I’m convinced that the majority of human beings on the planet can be identified as Antevasins – to varying degrees of course. I’ve spent 2+ months in Seoul and I have met people with the most interesting global stories which have led me to pander the qualitative differences between those Antevasins who are moving and mixing with cultures around the world at a higher rate than those who move and mix less. And I presume that those without physical contact with our global village mostly participate in globality via internet and technology (yes globality is a word – according to wikipedia).
The world is truly a smaller place for those whose variance plants them at the higher end of crossing borders. Many corporate expats find themselves globetrotting – spending 2 months in Latin America, 2 weeks in Europe, 3 years in Asia, with trips back “home” littered throughout their time abroad – wherever “home” is. Some find life partners while abroad – and often, partners are from a land other than “home” with an interesting global story of their own. The two combine to become a colorful combination of race, ethnicity, culture, blended cultures, identity and identities – all of which are in flux. As we Antevasins increasingly stamp our way through customs all over the world and interact with novel sounds, sights, tastes, scents, and people, I believe there is an internal negotiation process that occurs… and perhaps, the occurrences never cease…
One such occurrence is what I previously discussed in the post on culture shock and cultural adaptation. After working in international education, participating on several study abroad programs myself, and conducting a mixed methods study on students studying abroad, I’ve observed both my own and others’ processes in different capacities and find that each individual’s experience contains a complexity, sometimes unbeknownst to them, which is produced by multiple layers in one’s experience. I think of three layers in particular with each serving as a point on a triangle. For you MFTs and/or psychologists out there – the way I imagine the components is best articulated as the reciprocal interactive process between the 1) system of the individual and the 2) individual’s systems. The third piece is the 3) cultural adaptation to a new environment, which adds new systems. So to get a bit nerdy here – in my mind, the system of the individual is represented by of Virginia Satir’s Self Mandala:
Each of these parts interacts with the others to create the individual. And the individual has a distinct relationship with each part and the entirety as a whole. Then there is the individual’s systems, which can be illustrated by Brofenbrenner’s Ecological Model:
The individual has a relationship with each system. In totality, how a person interacts with his or her parts also impacts how the person interacts with his or her environment/community. This can implicate how the individual will interact in a new foreign environment.
A very bright young psychological supervisee reminded me recently that “mental illness surfaces when a person is under distress.” And it is no wonder that with the rise of mental health issues in college campuses in the US, there is also increased concerns regarding mental health and study abroad (see here for a NAFSA article on the topic). With the added stress of adapting, transitioning, and coping in a novel environment being abroad, there appears to be more need for mental health support for students studying abroad.
So this got me thinking about the expatriate adaptation and Antevasin lifestyle. Students who study abroad usually are connected to a community of students and have administrative support from an institution; this makes the transition a bit smoother. However, most expats are abroad for a purpose whether it’s taking time off from job hunting or from their careers and teaching English while learning the host culture, relocating for a job opportunity, or relocating to follow a partner (this was outlined by my boss) – each person will have to adapt to some difference. So regardless of the reason for living abroad, each individual undergoes their own adjustment processes which I believe are impacted by the layers aforementioned. And depending on their relationship with themselves (system of the individual) and their external systems (ecology) they will have an experience ranging somewhere on the continuum of easy-to-difficult adjustment.
In past experiences, I’ve usually been on the easy side of the pendulum. And my time in SK has given me the opportunity to experience the other side. So referring back to the culture shock U Curve, I moved out of the conflict stage and into the critical/acceptance stage when a few things happened – first, I paid attention to those three points on my triangle.
- Self. I allowed myself the space and time to experience the not so pretty parts of cultural adaptation. I finally stopped fighting it and examined where I was with myself in all the parts of my self mandala. For instance, I realized I wasn’t interacting with people (locals) as often as I usually do due to language barriers. And building new friendships took time and energy that I was directing to studying for the exam and working on other projects. Plus the time difference made it difficult to keep consistent contact with my lifelines in the US. I’m an extrovert so not having plentiful social interaction made a negative impact. Also, the change in nutrition when trying new local foods impacted my body. So I felt physically unbalanced. So when I finally made adjustments in these areas (eating less spicy Korean food and more familiar foods, doing yoga regularly, exercising more), I found myself feeling much better about where I was – figuratively and literally.
- Ecology. I invested in developing community. It takes time and effort. And when I’m busy working on multiple projects, I gave myself every excuse not to be social. When I started to employ my sense of agency, I found myself forming friendships where I felt seen, heard, and somewhat understood. I’ve learned the importance in that for me. I also reached out to friends back from more – skype dates, emails, and phone calls all helped me feel connected. Lastly, I found a purpose – I landed a position where I really enjoy the work and the people with whom I work. I feel good about the company and believe in the people. I feel valued and appreciated and see added value in my professional life.
- Host culture. A few of my new friendships I’ve invested in have been with locals. I learned that even though there are aspects of the culture that I find difficult and even unattractive at times, there are also things about it and about Seoul that are great. Engaging in difficult dialogues with locals have reminded me of an important truth that I somehow forgot – people are just people… meaning, there are desirables and undesirables everywhere, in every land with every people. As I moved out of the conflict stage, I started becoming more aware of the beauty that was also available around me – the fact that people give up their seats for elders on a regular basis on the train, and to reciprocate and show appreciation, the older adult may offer to hold the younger person’s book bag on her lap during the ride. Or that public transportation is so easy and tourist friendly and economical compared with SF for example. Or that there are plastic umbrella covers available at the entrance of most businesses so that you don’t drip water all over the floors when it’s raining outside. It has also helped to have an acquaintanceship with my dry cleaner, and the owner of the coffee/sandwich shop I frequent downstairs (who brings me a dessert with my order gratis even though we can’t communicate), or the trainers at the gym who smile and bow to me every time I am in there. These little things help.
But here’s where my tangents in this post tie together – where you are in the points of your triangle will be reflected in your experience of the host/foreign world. Thus, for example, during a period of conflict, one might easily make the host culture the scapegoat that takes the blame for all the difficulties in the individual’s life. To reiterate, the stress of adapting can exacerbate, heighten, or simply highlight one’s pre-existing turmoil and it can become difficult to differentiate what is what. This is why introspection is important – it can be the deal maker or breaker for one’s experience and it can be the cause for healthy adaptation or propagate unhealthy adaptive behaviors (like binge drinking, which in SK is applauded).
For me, it has been all of this plus recognizing my needs and doing what it takes to get my needs met. I am in a much better place now to begin to negotiate how my experience in SK has added to my Antevasin-ness and how it has impacted my multiple identities (for non psychologists – this is not to be confused with multiple personalities or some other pathological concept). Thanks for reading.