The memory is still quite vivid. My wife was laid up on the couch with a fever. My two young children were running circles around me trying to make sense of what was happening. And I was a big ball of stress. Foremost on my mind was trying to figure out how I was going to transport the two full-size suitcases that didn’t fit in the already overflowing rental car the 650 miles to our last stop before departure. Oh, and then there was the fridge that needed to be cleaned, the odds and ends that needed to be discarded, and the house that needed to be closed up before we hit the road. Just another day in the life of a family preparing to move overseas. (And in case you are wondering, the suitcases got latched to the roof precariously behind the car-top carrier.)
I had already been through the normal stresses of pre-departure when we first left for the field several years earlier—before the two children. Yet somehow I had forgotten just how draining it is to pack up one’s life and move to a different country. This recent experience of moving overseas has reminded me how significant this transition is and how important it is to recognize that. Often we tend to focus on the stress of cross-cultural adjustment that takes place after arrival. Only sometimes do we pause to recognize that many people stepping off the plane are doing so with plenty of enthusiasm and hope, but very little energy. Among the many things people bring with them are often residual stress and fatigue.
What can we do in light of this reality as we receive new arrivals?
– Provide a “soft landing”- In preparation for our arrival, our teammates had helped us locate an apartment to stay in for the first three weeks and had stocked it with enough groceries to get us through the first few days. They had also set up a prepaid phone for us to use that was loaded with useful phone numbers. Such efforts go a long way in allowing new arrivals to catch their breath and catch up on sleep.
– Offer information and assistance- There is always a long list of things to do upon arrival and most people are eager to get things taken care of and get settled. Each destination is unique and the order in which things need to happen doesn’t always fit the logic of the expatriate mind. Providing guidance about how to prioritize and approach tasks can save countless hours of reinventing the wheel and subsequently spinning it!
– Put the brakes on first impressions- Okay, research tells us that we form first impressions in a matter of seconds. Personal experience also leads me to believe that the first several weeks in a new context are very influential in shaping our perceptions of a team or community. When it comes to a major cross-cultural move, these same several weeks are also probably the worst time to do this. I cringe at the thought of the first impressions I was making as I frantically tried to establish a home in the first three weeks to protect my family from yet another temporary housing situation. In fact, I could make a pretty strong argument for regularly jettisoning our perceptions and judgments of each other during the first weeks, months, and even years after a cross-cultural move.
– Plan for a “calm after the storm”- In many cases, there’s relatively little that can be done to minimize the magnitude of a cross-cultural move and the stress that it involves. We can’t always provide a “calm before the storm.” But often we can build in extra margin after the essential tasks of the transition are completed so new arrivals can recuperate. Yes, that will often mean a delayed start to both language learning and active participation in the work at hand. But this investment can make the difference between a person or family feeling like they’ve regrouped and are ready for the next round of challenges or like they’re continually “running on fumes.” It can help protect a person’s sense of self-efficacy and confidence, which are often in jeopardy during the first few years.
– Facilitate connection with others who have recently arrived – This can serve multiple purposes. First, it plugs them into a network of information from others who are trying to navigate the set-up and settling process. It also connects them with others who understand what they’re going through—something that we all desire.
As a counselor who has the privilege of hearing the stories about first-term experiences, it’s become very clear that the first few months after a cross-cultural transition often set the tone for the years that will follow (especially if they have been negative). I have a renewed desire to do what I can to help others catch their breath when they arrive, and I invite you to do the same.
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