Ten tips to help you adapt to a new culture

Les Anderson Unsplash I Am A Triangle

Moving to a new country is exciting, stimulating and exhilarating. It can also be exhausting and just plain scary. I moved to Egypt two years ago to be with my Egyptian husband, and whilst it was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, for a long time every day presented challenges that drained and frustrated me.

In truth, it doesn’t matter how much research you do, or how many books you read, nothing can truly prepare you for those first few weeks in a completely new culture. But don’t worry, I Am A Triangle is here to help. Here are our top tips to help you adapt to your new host country as quickly as possible.

Ten tips to help you adapt to a new culture:

Be kind to yourself

Many people who have just moved to a new country beat themselves up because they feel they shouldn’t be feeling homesick, or should be adapting quicker, or feel too scared to try new things. After all, you tell yourself, this is a big adventure, I should be enjoying it to the MAX! The most important thing to remember is that these feelings are completely normal and instead of being hard on yourself, remember that it takes time to adjust and you don’t have to experience everything the minute you arrive.

Even though he has never lived abroad, my husband was kinder to me than I was to myself. Whenever I wailed that I couldn’t do something, he simply said “It takes time, be patient”. He was right. Be kind to yourself.

Remember that culture shock is different for everyone

Many websites and books can tell you about the stages of culture shock.  Whilst these can be useful as a guide to how you’re progressing, don’t think of them as the definitive yardstick to measure your progress. This is another route to beating yourself up. The first stage is often described as the honeymoon phase. If I had one of those, it was so short that it was over by the time I walked out of the airport terminal building. I arrived in Cairo and immediately spiraled down into a pit of disorientation and terror. It was hot, chaotic, I didn’t understand anybody and I couldn’t even cross the road on my own. We were staying in my husband’s hotel because our apartment wasn’t ready, and I refused point blank to leave without my husband or my stepson.

There is nothing wrong with you if this happens, just as there is nothing wrong with you if you if you stay in the honeymoon phase for your whole posting. I spent six months in Amsterdam a few years ago, and I loved it from the moment I arrived until I reluctantly stepped on the plane when my assignment was over. Everyone’s experience is different because there are so many factors. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, so there is no definitive path through culture shock.

The theories of culture shock also don’t often mention that you can get past a phase, only to discover that you’re back in it a few weeks later. Sometimes it’s not a linear process.

Be prepared for complete exhaustion

In her wonderful little book, Culture Shock – A Practical Guide, HE Rybol talks about the autopilot that ran your life before you moved. In your day to day activities, you don’t have to think much about how to do anything, because you already know. Your autopilot is in charge. After you move to another country, your autopilot has gone into hiding. You don’t know how to do anything, or at least that’s how it feels. You have to consciously think about everything. This is completely exhausting.

The more the cultural differences between your home country and your host country, the longer this will last, especially if the languages are different. The good thing about this is that every time you manage to do something it feels like a huge achievement. I had a disproportionate sense of accomplishment when I managed to buy toothpaste for the first time. Egyptian pharmacies don’t work like British pharmacies; you have to ask for what you want, then pay, then you’ll be given your purchase. Needless to say, the toothpaste was at the opposite side of the shop from the counter. I had to take the shop assistant over to the toothpaste, point wildly at the one I wanted, then pay for it back at the counter. As for my first purchase in an Egyptian bakery! That’s a whole other story.

Your pilot will take up a lot of energy to begin with and this completely wipes you out, so be prepared. Each time you achieve something though, your autopilot takes a step forward and gradually takes over again.

Find your comfort blankets

I’m not a materialistic person, but after moving to Cairo I found myself clinging to certain objects that felt comforting. My battered notebook. My tiny purple knitted teddy that I’ve had since I was small. I also discovered that Starbuck’s is a comfort blanket for me. Shortly after arriving I asked my husband to take me to Cairo Festival City Mall just to go to Starbuck’s, because I wanted to do what I used to do – sit and drink coffee and read my book. And not have to THINK.

I have an American friend who moved to London to be with her British husband. She gave me some of the best advice I have received on moving abroad. She gave me missions. She said go and find a library and make it YOUR library. Find a coffee shop. Find a supermarket. She told me to choose one of my favorite British dishes, shop for the ingredients and cook it. No advice could have been better. I had to get out of the house, go into shops, find ingredients (or alternatives), buy cooking utensils. It was scary, but at the end of it I had MY library, MY shops, MY coffee shop. These things became familiar and comforting.

Find a shop that sells your favorite food. I nearly cried when I found digestive biscuits in Carrefour.

Find people from your own country

It’s a laudable objective to want to make friends with local people, but you may have to accept that this might be more difficult than you expected. Egypt, for example, is considerably more conservative than the UK. Making friends with Egyptians is entirely possible, but you can’t approach it in the same way you might in your home country and it might not happen quickly.

I found it lonely and isolating to have nobody to speak to who was also a native speaker of English, and understood my cultural norms and what I was going through. I highly recommend our very own community,  I Am A Triangle as well as seeking out relevant groups on Facebook. Make sure you look after yourself though. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because someone is the same nationality as you and always meet in a public place the first time.

Two weeks after I moved to Cairo, I went to a writer’s group which was a mix of Egyptians and foreigners. The lingua franca was English and it was a huge comfort to speak to other native speakers. My autopilot was in charge and I felt refreshed and energized. It was also the beginning of my social life and I met some people who have become close friends.

Become independent

I don’t think I’d have survived my first few weeks in Cairo without my husband. He took me everywhere and bought everything. I soon got fed up of this, having lived independently since the age of 17. He also got pretty fed up with it. Although it was hard, I forced myself to do things. I tried crossing the road on my own. I tried Uber. I did my own shopping. I even found a job.

I look back on those early days and it astonishes me how much I have achieved. I have done things I never thought would be possible. I’ve had a few disasters (getting off at the wrong train station in Alexandria springs to mind) but I dealt with them all myself. It’s a great feeling.

Look for things to do that match your interests

I host a book club and a writer’s group here in Cairo. I asked one of our members – a serial expat who has lived all over the world – why he had joined the book club. “I always look for the groups that match my interests and don’t waste time on the rest. That way you meet the people you’re going to have something in common with” he said.

This was great advice and I urge you to do this. The writing group and book club, and the friends I have made there, have been my sanctuary and solace when I have wondered if it was possible to make a life in this country.

If your interests aren’t represented – start your own group. With social media these days, believe me people will find you. Don’t let fear turn you into a prisoner in your own home.

Learn a few useful words of the language

I couldn’t get a taxi when I first arrived in Cairo. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English, and I didn’t even know how to say the name of the suburb where we lived, never mind give directions. I quickly learned how to pronounce the name, and also the Arabic words for left, right, straight on and stop here. The first word I learned was actually thank you, closely followed by “can I have a cup of tea please?”, a vital phrase if you’re British!

Those few words increased my independence and confidence so much that now I am able to travel all over Cairo on my own, something of which I am immensely proud. If you can find one, a survival course in the language would be ideal.

Don’t be afraid to rely on other people for support

There are many reasons why we don’t ask for support when we need it. We don’t want to burden our friends and family. We don’t want to admit we’re scared and lonely, even though we chose this path. We don’t want to seem weak and needy. I am guilty of all of these and let me tell you, it’s all rubbish, and the opposite is true. People want to help you, so let them. My family and friends back in the UK all thought I’d gone insane, but have been right there with me since the beginning. I wouldn’t still be in Cairo without my local friends. I also sought professional help, because I had the additional challenge of trying to make an intercultural marriage work, although my counsellor at Expat Nest helped me with so much more than that.

It shows strength and courage to admit that you’re struggling to cope. Seek help if you need it and don’t suffer alone.

Believe that it’s worth it

Adapting to the culture in Egypt is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life, and there’s still so much more that I have yet to experience. It’s a rollercoaster, but every day that goes by is just a little bit easier. I look back at what I have achieved, how much I have grown as a person, what I have learned about myself and I don’t regret any of it. Every experience, good and bad, has increased my confidence in my own abilities.

Even if you decide that your move to your host country isn’t working out, you’ve still achieved something incredible by moving there. So make the most of it because believe me, it’s worth it.

(If you’re in Cairo, please join our TriCONNECT group!)


Author: Carol el Hawary

Carol was born and bred in Scotland and worked for many years in England in the financial sector. In August 2015 she moved to Egypt permanently to be with her Egyptian husband. She works in education and specializes in the English language. She is active in the expat community and writes about the joys and challenges of living in Cairo, where she lives with her husband, stepson and three rescued cats.

Comments 9

  1. Carol, thank you for sharing. Today, of all days, your article is hitting home. ‘A lot’ home actually! I have been in California for 10months and everything has been going swimmingly, or so I thought. The most recent incident is the straw that broke the camel’s back as they say, and your article has come at the right time. I take away the bit about being kind to yourself, and culture shock. Even moving from London to California, both Western cities, I still experience cultural differences. Still learning. So thank you for sharing. I did break down and cry a little when I read this, more out of relief that someone out there knows it too! Have a good day.

    1. Hi Fern,

      thank you for your lovely comments, they made my day. I only write this stuff in the hope that my experiences will be useful for other people in the same situation. I’ve been in Egypt for two years now and the two year mark does seem to have caused a bit of a crisis. Need to read my own advice about being kind to myself!!! I hope you’re having a better day.


  2. I so needed this right now. I have just moved from the UK to Beijing and am up and down like yo yo!!! I have no idea whether I am “ok” from one minute to the next. Everyone around me seems to be adapting and adjusting and I feel like I am walking on thin air!!! It is terrifying. I have my keepsakes from home but they actually just make me want to cry when I look at them so instead I don’t and then I feel guilty because it is like I am pretending my old life didn’t exist and…..it still does. Rollercoaster emotions. Three weeks in and really hoping that it settles soon. I am exhausted from not knowing when I might burst into tears. I feel like a complete wimp and a total novice.

    Your article made me feel that I am not alone.

    Thank you

  3. Great words and very soothing to me. At this moment in time I’m moving to America , I stupidly thought my interest and longing was enough to cope while being here, although I’m in the final stages of my application process , I’m now spending longer with visits and have past that (Honeymoon ) period. All I seem to feel now is confusion, denial, hopelessness , lost ….
    But I know it will pass and I’m thankful for your experience and teachings …Thank you from someone battling and over coming such difficulties, you have given me hope…..

  4. Pingback: Cons of Studying Abroad and How to Address Them

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