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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in The Hague, Netherlands

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

The Hague

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

Yes, but not until after we moved here. Our children's school (American School of the Hague) had an excellent model program, Safe Harbour, to welcome new arrivals, integrate and support them and say goodbye as well. One aspect was a Monday Morning Networking program that not only introduced you to others and taught how to get about in the Dutch culture (shopping, driving, public transportation, cultural differences) but also two sessions on the expat transitions process and what we go through as we assimilate. It's open to the expat community, and I highly recommend it. I'm sure other American/International schools offer similar programs (in part because ASH has spread the word globally).

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

I didn't have a chance to learn any Dutch until I was on the flight over! (KLM offers a little tutorial, and I remember learning my first dozen words or so.) When I'd been here 2 months and gotten settled a bit, I took a small, intensive Dutch course. I did a shorter follow-up course to keep moving forward. We live in a Dutch neighborhood, I use Dutch daily for errands/tasks, and I listen, read and practice all the time. I may only be an intermediate speaker, but I no longer fear speaking Dutch.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

I had so much going on before I arrived that I didn't know much about it, so wasn't too worried. I've learned a lot about it since, helping to ease my family into the transition. I've immersed myself in the literature, and as a writer, I write regularly on expat issues such as this.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

I'd worked in the international arena for much of my life, so it wasn't too bad. I'd say I had a 'mild' case as did all but one of my family members. That one had a much harder time, so I was appreciative of the challenges.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

Yes, absolutely. We all went through them. Each family member's path was unique (longer time in one stage, shorter in another, sometimes skipping a stage or combining 2).

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Across the family, there was some irritation, frustration, a bit of anger, and definitely homesickness and some depression. I write a lot about the transition process and culture shock changes, and believe that 'being forewarned is forearmed' in that you have a sense of what may be coming, and recognize the stages in yourself and others. I believe it does help you work your way through the process.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

Family oriented, big emphasis on being outdoors and active, a simpler pace in life. It's a beautiful country with much to see and experience, despite being small. Lots to do culturally as the Dutch appreciate music, the arts, theater and concerts/festivals. Love the beaches, and the long daylight in the summer months.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Getting used to the greater darkness during the winter months (being so far north). I don't love the rain or wind howling in off the North Sea, but you get used to it, and it's really not as bad as people make it out to be. Culturally, the Dutch can seem a bit curt, abrupt, and also love to poke fun at others, teasing beyond the bounds some cultures are used to. When you understand it's their culture and not personal, you move past it.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Oh, I've committed many! And that's okay, it helps you become part of the community. Once I confused the word for greetings (groetjes) for vegetables (groentjes); another time I confused the words for 'rent' and 'prostitute'. Definitely be willing to laugh at yourself.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

I'd suggest taking a little time to find out about expat transition phases, change, etc. I've written about many expat-related issues such as these, in print and online publications and on my website

The more you know, the better prepared you'll be.

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