Written by Linda Wagner
I am an expat of 25 years – I have moved nine times, lived in four countries and have four children. While our move to Prague has been an exciting, edifying experience for all of us, it has forced me to widen my horizons and tread carefully around the feelings of my family and the culture in which we live.
Moving to Prague was a culture shock, with very defined phases – honeymoon, crisis and readjustment. One has to embrace each phase in order to graduate to the next. Culture shock is our response to a different environment. Culture is defined best by smells, behaviors, extreme climate and new way of life, while shock is defined by our physical and emotional reaction to it. We have to recognize that there is no right or wrong here – that´s just the way it is.
The honeymoon phase is easy: everything is new, we are cushioned and feel pampered. We stay in a hotel and don´t have our mundane routine responsibilities. It is exciting looking at houses and schools, and someone else does our laundry and cooks our meals. This stage lasts for a fortnight or so after we have moved into our new home.
Next comes the crisis stage. We feel alone. The children have settled into their schools. They have a routine and are meeting new people and making friends. The spouse is settled at work and has structure, excitement, a new challenge and a support system in place. We, however, are surrounded by familiar things in an unfamiliar place at home. We have no structure, no plans, our diary does not fill up and nobody is calling, except perhaps our spouse to ask what we are doing. We are frightened of exploring on our own, but there is nobody to go exploring with, and so we feel frustrated, maybe even resentful of our children and spouse. They are making great strides while we are making supper with ingredients that we cannot read or understand. This is a terrible stage for the whole family. Nobody can fix it quickly: it takes time and understanding on everybody´s part.
Finally comes readjustment. The day starts with a smile. You have a plan and feel less isolated. You know what works and what doesn´t. You have found a friend, perhaps, or the lady in the bakery recognizes you. You are planning things for yourself outside of the house, maybe you find a yoga group and sign up. You don´t feel so new any more, and you are entertaining your family with your adventures in the post office or grocery store. You call home less often and people are starting to visit. Prague is becoming home.
It is also important to observe our children as they maneuver through the stages. They too will have mood swings and become irritable and frustrated with parents and other siblings. Patience is invaluable in the early months. There is much that can be done to ease the transition. Simple routines, such as mom´s cooking, can be reassuring for children. The greatest gift we can give our children is our time, and never is this more appropriate than on an overseas posting. A smattering of the language is not only courteous to your host country, but also helps to penetrate the barrier – simple salutations are always appreciated.
Don´t to be too hard on yourself – it is difficult moving as a mother and wife. You feel insecure and miss your friends, your work back home, your church, your family and you have to start from scratch. Your parameters are small, and not only do you not speak the language, you are also not sure where you fit in. Volunteering is a way to learn about the host country´s culture. The Women´s associations are welcoming, offering numerous activities and opportunities for exploring and discovering your creative self. The more you branch out, the more you will assimilate and meet others like you. Some may be in the first stage of culture shock and you can help them through it. Focusing outwards is a sure remedy to self-absorption, which is self-defeating and so easy to fall into.
There will be bad days and good days. Our friends back home think we are lucky, and hindsight will prove that perhaps we are. This is not achieved without effort, but the effort is worth making. We are the reasons that our children will be bilingual, better educated and more inclined to take risks. Embrace the differences, and keep your sense of humor and your attitude in check. Recognize that perhaps you may be having a problem with your move to the Czech Republic, not that your move to the Czech Republic is the problem. The Czechs are extraordinary people and we are privileged to be able to live here among them as their guests.
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