Moving to a different continent has been one of the most challenging yet fulfilling experiences of my life. It has increased my cultural sensitivity, developed me as a person and changed the way I see the world. Yet I’d be lying if I said it had been an easy experience.
When I made the move from Italy to Singapore a few years ago, I was given much advice and many suggestions on how to be aware of culture shock and how to manage it.
I landed at Changi Airport in November, with a clear culture shock model in my head. I had a model - what could possibly go wrong?!
I was ready for a honeymoon phase of around 6/8 months where everything would look cool, interesting and exciting – not dissimilar to experiencing a kind of extended holiday. After that, it would be time to face the shock, the inner conflict between values. If this stage were managed successfully, I would have accepted diversity and integrate properly. The reality wasn’t quite so simple!
I arrived in Singapore excited, curious and full of energy, but after just six days, not even a full week, suddenly my mind crashed. It was a truly horrible feeling. Everything around me lost sense in a fraction of a second. I remember wandering around the city, looking at the malls in Orchard Street and thinking: "This is just not real. Nothing here is real. How is it possible that they are fine with that?" I began to feel resentment towards all the people that convinced me to come here – had they led me into a trap?!
It took me a month or two to cool down and manage the shock properly. The key challenge for me was the fact that I had moved from a world completely oriented around history and the past, with an uncertain future ahead, to a world going in the opposite direction, immersed in the future, with a very short past and few traces of history left around the city.
It was after this period that I started to become aware of the complexity of the integration process. Here are some of the interconnected challenges I faced when trying to integrate:
I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who craves routine, but on reflection I think it was a sudden lack of rituals that triggered the shock after only six days. It was only when I left Italy that I became aware of how many rituals I had. Friends, family, sport, hobbies, partner - all involved weekly meetings and comittments. They all had activities that happened on a certain day, in a certain part of the city. These things were far more important to me than I thought. Creating new habits requires plenty of time and a shift of paradigm. The immediate reaction was to find places where I could do my hobbies and sports, but I found out pretty quickly that it was more than that. It was about being acknowledged and accepted by the people around me. Doing a sport where people know and welcome you, buying a bottle of water from a small shop where you know the shopkeeper's name, going to a favourite restaurant where you know owners, waiters and "dish of the day", recognising friendly faces around the city. I came to Singapore with the expectation of a perfect place to live in, whilst what I actually needed was a real, human place to make home. Perfection has nothing to do with it. It was only once I had several weekly commitments that I started to feel at home, and this took several months.
The second big thing that provoked my shock was finding out how little I knew about myself. I had expected the move to bring a certain set of emotions, feelings, thoughts and behaviours, and I was negatively surprised at how different they were in reality. An interesting thing that I noticed in my first months was that I tried too hard to be open and appreciative of the local culture, even when faced with things that I didn't really like. I found myself facing a conflict of values. It felt like pushing a ball under water, just to see it coming back with even more strength. I learned that openness to different cultures requires balance, and that it can't happen overnight. The opposite extreme was to join expat communities and keep on complaining about the local culture and people, celebrating the beauty of Europe. This wasn't very desirable either. The pace of change of identity is very slow, and I believe that integration happens inside more than outside. It took me around a year to feel at home in Singapore, to identify myself as a person living here and not just transiting through.
One of the most extreme challenges I faced was how to avoid judging others. I struggled with the food, the weather, the way taxi drivers speak in English. It took some time, but eventually I started eating more and more varieties of local food, began to enjoy the hot & humid weather and to understand the local dialect. These things are pretty easy to manage when you have enough time and the positive will to integrate. What I really struggled with were the deeper layers of Singaporean and Asian culture in general. The first challenge was to understand, but the toughest one was to accept and value the differences.
The way people conceive success, education and politics couldn't be more different than in Europe. Discovering the amount of pressure kids face due to the highly demanding test they have to go through at a really young age made me turn up my nose. But even small things, like how people drive, how they manage space, how absorbed they are in their smartphones even whilst walking around, all these feelings seemed judgmental. The truth is that I spent most of my time judging the reality around me, positioning myself on a pedestal as a sort of superior observer. This is an exhausting and unhealthy approach to integration and it didn’t work at all for me. The worst part is that this judgmental approach is contagious, and it spreads like germs into the expat communities.
All of these challenges are connected by one common factor: people.
I’d left my friends, my family and my habits. How could I recreate my life here?
There were two big clusters of people that I could approach. One was the locals and the other the expats. Both brought challenges. On one side, with the locals, the cultural distance between Asia and Europe is so huge that it goes far beyond the lack of a common language. Humour, values and assumptions are so different that they create a barrier that I found almost impassable. Furthermore, expats live in this city for around two years on average, so why should locals develop long term relationships with them? This definitely doesn't apply to everyone, but it's a pattern I saw in many people I met. On the other side, the expat community is exposed to a very high risk of closure, isolation and negative judgment towards local culture, occasionally making it hard to enjoy a night out, when the conversation focuses on the unacceptable behaviours of other ethnic groups.
How to survive
The most fascinating part about culture shock is that everybody approaches it differently and the impact it has on feelings is highly unpredictable.
My personal suggestion is to go through all these challenges in an authentic way, without lying to yourself. I'm pretty sure that most of you readers are more extroverted, people oriented, culturally open, flexible and agile than me and have experienced or would experience culture shocks after a longer time and in a easier way. But after discussing culture shock with many people from different countries, I have a feeling that sooner or later we all have to deal with those challenges, even though some people try to ignore them, or pretend to have overcome them all together.
Integration is tough and complex. Time, perseverance and reserving judgment are the key ingredients for a successful process, but it's easier said than done.
What I can say from my experience is that after a few years in Singapore I feel at home, I enjoy the city and the people as they are, I have created my own habits, and dramatically reduced my intolerance to diversity. I'm pretty confident that the more time I spend here, the more comfortable I'll feel. This doesn't require accepting and enjoying everything, it doesn’t mean agreeing with all the local values nor considering it a perfect place to live. I think it's more about being aware of my space in this city and working out how best I can connect with people on a deep and long lasting level.