Expat life vs Lockdown life

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The culture shock of COVID19 and lockdown life

I originally published a shortened version of this on LinkedIn on 9th April 2020

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

In the past few months, life around the globe has changed beyond recognition as an invisible and deadly enemy has forced us all into varying degrees of lockdown. The dramatic changes to our daily lives caused by the COVID19 pandemic happened so fast that we didn’t have much time to contemplate the effect it would have on us, leaving us feeling shaken, afraid, and disoriented.

Nothing could have prepared most people for the culture shock of lockdown. And yes, I do mean culture shock.

Lockdown and culture shock go hand in hand

According to the Oxford Dictionary, culture shock is defined as:

– The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

We are certainly experiencing a very unfamiliar way of life right now. ‘Culture shock’ is generally acknowledged to be a condition that sometimes affects expats when they move overseas. It may not affect you at all, or it may affect you when you least expect it, in a country you don’t expect it.

Like right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

You may be locked down in your home country, in your familiar house with familiar surroundings, and yet you’re probably experiencing culture shock too, due to this new way of living. It’s one thing being on lock-down, or self-isolating, in your home country, but enduring the same situation in what may be unfamiliar surroundings compounds all the worries.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is hard to define as the symptoms present differently for everyone. Some of the psychological symptoms include:

  • Depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping.
  • Overwhelming and irrational fears. Not feeling safe and secure. [In the current situation however, I’d say these fears are entirely rational.]
  • Developing obsessions (eg health, cleanliness) [Again, completely reasonable right now; keep washing your hands, people.]
  • Cognitive fogginess, lack of concentration [I spent ages today looking for a pen I had just used to write my shopping list – I later found it in the fridge. Mind you, that’s not the first time!]
  • Not wanting to understand/ follow new behaviour/rules/etiquette in your new culture. [We are seeing many ‘Covidiots’ flouting the new rules.]

You can find a full list of symptoms on my original Culture Shock article.

Why lockdown is like first arriving in a new country

A new language

Other aspects of expat life that are similar to living in the grip of a pandemic include becoming familiar with a new language. A few months ago, the phrases so prevalent now in ‘these unprecedented, turbulent times’ were mostly unheard of: furlough, flattening the curve, self-quarantine, shielding, self-isolation, social distancing, and, of course, lockdown.

Close family ties

If you have never had much (or any) family and friends help you out with child-care and general life stuff, you’ll be familiar with this concept, expat or not. When we first arrive in a new country, we have very few connections with people outside our own household. Expat families must rely on each other in their new home until they’re able to get out and make new connections and friends.

For experienced expats, this is simply another step in our expat life. We are used to doing without all kinds of ‘normal things’. We wait for weeks for our household goods to arrive. Not being able to shop for, or find familiar food is normal. And having our kids at home for an inordinate amount of time before they start a new school is also a typical situation. Having our partner working from home full time is not usually normal, however. Neither is not being able to go out and explore – some countries have a very severe lockdown, meaning nobody is allowed out of their house at all. Very difficult.

Online chats are the norm

We can’t visit our friends and family now – even if they live just down the road instead of in a whole other country. Thankfully, technology has risen to the challenge in daily life for everyone, with Zoom, Skype, and Facetime now a regular feature in many households, instead of a staple of expat families, remote workers and global nomads.

My mother still refuses to embrace modern technology, though, so we are still chatting via good old-fashioned telephone. No point stressing her out further.

Our kids are alright!

The good news is that our TCKs / expat children seem to be doing really well. They are accustomed to not seeing their friends in person. Leaving a school mid-term is often a feature of their life and making do with whatever is at hand in the house is something many are familiar with. Saying goodbye is a fact of life for them, rather than the hideous shock that many long-term-local schoolkids faced when the schools closed.

Home-education is often used to tide us over with a mid-term move, to varying degrees of success. Many expat parents learned to pick their battles early on in their overseas parenting life, which stands us in good stead in days like these.

My daughter is coping remarkably well, thank goodness. She’s used to leaving places without closure (Tokyo after the earthquake, Berlin after school problems). She’s used to not being in school – when we repatriated to the UK, no school would accept her due to the whole GCSE timings and stats, so she was out of education for over a year until she could start college.

Her college classes have continued to a via online learning – the teachers experience more difficulties with the tech than the pupils do! Luckily, she was furloughed from her part-time job, and when she’s not doing college assignments, she’s happily chatting with friends all over the world, catching up with those she’s not heard from in years. In teen terms, she has old acquaintances ‘reaching out’, ie contacting people out of the blue. And she’s voluntarily exercising (unheard of prior to this!) and being incredibly creative. The only difficulty is finding crafting materials we’ve had for years – did I throw them away during the last move? Or are they somewhere in the house after all? I can usually remember where things were stored – in another house in another country, but that’s not particularly helpful! (See, cognitive fogginess above…)

However, this isolated life can be difficult

And let’s be frank, we’re all getting pretty fed up with it now. It’s been a long time locked in with your nearest and dearest…

My advice to new expats who may be experiencing culture shock is to ‘get out there, be proactive and make a new life’.

But we cannot do that now. We are in lockdown; we cannot go out; we must stay safe at home. The outside stimulus of life is eliminated, and we can’t make these essential connections. When we most need human contact and connection, we must avoid it in person. We need to rely on our own immediate family members – which can be fabulous, or complicated, or worse (I just need to add this here – if you are experiencing domestic abuse or marital problems, please get in touch with the fabulous people at Expatriate Law. I’m currently running a series of posts on my Facebook Page from them and will add them to this site in due course. But don’t wait, get help now.)

Just take one day at a time and find a way to get through each day in your own way.

Some people need to be productive and a surge of video learning has evolved to help you be productive in so many ways; keep fit, learn countless new skills, watch performances and generally to entertain you. Others prefer to tell other people what to do and how to live their lives.

Ignore the self-righteous social media shares about how you ‘should be doing lockdown life’ unless you truly want to follow the advice. You do you. Don’t feel pressurised into more than simply coping.

We are adapting quite quickly to our ‘new normal’. But if you’re not coping, the hardest thing you’ll have to do right now is to ask for help. To tell your friends and family that you’re lonely; to share your feelings. It’s OK to not be OK. Please reach out to someone, anyone. Don’t suffer in silence.

  • Keep on keeping on. Keep strong. Keep washing your hands.
  • Keep safe and stay safe at home – wherever your current home is.
  • This too will pass.

And remember, we are all in this together. if you want to offload, just get in touch.

I sincerely hope you haven’t been personally affected by COVID19 and I wish you all well. Take care of each other.

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