About two years ago I found myself sitting on the floor in the flat, crying because a pipe was leaking underneath a sink. There had been builders in the house for several days, sorting things out in our new home, the home Gerry and I would settle in for a few years.
There was a trickle of water running along the floor and I couldn’t keep the tears away. I felt helpless and I realised that this was it. This was my home. This country was now my home. There would be no more moving for a while, no more wide-eyed fascination. The third stage of culture shock was setting in, but I didn’t realise that back then.
Let us rewind a bit further. It’s 2009, I’ve just arrived in London. I breathe in the air at Heathrow and it fills me with a bubbly joy, the sweet, polluted air of London. I rush past the yellow signs to collect my suitcase and I move into my first flat in the city. I spend a year happily riding buses for hours, walking everywhere, even enjoying the tube – because I am finally in London.
For two years my biggest fear is that something will happen and that I will have to move home. I hold on to every little thing that keeps me in London with an iron grip. I count my months in the city. I am totally and utterly in love with the place. I worry that I’ll get ill or that I won’t be able to support myself. I work hard because that means I’ll be able to stay.
Then I meet Gerry, then my life slowly winds itself around this town, then I get married, we move into the flat, the flat becomes a home, Finland feels very far away. And suddenly I find myself longing for home. Not the real country I left behind, but small things like the forest, the clean air, the cold winters and the long summer nights. I miss my family because I realise this isn’t a temporary thing anymore. I have rooted myself in this country. And that’s when the problems start.
It’s said that there are four stages of culture shock.
1. The honeymoon phase
- Everything about your new home is lovely, amazing, fascinating. It’s the best place ever. You get offended if someone says anything negative about your new home. You have lots of energy, you want to see everything, do everything, talk to everyone. You wake up happy every day because you’ve moved to such a wonderful place. You’re totally in love
2. The negotiation phase
- Homesickness starts to creep in. Suddenly you notice things about your new home, things you don’t really like. You pick up on cultural differences and they annoy you. You realise that perhaps this isn’t such a great place after all. It’s just another place, with problems and annoying people just like anywhere else. You start missing home and people who really get you.
3. The adjustment phase
- This is when depression hits you. What’s the point, you think. The love is gone. You feel a bit lost, wondering why you moved in the first place. The magic is gone. You’re floating between two cultures. Going back home isn’t an option, staying feels difficult. You’re numb. Nothing makes you happy.
- You’ve come out on the other side. You know this country now, you know this culture and you’re starting to figure out where you fit in. You will always be different, have a different cultural background, but you have found some kind of middle ground. And suddenly you’re ready to fall in love with the country again, this time accepting its flaws, problems and realness.
I struggled with the adjustment phase. A lot of things in the UK started to annoy me. Why were the politicians so useless? Why did I have to move to country where the majority of people in power have gone to the same private schools? Why do you hardly see any female, black or asian faces in Westminster? Why does the post never arrive? Where is my place in this society? Will I ever be able to settle in the UK? Why does everyone around me only seem to care about money?
For a while my life turned into a dull grey. I wasn’t sure where I was going, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be going anywhere. This new country, my home, had lost its sparkle. I wasn’t in love anymore, but I couldn’t ever see myself leaving.
In this confusion I managed to write a book. I poured my frustration and confusion into Det finns inga britter. I started researching what it meant to be British. I read up on the history of this country, learning there is a long tradition of immigration. I got even angrier realising how some of these immigrants had been treated throughout the centuries. I read about the reality black and asian immigrants were faced with in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, being refused housing and medical care. But even though there were many things that made me angry, I also earned that British culture has been shaped by immigration, going all the way back to Roman times. This country is an amalgamation of different cultures and people, but sometimes the Brits find it easy to forget this.
As I read another Britain started appearing before me. A real country, with real problems. It wasn’t the same country I had moved to back in 2009, but I didn’t mind so much anymore because the ground I was standing on felt solid again. I was starting to see this country like some its citizens was seeing it.
There is a fifth stage of culture shock, the independence stage.
You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture. You start to feel at home.
And that’s where I’ve come out. I live here now. In some ways the UK is the country where I’ve become a grown up, I know more about how to run a business here than in Finland, in theory I know how to buy a house here. This is where I pay my taxes. And when I go home there are things I forget, like weighing my vegetables when I go grocery shopping. Small things, but things that root me in one place. Even my annoyance and frustration with this country connects me to it. After all it’s pretty British to complain.
I didn’t think culture shock would affect me. But moving to a new country is a big thing, no matter how well you think you understand that culture. If you find these sort of feelings affecting you, remind yourself that everyone goes through it and that you will come out on the other side, hopefully a little bit wiser.
Image by Luis Llerena.