The culture shock is on its merry way; was there ever a honeymoon period?
For me, I don’t think so, I immediately went into experience it. I’ve been to Germany a number of times, so moving here wasn’t all that, let’s say exciting, for me. I had to fumble my way through the German bureaucracy and everything that comes with a sparse apartment. I have since taken a while to find a field of work that I have interest in, and was getting responses for, and felt valued in. Perhaps if I were more organized I would be faster at these types of things, or maybe spend less money by finding alternatives (through more research)?
I recently taught a class on the concepts of home and belonging in relation to acculturation for people moving and living in different cultures. My students are in higher ed., and most of them have lived abroad for at least 6 weeks and up to one year at a time. They’re (mostly) quite young (early 20s) and are business-thinkers. I was thoroughly impressed with one group and their introspection identifying home as fluid and changing through identity and how one feels they belong. These students observed that depending on a length of time one spends in a new culture, can impact their sense of acculturation. For example, if you are a tourist visiting for a few days, you’re likely to be separated since there is a limited time to experience that place and the time it takes to build friendship networks and familiarity or comfort in a space usually takes a longer time.
I enjoy this class because some of what I teach, I’m also experiencing – hell, that is humanities and social sciences, isn’t it? I’ve been in Germany for around 10 months now, and soon I’ll feel the disconnect of having to look for work again, which is how the life of a freelancer tends to go. There is no job security or guaranteed future. Contract jobs have their positives, as in if you don’t like what you’re doing or the people, there’s an easy exit strategy. On the flip side though, if you are loving the job and the people, there’s this insecurity of not being sure if you get to work with them again. It can create a lot of stress (let alone the financial strains of freelance contractual work).
With that said, I recognize my privileges. I’m living and working in Germany – a country I’ve wanderlusted over since my first visit as an 18-year-old to Europe. I am a Canadian citizen with dual citizenship through Portugal (thanks Mom!). I acknowledge that being recognized as a citizen in two countries, particularly Western countries, gives me a lot of access – such that I can live and work in and around the EU. This creates a sense of security and safety for me, I do not have to revoke one for the other, I can return to Canada or visit other countries in North America without issue, I can also visit any country in the EU as I so desire.
Two of my dearest friends here in Germany are from Venezuela; they sought visas to move to Germany for September 2017. Since this time, one has completed a competitive MBA, although already having an engineering degree and work experience from Venezuela. The other, finding employment at a Germany company and achieving over 1-year employment there to prove consistency and loyalty, and to follow the German way of getting reference letters from Germans. These two friends, because of their supremely dedicated and constant work, have since applied for and received blue cards. Germany is their home, in less than two years, they will have lived in two different cities, they go where the work is. For them, coming to Germany meant their basic human needs were met, and more. They don’t have to worry about being robbed anytime they step out the door, as a small example. They have chosen Germany as a new home, partly out of necessity.
Although I fit the freelancer status, I know that I do not need to worry about being kicked out of this country. The stresses of not knowing if I’ll be employed the next semester is not added to concern of being able to stay in my home. Although still sparse nearly one year in, I can call this place my home, this city my home. I am fortunate, and I am grateful.
When I first became interested in looking at the concepts of home and belonging, I was researching international students in Canada and what drives them to study abroad. I valued my research, because huge amounts of students go abroad for at least one semester and many study abroad for an entire degree, so it is important research. In Canada, higher education institutions are investing millions of dollars on international recruitment because of the funding that is received from the government, as well as the high tuition rates that international students pay to study in Canada. Researching the business of students was less than positive for me to look into, nonetheless important. In 2013, there were more than 4 million students enrolled in higher education outside of their home country. The numbers have continued to grow pretty consistently. I came at the research from a more human approach – let’s ask students why they study abroad and how these experiences shape their identities.
I was, and still am, interested in the notion of home as it was discussed by David Morley in Home Territories: Media, Mobility, and Territory. Studying abroad for a semester, or a year, or even your whole degree is much different than moving abroad to live because you are displaced from your home country (due to war, famine, poverty, etc.). With that said, I focused on international students, people who choose to move abroad for a temporary period of time, perhaps with plans to stay abroad, but it begins with a temporary stay. According to a dictionary definition, home refers to a fixed place, a physical location. Whereas Morley takes it further: a home is a “a place not only where [someone] belonged but which belonged to them and where they could locate their identities” (2000, p.29). Here, the idea of home as a safe and secure place parallels with a sense of belonging.
To belong is related to a symbolic experience – and it’s intertwined with how we identify home. Often a sense of belonging is identified related to a group or a geographical location, which can make an experience that much better (or worse) while identifying the differences between living in a country of origin and moving to a new country and living a daily life there. A sense of belonging combines with a person’s identity to create “people who belong to more than one world, speak more than one language (literally and metaphorically) inhabit more than one identity, [and] have more than one home” (Morley, 2000, p.207). Depending on where we identify as home influences our perceptions of belonging. As mentioned above, people feel belonging to different groups of other individuals or to spaces and locations.
Living in Germany for less than one year, I have not yet felt integrated into the culture and communities here. I still miss family and friends ‘back home’ (referring to the city I was born in where my parents still live, and some of my closest friends, and to the city I studied in, where other family and friends inhabit). I was recently speaking with a friend who’s been living in Hong Kong for over two years, prior to that she was in South Korea for two years. I asked her “do you miss living in Canada?” She responded “not anymore”. She told me how in the first couple of years living abroad, yes, she still missed that physical place, the city she was born, grew up, and studied in. She told me now that it’s been longer, she still has a place in her heart as that was her home, and she misses the people there, so when she visits it feels very nice, but that she doesn’t feel something missing for home. Hong Kong is her home. Her friends and partner in Hong Kong are her home, she belongs there.
I find myself somewhere flowing back and forth through a few stages of culture shock: disintegration, reintegration, and gradual adjustment. I move rather slowly, as mentioned earlier, maybe had I done research differently or put myself “out there” more and faster, I’d be on a different path or experience life here differently. Even in reality, I don’t like to jump into water, I go step-by-step into the water, to acclimate to the temperature, to the feeling. I took a pause on learning German, which is a big goal of mine for living in Germany: to integrate by learning to speak the language fluently. The break has worked well, from different perspectives, in that I had time to read the countless books and articles related to the courses I was teaching, particularly on intercultural communication. I gave myself time to work through the materials to be able to provide my students with in-depth knowledge sharing about the different topics. I still speak in German and write some email correspondence, but it’s taken a back seat. Other times, I become frustrated with myself for not knowing more German and not understanding the German system more when something goes wrong with living here. When I feel the metaphorical hiccups or obstacles of living in a new country. Why do I need a billion different types of insurance? Because, it’s the German way. Am I concerned about the bill that will come with a different amount of Heizung, Strom, und Wasser usage on it for the year? Yes – I’ll have to deal with that one when it comes.
For those of us who choose to live in a different culture for an unknown period of time, the navigation of periods of culture shock and acculturation are in constant motion. From my experience though, one year is certainly not long enough to integrate into a new culture, there are so many experiences that still feel new. Will I ever adapt to living in this country, is one question that I don’t think I’ll ever know. For all of the downs and bureaucratic messes I’ve experienced thus far, I’ve also had a lot of ups. This cultural roller-coaster is still powered and moving forward.