How to Smooth Transitions

Moving into new cultural and linguistic terrain is always a daunting enterprise.

For the breadwinner it is often a move from one desk to another. Of course, there are new colleagues to deal with as well as a new environmental language, but the core of your reason for moving will be the same: long hours at your desk and business trips.

Spouses, on the other hand, are responsible for the children’s education, running a smooth household, dealing with neighbors, organising kids’ activities, enrolling in local language courses, etc. All this euphoria lasts for about three months – until culture shock sets in and your initial fun of exploring your host country sometimes turns to frustration.

This is a very crucial turning point, because when things turn a bit sour, you might run the risk of keeping this attitude until you leave your host country. Find an “Ausfahrt”(*1). Don’t feel stuck.

I’ve had to start over a few times, and this is what I’ve learned:

* Don’t feel lonely – volunteer!

Sign up for a volunteer job just to get to know people and establish a certain routine. There are some jobs that are not that time-consuming, such as helping out one afternoon in the international school library, holding an English conversation table once a week, etc.

Volunteering was one of the first things I always did while settling into a new culture. In this way, I got out of the house, talked to other like-minded people, learned more about my host-country and got a better sense of my surroundings.

* Change from a language class to a hobby to practice your language skills

Some companies pay for your initial foreign language course to help you become integrated. Most of it, though, is book study in the classroom. Once you get to a certain level, it’s time to move on– and out of the classroom.

Instead of signing up for another language class, you might consider signing up for a course the locals are taking, e.g., Chinese cooking, yoga, flower arrangement, or whatever your interest is in. Immersing yourself in the local language will improve your speaking and listening comprehension, and also help you make some friends.

After I had taken a part-time course for Japanese and reached a sufficient level of competence, I took a risk and enrolled in a private group lesson for patchwork. My teacher only knew Japanese, and I could practice my speaking and listening comprehension by following instructions. The sewing vocabulary I picked up has stayed with me ever since.

* Get a private teacher

Some of you might shy away from the thought of getting a private teacher out of the desire not to make another commitment. But private lessons can be changed, postponed, and canceled. Find out what the rules are and adhere to them. In some cultures like Korea, there are no cancellation fees (even for a no-show), but here in Germany, private teachers not only sell their knowledge but also their time.

A private teacher will help you with what YOU need and doesn’t have to follow a set curriculum. His/her time is YOUR time. Once you’ve reached a certain level of language skill, you might want to incorporate them into your interests. If you are interested in the local cuisine, you can discuss recipes and cook together.

As a private teacher I’ve had students who reached that level. So I taught them patchwork with the help of the foreign language, in this case German. This enabled the student to talk freely, learn a hobby-related vocabulary and produce a craft at the same time.

Some expats may also have an elderly neighbor willing to converse at a very low rate of tuition.

*From private teacher to mentor

When things get tough in your life and neither your spouse nor your spouse’s secretary is available (or you have used her service too many times already), then your private teacher can help out in settling your foreign language affairs.

As a private teacher and German speaker, I’ve made phone calls to insurance companies, doctor’s offices, hotlines, and translated German bills into English, among many other favors.

My students ask all kinds of cultural questions:

+ My German neighbor always puts her trashcan in front of my house, not hers. What can I do without upsetting her?
+ Why can’t I take a shower in my apartment after 10 p.m. in Germany?
+ Why are shops closed on Sundays? (This is about to change, though)

Get yourself a private teacher, and it will open up another window in your fishbowl community.

*From mentor to friend

Granted, not all relationships like teacher-student end up in a great friendship. But from my experience most of them did and still do. I’ve taken adult students out for a beer, invited them to a local fest, or told them about special cultural activities.

Younger students got to enjoy a campfire in our garden, or they walked around with my children and me on Halloween night.

If there are good vibes, there will also be a fun side to life outside this professional relationship.

*Keep a journal of your stay

This could be a scrapbook for fun or a place where you can dump all your frustrations, adjustment problems and sorrows. This is especially helpful if you have come to this new place without an existing network.

I started keeping a journal 15 years ago when we were in the process of moving from the United States to Japan, and it has proven rather helpful for my “mental hygiene”.

* Be patient

Last, but not least– bad days can happen anywhere. Sometimes it’s so easy to blame it on the host country and its people. Please bear in mind that you must have had bad days in your native country or last place of residence, too.

Enjoy your stay wherever you are!

(*1) Ausfahrt: German for highway exit


  1. Dorothy (Steinert) Vranesic says

    Great article. You have good sound advice from your years of experience. Great work. I enjoy hearing from you. Thank you for keeping me informed of your work.

  2. Susan Fedors says

    I liked your article and all of it was right on target. I managed to find volunteer opportunities in Germany through school, church, and the consulate and scouts. I still have fond memories of serving refreshments at a local refugee center, and schlepping donated items to a battered womens’ shelter and homeless shelters. It helped me get out into the community, really opened up the local culture to me, and I learned a new set of vocabulary. I also took private German lessons my last year and found it was much easier to tailor the learning to my own daily needs than the classes which I had taken previously. (I think the coffee helped, Maria)
    Now, how to reassimilate into the home culture… I would love to hear others’ experiences.

  3. Betsy Lower says

    I found your suggestions to be highly informative. Even though I’ll probably never relocate to a foreign country, your suggestions are valid for anyone moving to a new locale regardless of language. As you say, you must make the effort to reach out and get involved, not sit back and wait for it to happen. It was obvious that you have employed these tactics in your life experiences and found them to be beneficial.

  4. Beate Schofield, your BEST FRIEND says

    My dear Maria,
    even though it has been a long time ago since I “relocated”, I still remember the days when everything seemed so strange to me during the first few month in AMERIKA. I tried so hard to fit in and not look like a foreigner to anybody. I have some really funny storries about those days.
    I wish I would have kept a journal, like you said in your article. Maybe I could have turned it into a funny book…..
    So, my suggestion is: Laugh, laugh and write it downm how silly these people are in your new HOME. You will enjoy reading it later, when you are one of them….act just like one of them….
    I am so glad we are still BEST FRIENDS, Maria.

  5. Chris from Texas says

    The immersion into a new place with a different culture and language IS daunting, and it may even be close to home, as I have discovered in deep South Texas. It’s not Texas, but it’s not Mexico, and it’s not even something in between. But one cannot allow that “frustration” you describe to overwhelm you. Even with difficulty talking to locals, it can be exciting to explore nature’s wonders, eat unusual foods, or even shop at little flea-markets. We enjoy our new hometown so much more when visitors come. Learning another language must be fun and needs to be diverse, as you state. I’m learning by taking weekly lessons, reading children’s books, watching TV, and mostly by JUST TRYING and asking questions to those I come in contact with. People (usually) are eager to help and each will provide a different view of the language and culture that surrounds you. Many places, many flavors, many potential new friends.

  6. Rhiannon Wood says

    A great article Maria! It brought back memories of arriving in Germany some 20 years ago. Of course with having a job it was easier to make connections, but I wish I had followed your advice about taking up a hobby and learning it through German, it may have resulted in me being more competent in the language! Perhaps when I retire I will use the time to finally master the language through an interest

  7. Maria,

    I was cleaning out my “inbox” and ran across your article. I was glad I had saved it! Your article and the comments posted have been helpful. After nine years of living in Europe (2+ in Antwerp, Belgium, 4+ in Frankfurt, and 2 years in Brussels, Belgium), we will be returning to the U.S.–a foreign country to us now. I’m hoping I will not have to take language classes;-) but would be able to help a French speaking or German speaking person with getting to know the US. With Abby going off to college, it will just be Seth at home. Volunteering in his new school will be a great way to get to know some of the other parents. In ways, I’m sure it will be more difficult moving to the US than to Europe as the international schools are such transient communities. It is easier to get to know people when there are so many new people on the first day of school. Luckily, Seth will be starting high school so they’ll all be new at the school, but may have been in school together since kindergarten. I’ll look forward to your blogs and future articles and staying in touch with our friends from Germany! Thomas will have to visit us in Dayton, Ohio when you next come to the US!

  8. Hi Susie and everyone else,

    Thanks so much for letting me know that this post was useful.

    Being an ex-pat has its charm, but it also comes with challenges.

    As we will probably stay put for the next ten years or longer, I won’t need to heed my own advice:))

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