1. Strike a balance between exploring and recovering. To move forward in your adjustment, you need to get out and meet people, explore, try new things … but this can be exhausting, especially in a new language, in a high-crime environment or on dangerous roads. A newly arrived family member admits: “One day I feel great; the next day I’m just overwhelmed by this place. One day I might spend most of the day out, the next day I go for a run, nap, and spend the day catching up on menial tasks and watch bad tv.” This is normal and healthy, because she is making progress in her adjustment while making sure she isn’t overwhelmed by stress.
2. Discover something unique that you enjoy. A colorful market, breathtaking landscapes, outdoor sports, or just a fun local dance class can help your new home feel like a place you want to be. Finding these special opportunities may take a lot of work — dragging the kids along, hiring a driver — but they can make a huge difference in your morale.
3. If you don’t have something meaningful to do, create it! If you’re an EFM without a job, start looking for opportunities to make a difference. Volunteer, teach others, form a support group, develop a talent or skill, pursue a sport or hobby, launch a creative project, or even start a business or non-profit (join our EFM Business Owners group on Facebook for ideas and encouragement!).
4. Cast a wide net. Look for new friends among people from different generations, nationalities and cultural backgrounds. (Don’t let different ranks and agencies at post stop you, either!) In my case, my closest friends overseas have ranged from young singles to retirees, from the U.S., the host country, and third countries. Sometimes I found these soulmates during my last year at post. Next time I’ll reach out even earlier!
5. Ask for help. People at overseas posts know what it’s like to be new. You can pay it forward with other newcomers when your time comes. In the DC area, call the AAFSW office to find out about events and support networks.
6. Balance social media and real-life encounters. You already know this, but we all need reminding: your friends online can provide vital support, but in-person social contact is essential too.
7. Track your progress with the language and culture. Take a class at post, study online, write down new vocabulary and cultural insights. Local employees in the Mission can be some of your best resources, since they understand both the U.S. and host cultures.
8. Express your identity. Your favorite activity might be impossible in your host country; your house and furniture would be perfect for someone much more boring than you; and you’re constantly being identified as someone’s spouse. Find ways to demonstrate who you really are (or perhaps who you would like to be?). Throw yourself into a creative outlet or sport; write a blog; develop a unique clothing style; use your skills by teaching, writing or consulting.
9. Take control. At many posts, security restrictions, bureaucratic procedures, local customs and even bossy household staff can severely reduce your autonomy. Look for ways to feel like an independent adult again by planning and controlling whatever you can, even in small ways: your exercise routines, online learning, social events, etc.
10. Take care of yourself. It’s hard, hard, hard to leave everything behind and adjust to a new place where you don’t know where to buy a mop, how to buy a bus ticket, or how to say “sorry, I didn’t mean to step on your foot.” Vent with understanding friends if you need to. Then do everything that helps you feel stronger and more confident: exercise (the best morale booster of all, according to many FS community members), meditation, yoga, listening to music, etc. Realize that you’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you, if you feel really lousy sometimes. (However, if you find yourself struggling with very low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness, get help right away — depression is serious and needs treatment.) If you push through the early months and find yourself gradually adjusting, congratulate yourself on your progress, and help others along!
Patricia Linderman, AAFSW President 2011-2015, is the co-author of “The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad.“
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