Britain, Expat, Netherlands

Nobody Told Me Culture Shock Could Be So Debilitating

In September I will have been here in the Netherlands for fifteen years. Fifteen years. That’s no mean feat, even if I do say so myself.

These days I struggle with my identity on an almost daily basis – I’m stuck somewhere in the middle between learning to be Dutch and naturally being British. It’s a different struggle than the one I faced fifteen years ago.

I fell in love with a Dutchman, lost my job in England and decided the time was right for a change. When my then boyfriend said come live a Dutch life with me I didn’t hesitate. I stopped my job search, sold my flat and packed up all my belongings in a borrowed police trailer.  Easy peasy. I became an expat – just like that.

Did I stop to think about what I was heading to? Did I stop to imagine what life in the Netherlands as a Brit would be like?

Of course I did. The decision to move wasn’t made on a whim, and I knew there would be some adjustments on my part. I had a new language to learn (which I started doing as soon as I met my Dutch partner) and I had a job to find in a country where I didn’t speak the language. We also had to find somewhere to live together for the long term. I knew I would miss my family and friends. A lot. A heartachingly lot.

When I look back, that’s quite a lot to do and a lot of change to go through in the space of a few months. I see that now, but then it was just a list of things to get sorted to get our Dutch life together on track. I went abroad with my eyes open. But I didn’t see the whole picture.

What I didn’t think about was the constant feeling of not being able to make yourself wholly understood wherever you went. I didn’t know there was such a gap between ‘speaking Dutch’ and ‘speaking Dutch to a level which meant natives let you speak Dutch’. I had no idea I would feel so humiliated every time I asked for something as simple as a stamp in Dutch and get an answer back in English. I didn’t know it would be years before that stopped happening, before I reached the “congratulations, your Dutch is at a reasonable enough level for me to actually respond in Dutch to you” level.

I hadn’t thought about the every day, normal life challenges that I would face – like doing grocery shopping. Knowing that varkensvlees is pork is the easy part, knowing what cut of meat you are buying and what you are supposed to do with it when you get it home is something else indeed. I never dreamed I would face that moment in the supermarket when you think you may actually have just picked up meat from the fridge that was destined for a dog bowl, and not for human consumption.

I didn’t know how many tears I would shed whilst watching the BBC because it reminded me of a home I no longer had, but had not yet recreated on the other side of the North Sea.

I had no idea how many times I would utter “you’d never see this in England’ or “why can’t the Dutch just do it like the English?” and that even the little things would frustrate me.

I had given no thought to how it would feel to have nothing familiar around me: Roads were different; shops were different; houses were different; voices were foreign and unrecognisable to my ears; there were suddenly bikes everywhere; there were canals everywhere I looked. Everything was different. Much of it was beautiful, but still different.

I hadn’t considered how far out of my comfort zone I would be thrown. I wasn’t even in the same country as my comfort zone.

I could never have known that the urge to give it all up in the Netherlands and head back to England would at times be overwhelming, that it would take everything I had not to run back.

I hadn’t thought about the fact that moving in with the future mother and sister in law after living alone in my own place may well be difficult, no matter how lovely they were to me or how amazingly kind it was that they gave me a temporary home and made me feel welcome. It’s always hard to take a step backwards.

I did not know that expat life meant taking a seat, getting strapped in and heading off on an emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t just turn your entire life upside down, but which makes you violently scream at someone to let you off, that makes you scratch desperately at the safety belt which automatically closed around your neck, that safety harness which no one has the power to release until the ride is over and you have come to a grinding halt.

I wasn’t told about the tears I would shed. I hadn’t realised I would be fearful about what the future held for me. I didn’t know I would doubt every move I had made on the way to this new ‘home’.

No one told me I would go through culture shock. Nobody warned me that it is an inevitable part of expat life. Nobody told me it would be debilitating. Nobody told me it would pass. No one thought to mention I would come through it, I would work my way through the culture shock tunnel and there would eventually be light.

Nobody mentioned that one day my only struggle with expat life would be sitting in a place between learning to be Dutch and naturally being British. Nobody said that one day I would smile when the passport controller welcomed me home at Schiphol. Nobody told me that the Netherlands would one day truly feel like home.

Nobody told me. So I’m telling you. You will get through it. It will pass. And you will thrive on the other side. It’s the bad part you have to go through to get to the best part of expat life, to get to the happy side of expat life. Culture shock is part of the expat journey, it’s not a destination.

Seychelles Mama

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25 thoughts on “Nobody Told Me Culture Shock Could Be So Debilitating”

  1. I love this post so much! Glad to hear you are out the other side now. I still get people in shops and cafes answering me in english when I talk to them in German and it can be so disheartening! I've learned to not take it personally as an insult to my poor German level or them pointing out that I don't belong, but now I just think, they must want to practice their english with me.

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  2. I've been living as an expat for a year now and I find it gets easier, but I miss little things, like being able to read newspaper headlines when I walk past a shop or holding a barbecue in the backyard. I also miss having a regular income as I am self employed but get less work than in Australia.

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  3. This is yet another great little reminder that the expat blogging community has offered me. As a very new expat (about 7 months), I'd covered all the logistical parts of our move but hadn't given too much thought to the emotional bits. It's blogs like yours (and posts like this) that have shown me that I'm not going crazy, I'm not doing anything wrong, I'm just slowly adjusting to this new life I chose!

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  4. This is lovely Amanda! I'm sire it's very encouraging for any expat to read! How amazing that you've been there for 15 years now, I can see how now it's hard to know how to decide where you truly “belong”
    Culture shock is without doubt a really powerful thing, giving you every possible emotion to try and deal with!!
    Thanks so much for linking with #myexpatfamily lovely to have you join in!

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  5. Exactly! You're not crazy. Every time I write an article about culture shock there's always someone who remarks how easy relocating to the Netherlands is because everyone speaks English to you etc etc. i think if culture shock doesn't affect you and you don't feel like you've gone a little crazy then you're not doing expat life right 🙂

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  6. I love this post. I could have written it myself but for Britain instead of NL and America instead of Britain. After having lived for so many years in your native country, Amanda, I can totally relate to what you say as a non British resident but living in and loving Britain. And, after having visited NL, I can completely see how you love it there and yet still struggle with issues like identity and every day life as an expat in a foreign country. LOVE it. Love you!

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  7. There is so much truth to this post. It can be debilitating, all consuming and generally horrendous. Of course the longer you are away the more likely you are to get culture shock in your home country too – doubly debilitating! You are right though it does get better and it is worth persevering. Not enough people say that I think!

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  8. I've been an expat for just over 3 years and a lot of your post resonates with me. I still miss 'home' but also know I remember it through rose-tinted memories. It's very strange feeling like I belong neither here nor there. Glad I found your blog!
    #ExpatLifeLinky

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  9. That is also a VERY good point – we look back on 'home' with rose tinted glasses for sure. Everything there is better than 'here' and that is absolutely a part of culture shock. When we realise that the grass is actually just about the same colour it gets easier….. Thanks for joining in #ExpatLifeLinky 🙂

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  10. When you are in the thick of it it seems hard to think about there being an end to it because you don't even realise what you are feeling is common and a well established phenomena!! And yes, I think repatriation would throw up a whole lot of culture shock for me…….

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  11. Awwww, you're making me blush!! Thank you for your kind words 🙂 I guess expats like us will always be living in no-mans land! If I were to return to Britain right now I would struggle just as much as I did when I first arrived here. Funny how home changes 🙂

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  12. I love this post Amanda! It's funny, despite the fact that I have worked with people on cross cultural issues for over 10 years, had studied abroad twice and had traveled extensively, when we became permanent expats 7 years ago I was still blown away by how hard it actually is sometimes. I knew about culture shock…in fact, could tell you about it in great detail, BUT I was not prepared for all of the ways culture shock was so much more complicated than I had anticipated. That it forces you to feel unsure of not just what's around you, but your own place in the world as well. Sometimes it's almost like culture shock from yourself! LOL – Who is this person!? What is she thinking!? Thank you so much for posting!

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  13. Thanks for sharing this. We are less then two weeks away from moving to the Netherlands for a few years. I'm not sure if the short duration (a planned three years) makes me feel like some of this wont be as bad, but I do worry about how it will feel when we return to The States and don't really fit in here. This was a wonderful post for me to start to think about all the worries and feelings I have been having about moving abroad. I am excited for the experience and all the doors it will open, but also nervous about feeling totally out of place. #ExpatLifeLinkey

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  14. You hit the nail on the head! The Netherlands is our second expat country and I had figured it would be easier than our first (Spain) and yet, it's been infinitely harder and in different ways than Spain was. The culture shock isn't something you can truly prepare for, just prepare for a bumpy ride!

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  15. This is a good reminder of what lies ahead. I may have been an expat on and off all my life, but it still hits me every time. And it's great to have this expat community who truly understand. All my friends here in the UK are like, “You'll be fine… The kids will be fine…”.

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  16. Great post! We're currently living in the fourth country in 10 years, which included 5 years in NL. It's almost got to the point where feeling slightly discombobulated all the time is normal and the fact that everything is 'different' (from what I grew up with and what was the norm in the last country we lived) makes those differences easier to navigate. My biggest challenge is and has always been making new friends in new places – not just meeting folks to do stuff with but actually connecting with kindred spirits. I've always managed it in the end, usually just before we're due to move on again but any tips and advice on this front would be gratefully appreciated 🙂

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  17. This is very helpful, Amanda. Thank you.

    I am almost 8 months into my expat journey and it's reassuring to read that it's supposed to be a challenge. :p

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  18. Great post, it's the little things that you don't expect that will throw you off balance as an expat. The little things that remind you of home but I'm glad to hear you're on the other side now. What about those of us that don't stay in one place that long? Oh now I'm inspired to write a post about that! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  19. I am so happy to read this. I actually Googled “no one told me that expat life could be so debilitating,” and your blog appeared. Writing this through tears (left the comforts of America to move to Israel with my journalist fiance), you have given me a bit of hope. It has been exactly two months and I feel as if I am going crazy, losing my mind. I hate everything from food, to smells, to people…and when that McDonald's Big Mac arrived sans cheese for kosher reasons……ooohhhhhh…… :(( Anyway, thanks again for helping me to get through ONE more day as a trailing expat soon-to-be-spouse. Thank you.

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