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Lost in Translation

October, 2005
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Moving from one country to another can be a chaotic and life changing experience. This transition, whether the first or one of many, is likely to bring conflicting feelings. The new and different environment can evoke feelings of exhilaration, loneliness and sadness, and frustration with an unfamiliar lifestyle. This is completely normal. Almost all expats, no matter how experienced, feel some degree of transitional stress when moving to a new country. Some people move beyond it quickly, while others might take up to a year or longer to feel comfortable in their new country.

The transition actually starts before you leave home. Once you have been told of your new position, your brain immediately shifts to the future. You are excited about new opportunities, but perhaps friends and family around you are less so. You might experience the disturbing feeling that life is passing you by, that you are being overlooked for events that you were once an integral part of. Your adolescent children may even be angry with you for taking them away from their friends.

What do you do? Acknowledge that your role and identity is in a state of flux. Take time to listen to your children – don’t get engaged in their blame game but acknowledge and respond to their fears and insecurities. Take time to say good-bye, and try to reconcile differences and take care of unfinished business. A good ending makes a good beginning.

You’ve arrived! Culture shock! Beijing is completely different from where you were before. The smog, the taxis, the food, the language! You are disoriented and don’t yet understand where you fit in. You are unknown and you have no identity. Worse still, your partner seems to have comfortably slipped into their new workplace.

You have a huge “to do list”, but feel you aren’t getting anywhere with it. You swing between anxiety and excitement, and your spouse and children are adapting at different rates.

This is when you need to be kind to yourself and to those around you. Try to look after yourself, and keep an eye on your diet (and alcohol intake) and make sure you get enough sleep. Exercise!!! You may not feel like it, but it is one of the best ways to deal with stress. Keep your sense of humor and be optimistic. When someone invites you to an event or suggests you call them, DO IT!

Children need your attention during the initial transition. Identify where your child feels most comfortable, which is often their bed. Set it up as they wish, even if it doesn’t make sense to you at the time. Spend a part of each day listening to your child. Acknowledge their feelings, but don’t try to change them. If they identify problems, don’t step in and solve them. Support them to come up with their own solutions. Children need to feel a sense of control over their new environment.

Finally, attend to the three “R”s of transition: routine, rituals and relationships. Re-establish positive family routines from home as soon as possible. Does your family have any special celebrations or traditions? Keep them going. Be kind to each other and recognize that the ups and downs you are all experiencing are normal and that they will pass.

Jo Most importantly, get out and enjoy your new home! Show respect to the host community. The sooner you experience the adventure and excitement that is China, the sooner it will begin to feel comfortable.

“I have just arrived from working in an international school in the UK. As for Beijing and China…I’m experiencing the same ups and downs as everyone else…and I love it!”

By Joanne Loiterton
Elementary School Counsellor and Whole School Counselling Coordinator at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). Jo is also a psychologist from Australia who has been working with children of all ages for many years in schools and community settings. The WAB is her second international appointment.

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