us to begin with and may feel that we are having to live in isolation, surrounded by a world we have no part in. The social support network of family, friends and people who shared our way of life before, is very much missed and it takes time to recreate this again.
We may feel robbed of the roles that gave meaning to our lives and defined our social identity before. Generally this proves to be temporary as we start forming new habits and patterns, new friendships and connections which bring meaningful structure to our lives again and also when we realize that the previous chapters of our lives are still important. If, however, sustained helplessness, anger or resignation emerge, with continued feelings of anxiety, disorientation, confusion and depression, this requires attention.
When we establish our homes in a new environment, we’ve stepped out of the rut of our own ‘normality’ for a while. Any day-to-day challenge we would have managed in familiar circumstances will require more of us in unfamiliar ones – more concentration, more energy more time. Being prepared for this and accepting it upfront as part of the adaptation process, rather than resisting it and hoping for things to feel the same as before, is helpful.
We also need to be aware that we take ‘ourselves’ with us wherever we go. This means that pre-existent problem areas like fragile marital situations or wobbly self esteem, parenting difficulties or dependency issues will not go away or magically be ‘fixed’ in the new situation. Not only will they re-emerge, but they will be amplified by the stresses of moving. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes being brought face-to-face with difficulties that we’ve been carrying with us for years, but can no longer ignore, pushes us to address them.
Education is usually a very important priority for globally mobile families and whereas younger children generally adapt relatively easily, moving older children may be more difficult. Adolescence is of itself a time of change during which young people begin identifying more with their peers than their parents. Resentment, disengagement, helplessness and unhappiness can set in, if these young people feel they have been uprooted against their will and they will need empathetic understanding rather than motivational lectures from their parents. It is important to keep communication lines with teenagers and younger children open, especially about choices concerning them, at all stages of the relocation process.
When couples move, one partner’s career has often been favoured and the other may have renounced their own professional development and feel that they have lost too much, particularly if they are unable to resume a professional activity in the new country, because of language, legal or family constraints.
Leaving parents who are aging or in ill health behind in our home countries may be difficult.
GL: What other advice would you give families considering making a move to a new culture?
We don’t only take our weakness with us when we move across cultures, we also take our strengths, sometimes strengths we didn’t even know we had. We all have the resources within us to adapt to change, if the conditions are there to allow access to those resources …
But we do need to be very clear on the reasons for a move like this. Each individual family member may not be equally enthusiastic or benefit as much from the change, but each will be happier to be part of it all if the reasons have been clearly discussed and they makes sense.
When we’re going to embark on an adventure like this, preparation is indispensible, not only in terms of the logistics of the move, but in familiarising ourselves with information about the new culture. Knowing more about the documented “do’s and taboos” of another culture is not going to prevent us from encountering obstacles and making mistakes anyway though.
A very important aspect of good preparation will involve also thinking about how we’re going to deal with change. Our emotional reactions and personal experience of a new situation are so much more positive when we’ve considered this beforehand and are consciously prepared to develop a tolerance for difference and uncertainty.
Things will be new and exciting, but the ease with which we did things in a familiar environment will not be there to begin with, especially if acquisition of another language is part of the equation. Simple tasks that we did without thinking before will take more time and effort. Although this may be frustrating, this doesn’t mean we’ve become less effective.
Coming to grips with the language of the country we’ll be living in will be essential, but there is no rule book as to how best or how quickly this should happen – we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bullied into feeling inferior, while we’re actively learning and not yet proficient in a new language. Adapting to a new culture is not an end-point or a destination. It is a process, a learning process. We’re on the path and we are continuously progressing as long as we keep going. The pace of our own individual progress should not be measured or dictated by self-appointed ‘experts’ we may meet.
We’ll need to be gentle with ourselves, set realistic (yet ambitious) goals and respect the values and protocols of our host culture, without compromising our own. For a while our judgement will be a little cloudy while we’re learning about a new culture. It is important to consciously switch on the ‘data gathering radar’ in our minds, observing curiously all the time and verifying our conclusions by asking questions, rather than assuming we’ve understood what we’ve experienced. Most people will not find our questions bothersome and on the contrary, will enjoy being considered wise enough to be consulted.
Everything is easier when we feel stronger, so looking after ourselves health-wise should be a priority. Children should be kept informed of family decisions all the way (they’ll the need reassurance that their parents are ok, if a little lost and confused, still ok and still in charge).
We shouldn’t give up on the things we love or do well, music or painting, football or throwing a frisbee, but we’ll need to put effort into finding how to continue these activities in a different way. We also shouldn’t push ourselves to do things we don’t really want to, even though everyone else seems to be doing them. Some people really don’t like skiing or really aren’t interested in discovering the wonderful French wines here – and that’s just fine!
Keeping regular and ongoing contact with faraway loved ones will be very important too. You won’t have ‘betrayed’ them by coming to France and the more part of your experience they remain, the easier the separation will be for everyone.
And we’ll need to take the time to have fun and enjoy being where we are. This is not a test of endurance but an adventure and an “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” (Amelia Earhart)
Please do not hesitate to contact me. My office is at 2 Rue de la République, in downtown Grenoble, just off of Place Grenette opposite Haagen-Dazs.
Tel: 04 76 98 93 85 e-mail: email@example.com website: www.aac-intercultural.com