culture shock

Masca, Tenerife (Spain)

Where is home?

Have you ever hesitated in answering this question? I certainly have. Home might be where my belongings are, but this place differs from where my family and many friends are, too. Is it really home, if your family is over 5000 km away? Can I call it home, if I don’t always feel that I belong in my adopted country?

While living abroad is at times an exciting and enriching experience, it’s also challenging. There are times I feel dislocated. Misplaced. I’m neither here nor there. I’m in some kind of expat limbo. I’ve watched friends getting married, having children and buying flats (things that technically help to define home), while I’m slowly approaching 31 without anything tangible to settle with.

This makes me wonder – what makes home, home?

Lavaux, Switzerland

As a third-culture kid, I’m used to living in this grey zone in-between cultures, never entirely feeling part of any of them. And expatriate living only accentuates this further. I’ve learned to adapt quickly to other cultures but nowhere feels completely like home. I am different people, split between different places, and the longer my expat journey goes on, the less I recognise myself in one particular place. 

I have met fellow expats that have felt the call to settle down in their adopting countries. I haven’t yet felt that call. I love studying new languages, the thrill of getting around a new city, a new culture, making friends around the globe and collecting all these life changing stories. The thought of choosing one place among all unsettles me.

London, UK

My roots are divided. Home, to me, is both here and there. Some days I feel Spanish, some days I feel German. Some days I miss Switzerland terribly, some I fall in love with London all over again. And then there are days like today – days during which I long for a place I haven’t yet been. If home is where your heart is, then my home is in every place I leave a piece of my heart in. 

And truthfully, my heart belongs to the World. 

What defines home to you?


 

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In contrast to many bloggers that make a living out of their travels, I travel internationally because I have job, live frugally and save money for my adventures. I might have been able to live this lifestyle from my home island, but I chose against it. After all, despite not being a full-time traveler, I do consider myself a traveler of sorts. An expatriate traveler, maybe.

Rainbow after the Rain, LondonThe view from my previous office.

I enjoy taking time to explore a place and experience the local culture, but also like having a routine and pursuing my career, which is one of the many reasons for which I chose to become an expat. Many believe that moving abroad is risky and reckless:

You should be grateful: There are thousands of candidates that would kill for your job

Don’t be foolish: It’s already hard enough to get a job at home – you are doomed to fail if you try abroad

It will kill your career: You will go backwards in your career as you will have to accept a lower position and lower pay

Sure, moving abroad is challenging. There were times that I’ve felt frustrated, misunderstood and lonely. There were times I’ve even hated my adopting countries, and could only think of packing my bags and go home. After over 5 years of living abroad, though, I’m still an expat – and can’t imagine wanting life any other way.

I’m a firm believer of working and living abroad as a way to not only growing personally, but also professionally. I will write about the personal level some other day, but for now, here are the 5 reasons why moving abroad will help you professionally:

It proves flexibility.

Having the courage to up your sticks and move to not only a different company but a different country all in proves the ability to adapt to diverse work places. Having worked in 3 countries (Spain, Switzerland and the UK) I can assure you that each of them has different conditions and a contrasting approach to work.

I admit that, when I moved to London, one of the hardest things to get used to was commuting. I felt as if 1.5hrs to 2hrs of each work day were completely wasted. You see, a 45 minute commute to work in Switzerland was a sin – hardly anyone lived further than a 15 min drive away from the office. In London though, a 45 minute commute is completely normal (and almost a privilege!). I had to learn how to make commuting work best for me. The same goes for lunch breaks!

It increases your cultural awareness.

At first, I found the UK an odd place to work. People didn’t arrive on time – they arrived before time. The offices were mostly quiet spaces, interrupted by the fast tipping of its employees. In the kitchen, there was always someone looking outside the window and grumbling something about the weather.

It’s a cultural thing. The english value their time. If their work hours are from 8am to 6pm, they will do everything to avoid spending any minute after 6pm in the office. I can now perfectly understand this culture and am not shocked anymore – if I still have a long commute home after work, I will also want to get out of there, pronto.

You will learn how to communicate better.

I’m sure you’ve seen this: a communication misunderstanding that took a complete different route than it should have taken. E-Mails, specially, can be dreadful – is he/she ok with it or just being sarcastic? what exactly does he/she refer to with this request?

Add a group of co-workers that have english as their second (or third!) language and you’ll quickly learn how important it is to express yourself politely but clearly. You’ll become more patient and understanding, and will develop an important 6th sense: you’ll learn to perfectly grasp puzzled sentences from non-native english speakers.

You will build an international network.

Having friends spread around the World is damn cool, but having an international network of professional contacts is equally important. Previous professors, managers, co-workers, suppliers and clients; as well as people they have met in conferences, dinners and drinks – all of these are potential employers, business partners, mentors and friends.

A globalized agenda of contacts will open more doors than you could ever imagine.

You might even learn a new language.

There are plenty of non-english countries in which english is widely spoken for business, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Geneva. This would allow you to pursue and practice your french or chinese, without the initial language barrier affecting your career. Then there is Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany, where the normal level of spoken english on is almost fluent, too. Even in countries that are known for a lesser level of english (ehem, Spain for example), you can find companies that work in english – it only takes some research!

Have you ever worked abroad? What skills do you think you’ve improved from this experience?

One of the many advantages of visiting a friend living abroad is that, after a short time, you can already get a grip of his or her daily life in this city. You’ll quickly understand which aspects they enjoy the most and which drive them mad.

After only 6 days in Shanghai, I already had built my thoughts over the city and the life I would live if I moved in for a few months time.

The Great

Shanghai's Skyline, from Bar Rouge

  • The Rooftops. I admit it – over the years, I’ve become a bar snob. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy drinks at the local pub. But give me leather sofas, a terrace, a breath-taking view, and an extensive cocktail menu… and I’m sold. I hardly ever step into these places in London (probably because the weather isn’t always good for outdoor lounges and because drinks are prohibitively expensive), but be assured that I would become a regular at Shanghai’s rooftops.
  • Beauty and Well-Being is affordable. During our 6 days in Shanghai, we managed to squeeze in a foot massage, a full body massage, a mani and a pedi. If I’d live there, I would probably make massages a weekly habit – who wouldn’t, for less than 20 USD?

The Good

  • Getting around. Shanghai, compared to Beijing, is fairly walkable. There are some beautiful parks and many leafy streets that allow pedestrians to walk in the shadow on those hot summer days. Being the largest city by population in China, with over 23m people, it cannot be compared to the walkability of Stockholm, of course. You can’t expect to go without public transport! However, public transport works well and is also very affordable.
  • Restaurant diversity. As a tourist, restaurant diversity isn’t something you particularly appreciate in a city – after all, tasting local food is part of the experience. And let me tell you – the Chinese have some really tasty dishes, but they also have quite exotic menus. So, when you’re expecting to stay for a longer period of time, having other cuisines at your disposal (maybe even your home food!) will make it easier to adapt.
  • The culture. China’s culture is very different from anything I had lived before, it’s fascinating. There are so many things to learn from it! If I lived in Shanghai, I know I would sign up for a dumplings master class, I would pick up Kung Fu and do Tai Chi in the park.

The Bad

Funny Chinese Signs

  • The Language barrier. Imagine you’re on your way to a stylish restaurant, and suddenly come across this sign. What do you expect? A toilet? A restaurant? A restaurant serving delicious food in a toilet? Chinese is hard to learn, and not all Chinese people will speak perfectly english. This makes daily life much more challenging!
  • Giving up your personal space. The first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped into Shanghai’s Airport was the amount of people – it was very crowded. I soon learned that this was not particular to the airports – but anywhere you’ll go. People grew up with little space and therefore, their concept of personal space is different from mine. They are more comfortable with up-close and personal interaction, so it’s common to notice people staring and pointing at you, pushing you in a line or looking over your shoulder to see what you’re doing. Having trouble not freaking out in Oxford Circus during lunch time… I doubt I could do this for too long in Shanghai.
  • The Goodbyes. This is something common to all big cities that have a wide expat community – expats often don’t stay more than a year (specially in developing countries), so even though it’s fun to constantly meet new faces… It is also tough and daunting to say goodbye to the friends you’ve made. I’ve been living away from home for 10 years now, and goodbyes haven’t become any easier…

The Ugly

Shanghai Skyline

  • Traffic, pollution and fearing for your life. Traffic is a big issue in Shanghai – there a re just far too many cars! Traffic jam is a common problem at any time of the day. As a pedestrian, you should never assume that green light actually gives you the right-of-way. I learned that, specially bus and taxi drivers, hardly ever obey traffic lights… which makes every road cross a scary adventure.
  • The ultimate culture shock. Before traveling to China, many people warned me about some of the customs that are different from the western World – the concept of private space just being one of them. The constant spitting is probably something I wouldn’t necessarily get used to over time, together with having children pee or poo in the streets or tube stations!

Have you been to China? What other things would you add to this list?

After my first 6 months living in London, I’ve realized that, in this city, anything is possible.

London Eye, London, UK

London has more than just fog, pollution and this occasional drizzling rain in the air – there is something magical that has provided me some new skills to make my way around the city.

  • Precognition. Try being on a rush in Oxford Circus at 5:30pm on a Friday, and you’ll be sucked in avalanches of people running in and out of shops, packed with bags and with (apparently) no direction. In some cases, I even became part of a human mass – you know, the rock concert sort of mass, the one that makes you move to the right even though you’re fighting to go left. I used to be that person, but now I’ve been me with the power of foreseeing the (very) short term future – which I mainly use to predict other people’s moves. I might be on a hurry, but you will hardly ever see me bumping into someone anymore!
  • Camouflage. I’m a chameleon. I’ve always had this ability of blending in my immediate environment (this might be a reason why I’ve never been actually mugged as a tourist!). But the boroughs of London expect so much more from you – each of them offer such diversity that, at the beginning, it was hard not to feel a stranger even in your own neighborhood. I like living in East London with artists and hipsters that (purposely) mess up hair and have this characteristic vintage flair. But also enjoy working in stylish Mayfair that boosts boutiques and pretty tea houses. I now manage to blend in both opposed worlds.
  • Frost Proof. Ever since I moved out of the Canary Islands 10 years ago, I’ve been moving up north of the globe – the Spanish Peninsula, Germany, Switzerland and now England. Although Switzerland was probably the coldest place I’ve lived in, it was something I learned to live with because after all, you’d either dress up in a ski suit or sit next to a warm fire. Here in London, however, life continues despite the cold wind, snow or freeze. And by life, I mean, every aspect of it. People will still go to the pubs and drink outside to keep the smokers company. They’ll continue to run to work and/or back home. And will, under no circumstance, ditch an afternoon of shopping. So do I!
  • Teleportation. Well, ok. I can’t literally disappear from the crowded morning tube and appear on a sunny beach in French Polynesia and then shortly reappear at work with a golden sun tan (wouldn’t that be just incredibly nice?). What I can do is to evade my mind from being in a sticky hot tube with far too many layers on me, to Mexico, Brazil or even the English Country side – all thanks to my iPod!

Have you developed any superpowers while living abroad?

How do you say Goodbye to a place that has been your home for two years. A place that has taught you many things – that has seen you rise professionally, has seen you mature and become independent. That has helped you to discover youself and develop new hobbies.

Well you can’t, really.

Instead, I’ll give it a see you soon, and will think of all the things that have made my life here beautiful.

Lausanne, Switzerland

Waking up with the sun shining on my bed. Walking to the office in the morning. In flip flops. Pain au chocolat and croissants from my favorite bakery. The owners of the little portuguese grocery shop, that greet me every morning. Fighting for fresh fruits every monday and thursday at work. My boss (a lot). The smell of mate in the morning. The view of the Alps from the kitchen window. Being able to complain about some moron (and even being encouraged to do so). Learning a new latin american expression every week. My work colleagues. Our common love for delicious food. Convincing them to ditch the gym and go and have a gourmet burguer at Holy Cow instead (it’s in the same direction anyways). Home-made Chilean empanadas. The so-called business walks. Engineering our way through the city to take as little hills as humanly possible possible. Having lunch in the park. Lazy afternoons.

Sunset in Lausanne (Switzerland)

Beautiful buildings and their romantic balconies. My safe, clean and quiet neighborhood. The fresh cut grass in the park. The careful and respectful drivers. The good faith of swiss people. Finding clothes and shoes in my size, even at the end of sales. Globus – and it’s Gourmet Supermarket. Saturdays street market. The cheese. The lebanese take away, which often gifted me with an extra dish or glass of wine, for free. The good taste of tap water. Making use of my french (now that I was finally picking up on the language!).

Crêpe in Lausanne, Switzerland

My apartment. The view from my bed. From my balcony. Sunbathing on my deckchair. My sun addiced neighbor (whenever I’m tanning, he’s too!) The Alps. The Lake. Sunsets from Vidy. Sailboats. The way in which the afternoon sun teints the Alps pink. My friends. BBQs at the lake until late at night. Drinking outside a bar on the pavement. Always meeting people I know in my usual pub. Always having a friend who’s up for a drink. Or a festival. Or a late night dinner. Eating too much raclette (and drinking even more wine). Cocktails at St Pierre’s (specially their custom made Bloody Mary), while playing board games on a rainy afternoon. Strawberry Vodka shots at Punk. The incredibly good looking swiss-french boys (who usually to sit or walk next to an incredible stylish and beautiful swiss-french girl). Walking everywhere, without worrying about safety.

Being so close to nature. The swiss railway. The demi-tarif, that got me moving around Switzerland always for half the price! The 10 minutes ride away to the vineyards in Lavaux. The 45 min ride to the nearest ski station. The snow (who would have said so!). People’s love for adventure. The crazy swiss who snowboard and ski down Lausanne’s steepest slopes. The way in which the city’s efficiency is not at all affected by the weather conditions. The charming little villages. How beautiful and peaceful the the streets look when they’re covered in snow.


I’m leaving on Wednesday. Until then, I’m making my best to visit, once more, my favorite places in the city, at my favorite meals and, specially, meet the friends I’ve met along my stay. Next time, I’ll be writing from London.

When Summer approaches, the only thing I can possibly think of is spanish food. Could there be anything that screams beach and sunshine more than a paella with meat and sea food?

I’m grateful for having found a bunch of people that feel the same way I do about food (and drinks) in Switzerland. People that, just as me, enjoy preparing copious meals just for the sake of it. People that prepare a paella with meat and sea food on a sunday, to share with a group of friends.

Spending a sunday afternoon getting tipsy on spanish wine and Orujo, talking about ingredients, cooking techniques and taste or texture preferences just felt great. Yes, I have been savoring some haute cuisine. Yes, I’ve also found spanish tapas near my work place.

What I didn’t find, until today, was the spanish attitude towards food, in general.

Switzerland enjoys a good meal, there’s no doubt about that – but once its finished, you’ll move on to the next activity. Spain, on the other hand, can spend 5 hours having lunch. Better – it can combine a lunch and a dinner, without ever leaving the table.

I’ve been keeping a secret from you, but can’t hold it back anymore.

I’m moving to London in September!

London Eye, London (UK)

I got the offer to move within the company and the current department I work for to London. Although the tasks and projects will still remain the same, this is a big jump in my career. In the new office, I will no longer have someone sitting next to me whom I could ask anything in case of doubt. I’ll be responsible to develop new business opportunities with UK-based bankers, I will be in between our in-house metals and energy traders and the external financing resources.

Thoughts and emotions have been roller-coasting in my head.

Can I hold up to my company’s expectations?
Do I want to move into the exact opposite of Switzerland?
Do I want to go through all the phases of culture shock, again?
Will I be able to deal with all the fog and rain?

Some of Switzerland’s characteristics I’ve loved before even arriving in the country, and others I’ve learned to appreciate with time. But, as any other place in the World, there are cultural aspects that, although I have partly learned how to live with, I do not share.

There will be countless peculiarities I’ll miss from Switzerland – more than I had ever thought I would – but there are also some luxuries I’ve missed from living in big cities. Not to mention about living in a country where I can make myself understandable without pointing on things and making ridiculous descriptions.

I’ve been an expat for one and a half years now, and had never before sat down to clear my thoughts and feelings on living in Switzerland. It’s not my first time abroad. However, it’s the first time that I left my country without knowing when I’d be going back. I didn’t care about not knowing one single soul in the whole country, nor did I care about my lack of french knowledge. I hardly blinked when it came to leave the comfortable familiarity behind and dive into the unknown. I was going to conquer the World (or at least, Switzerland).

The truth is – culture shock hit me deeper than I thought. It’s not only about learning how to copy with different social norms – i.e. learning where to park my bike and where not to (something I unfortunately learned the hard way). Culture shock continues long after becoming familiar with my new life.

Honeymoon

Lavaux, Switzerland

The Honeymoon phase is full of excitement and euphoria. You feel you can grab the World in your hands and do whatever you want. Every day is a new adventure – new faces, a different restaurant, a hidden shop, a cute small side street with boulangeries selling the best baguette you have ever tried. The public transport is reliable, the city is peaceful, clean and safe and people are kind and respectful.

You smile while you walk. Life is good. Actually, scratch that – life is amazing. You are so glad you chose to move and can’t imagine life any other way.

Frustration

Vevey, Switzerland

The shine starts to fade away. You realize that there are actually less than 5 bars where you can go to – either because of the crowds or because of the prices. It’s the fourth time you try asking for a glass of water with your coffee and you receive an arrogant look from the waiter. Maybe even a clueless arrogant look. You’re grammatical mistakes bothers them, and having to repeat the same word 10 times upsets you, too. You go to a hairdresser and come out with a messy cut (that doesn’t resemble a tiny bit what you initially had in mind) and realize that this trend disaster has left you completely broke.

At this point, you start to get familiar with the disadvantages of living abroad. You feel alone and misunderstood, disillusioned, frustrated and angry. Why did you ever even think this move would be a good idea?

Understanding

Water Fountain, Lausanne (Switzerland)

After a while, things start to look brighter – you are adjusting to your new home country. Those things that used to annoy you, are now small and insignificant. You start to see the advantages of having an early start on Saturdays and venture into new activities you never thought you enjoy before. You have set a routine and feel comfortable with it.

You understand the cultural differences with your home country and are learning how to deal with them.

Biculturalism

Sunset in Lausanne (Switzerland)

Although I have adopted some local habits and am adjusting to the new culture, I still don’t feel that I belong here – I feel like a foreigner. I guess the main reason for this is my ridiculous lack of french skills. I truly need to work on that! I envy those that have become bicultural – they are aware of where they came from but have fully embraced swiss culture. They never feel out-of-place.

This phase that takes a lot of understanding and an open mind.

Note: At the point of writing this post, I was in living in Switzerland experiencing the third phase – Understanding. Five months later, I was transferred to London. I have fond memories of living in Switzerland and hope to move back again in the future. Maybe this means that I finally did reach biculturalism – despite my french!

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

You might ask yourself what these bises are and why I’m so concerned about them, anyways. In France, as well as in the Suisse Romande fair la bise is a synonym for cheek-kissing, a mainly European custom that gets very complicated when someone french is involved.

To fair la bise generally involves touching cheeks while kissing the air with an audible smack of the lips. That’s the easy part. Now the real question is: Who to kiss and who not to kiss? And then again, how many of these bises shall you give? There are no written rules – which will lead to many awkward situations. While in Paris people give 2 bises, in some suburbs it’s 4 and in other areas in France 3 (the same as in Switzerland). This can already lead to a lot of confusion – if a swiss and a Parisian meet: how much kissing would there be involved? I often see myself in this kind of complication – the last time being just a few days ago. I flew to Paris for a bank meeting with someone I had been on the phone with for months but had never met before face to face. Since I felt as if I knew him forever, I leaned up to faire la bise, and noticed his confusion, but awkwardly followed my spontaneity (probably to avoid by total embarrassment).

Commonly, women can kiss each other in almost any circumstance (it get’s tricky if you greet elderly people for the first time or if it’s a business meeting). Men, otherwise, only will kiss other men if they are related or are two best friends who haven’t seen each other in a very long time. An exception to this is New Year’s Eve – where everybody seems to get loose (probably a consequence of the all the vin).

So what do you do?

Probably the best guideline is – go for it if you feel like it. In my experience, fair la bise (and specially getting it wrong) break the ice and will more often pull out a smile than a frown.

Have you ever gotten yourself into an awkward bise situation abroad?

La Habana, Cuba
  1. They’ve got the moves. Cubans can dance salsa (also called “casino”). If you get the chance to go to a local Cuban party, you’ll probably get to see a Rueda de Casino – a particular type of round dancing developed in La Habana in the late 50s. Pairs of dancers create a circle, in which each dance move is called out by one person in the circle. Many of these moves involve swapping partners!
  2. The Soviet Union. In 1960, Cuba signed a trade agreement (sugar / oil) with the Soviet Union – which provided the island with many Russian cars (you’ll recognise them for having a rectangular shape), as well as TVs and cameras. When driving through La Habana, it’s also easy to spot the remaining Stalinist architecture.
  3. Cuban cigars. I recently read that Cuban cigars can’t be sold in the US. There are rumours of Kennedy requesting his press secretary to get thousands of his favourite cigars to stock them up in the White House right before he signed the embargo.
  4. Cuba time. Whenever I was told “dinner is at 8” I could be sure that I would not be anywhere before 9 PM. It’s not a surprise for me, having grown up in Spain – but it is something other cultures might have difficulties adapting to.
  5. They are proud of their Rum. Cuba distills different types of rum. First, you can find white rums – which are primarily used as mixers (mostly mojitos and daiquiris). Golden or Amber rums will have spent several years ageing in oak casts and have a stronger taste, which makes them less suitable for cocktails but ideal for Cuba Libres or Rum on the rocks. And lastly, dark rums have a characteristic sweet caramel-dominated taste due to its long ageing and are mostly recommended to drink neat or on the rocks.
La Habana, Cuba

  1. One country with two currencies – The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible (CUC). Exchange is about 25 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.78 EIR. Cubans generally get paid in CUP, and salaries average around 400-500 CUP per month (which equals 12-16 EUR). This is obviously really low, given that many consumer items now sell at international prices. As a tourist, you’ll only trade in CUCs and, unless you go off the beaten track, will never come across a CUP.
  2. The tourism industry. The education system in Cuba is enviable: school is free for everyone and it focusses on students to understand rather than memorise. Professors demand a high level of participation and students have to do a lot of research at home (mostly without internet!). In bars, restaurants and hotels, you’ll find engineers, biologists and historians, who, after graduating, realised that they’ll earn more working in tourism because of the tips in CUC.
  3. The right to buy or rent a home. When you drive across La Habana, you probably wonder who lives in all these beautiful colonial villas. Well, it could be anyone. Cubans can’t buy or rent homes – they only get their own home by inheriting it. In the case that someone leaves the country and doesn’t come back after a year, te home will fall into the hands of the Government – who will donate it to someone else.
  4. A sip of rum for the Saints. Every time a new bottle of Rum is opened, a sip is dropped to the ground and said to be offered to the Saints.
  5. What a car plate can tell about yourself. The old-timers circulating around La Habana are certainty one of many tourist attractions. However, the car plates reveal so much more about who is driving it than you may think at first. There are seven colours: the black ones (starting with TUR) are rental cars for tourists, the rend ones are rented by companies, the yellow plates indicate private cars (most of which are the classic pre-revolution cars from the 40s and 50s), green plates are for militaries, blue ones belong to the State and if you see one with a white number plate, it will probably be a government minister or another important state person.

Want to know more about Cuba? Click here to read Part II of the list.