This is a fantastic article written by our Marketing Manager, Pampan at Cultural Care. Pampan explains what many au pairs will experience from the moment they step off the plane to the cycle they will go through during their time abroad. As host parents and for myself as the Childcare Coordinator with knowledge and preparation for what is to come, we have the ability to better able to support these young women and men successfully and with empathy.
For many of our au pairs, moving to the USA is confusing at first. The rules are different, the surroundings look strange and the people speak a new language. It can be uncomfortable to be surrounded by unfamiliar ways of thinking and behaving. This confusion is usually called “culture shock”.
Culture shock expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate. It’s the feeling when things are different and confusing, like when you don’t know how to use bank machines, what the traffic signs mean, how to drive big vans, how to cook with different measurements and so forth.
Culture shock is an emotional and physical discomfort that generally sets in after the first few weeks of coming to a new place or country.
Here are some typical signs of culture shock that au pairs may experience:
- You begin to dislike your host country and make negative comments such as: “I hate the people here. Everyone here is stupid. Their way of doing things is terrible.” You are starting to develop stereotypes about Americans and the USA and you may start to idealize your home country.
- You begin to spend a lot of time alone thinking about home and how much better life is there. In your free time, you prefer to be alone in your room, away from your host family and friends. You only leave your room for meals, and then you say very little to your host family.
- You feel sad and lonely and cry often and have trouble concentrating. You may feel a lack of confidence and find simple problems overwhelming to solve. You have sleeping problems and may want to sleep a lot more or less than usual without any obvious reason.
- Your temperament changes and you get upset easily at small things which normally would not bother you at all.
- You may feel lost, insecure, and misunderstood and you start to miss your family and friends back home more than usual.
The good news is, this will pass. As you adjust to your new environment, you will learn and grow from the experience.
THE ADJUSTMENT CYCLE
Culture shock can appear at different times and is not always easy to notice. It usually builds up slowly and the signs are not always obvious. For example, you might find that you are uncomfortable with the behavior of people, how they eat, talk or greet each other.
You might begin to think that the way people behave at home is the best way and that people in the USA are behaving the “wrong” way. This can be a sign of culture shock and is a normal reaction to living away from home. Most people follow the adjustment cycle as outlined below:
Everything seems exciting, interesting and new. You seem to be very content and “in love” with your new country, host family, host children, etc.
Culture shock or fatigue
You start to see differences and begin to feel uncomfortable. You feel tired, both physically and mentally. You prefer to be alone rather than with your host family and friends, and you may feel misunderstood by your host family or more sensitive than normal.
The USA is not the same country as your home country. Many things you do at home you will not be able to do while away. Be prepared for the fact that many things are different, and that it will take a while to get adjusted to your new country, the new language and new customs. It will take a while to get adjusted to your new country.
You begin to understand the people in your new country and their ways of living. You feel more comfortable in your environment and start to gain confidence and independence. You feel you are starting to fit into your new life.
Although you seem to be fitting in on the outside, you begin to question some parts of the culture. You are homesick, lonely and may have conflicts with family and friends. You may feel unhappy and think, “Everything would be better, if only…”
You accept your host culture and feel comfortable with the lifestyle. You may even feel like a native of your host country. You will realize that the new culture, just as your home culture, has good and bad things to offer.
You will have mixed feelings about returning to your own country. You’ll feel sad to leave your new family and friends. You may find that things are not the same at home anymore, and people have changed. Or you may feel that things have not changed at all as if time has stood still while you were away.
But keep in mind, YOU have changed. You have learned and experienced things about your new country, yourself and your home country, that will make things a little bit confusing at first.
These stages are present at different times and each person has their own way of reacting to culture shock. As a consequence, some stages will be longer and more difficult than others. Many factors contribute to the duration and effects of culture shock, such as your state of mental health, personality, previous experiences, socioeconomic conditions, familiarity with the language, family and/or social support.
DEALING WITH CULTURE SHOCK
By the time you travel to the USA you will have seen the world in a certain way your whole life. Your views, attitudes, and habits will have been formed from living with your family in your own unique culture. As soon as you get to the USA, you will start to notice differences.
In fact, many things will seem strange to you. How your host parents relate to their children will be different than what you’ve experienced. How your host parents relate to you will be very different from how your own parents related to you. Rules are different, laws are different and politics are different.
Over the course of the year, your feelings about all of this will change. Most likely at first, the changes will be exciting and surprising. Midway through your year you will likely adjust and think some of these differences are “stupid” and “wrong” when compared to your own country.
Towards the end of your year, you may come to see that while you have experienced things you don’t agree with, the year has provided you with the incredible chance to live and experience another culture firsthand.
- Regardless of how you experience the differences, try to keep a flexible and open mind. Try not to judge quickly and remember to be respectful.
- Keep in mind that a foreigner coming to live in your country will also find things strange but you would like them to be respectful about expressing their opinions of your culture.
- Ask questions and try to understand why things are different. You may end up deciding that you prefer your own country’s way but if you remain open and flexible, you will really enjoy your year and learn more from the experience.
Culture shock is nothing to be afraid of. You may have felt something like it before if you have ever changed schools or moved to a new town. When coming to the USA as an au pair you will almost certainly experience some of the symptoms of culture shock, and it is helpful to have prepared beforehand so that you know how best to deal with them.
Here are a few of our suggestions to help you deal with culture shock:
- Be open and talk to your host family, friends or LCC. Let them know how you feel so they understand your situation.
- Keep busy and avoid spending too much time alone. Get involved in something new! If you have not already started taking classes, sign up now! Call up another au pair and learn more about your area, develop a hobby, go to the gym, etc. Being active helps the challenging times pass quickly.
- Try not to say that things in the USA are “stupid” or “awful,” and that things are better in your country even if you feel that way.
- Try to understand why Americans behave the way they do. This will help you accept things that might otherwise seem strange, feel more included in the culture and appreciate your stay more.
- Try to better your language skills—start practicing!
- Do not compare your own family with your host family or your culture with the culture of your host country. Try to think: “It’s not wrong, it’s not right, it’s just different.”
- Allow yourself to feel sad about the things that you have left behind: your family your friends, etc. But don’t forget the good things you have already learned or experienced!
- Maintain contact with other au pairs from your home country in your area. This will give you a feeling of belonging and you will reduce your feelings of loneliness and alienation.
- Try to approach difficulties with a positive, solution-oriented attitude.
- Try to keep in mind that everyone involved has the best intentions.
- Maintain confidence in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for your au pair year.
It’s very likely that you will get homesick at some point during your au pair stay, and that’s ok. That is perfectly normal. So don’t be afraid to talk about it. Homesickness is generally described as a feeling of longing for your familiar surroundings.
Feeling sad or lonely are common problems when you are away from home, where everything was familiar. This usually happens when you are getting used to your daily life as an au pair. Even if it is not your first time away from home, even if you love experiencing new things, you can still feel homesick.
Experiencing homesickness is a little more than just missing your friends back home. Homesickness is a very overwhelming feeling but it usually doesn’t last long. Missing home is one thing, but when you experience real homesickness you might feel a little depressed or anxious.
Remember, you are not alone with this. Many other au pairs have similar feelings, even though it might seem like they are doing fine. The good thing is, if you have experienced homesickness before, you know it will pass.
WHY DO AU PAIRS BECOME HOMESICK?
At home where everything is familiar, you feel accepted and secure and are therefore able to function and meet challenges successfully. But in unfamiliar surroundings your ways of coping and working are challenged; you are more afraid to fail and your self-esteem and confidence may drop for a while. Tasks which would normally be handled without any major effort can suddenly seem quite a challenge, or even feel impossible.
Unfortunately, the most common reaction to homesickness is to be quiet. However, this can make you feel even lonelier. The best you can do is to talk to your host family and friends, people in the USA that can help you.
WHEN DO AU PAIRS OFTEN FEEL HOMESICK?
Every au pair is different and not everybody experiences homesickness, but here are some situations when au pairs felt sad or homesick.
- The feeling of homesickness may even start before you leave home. Some au pairs feel mildly sad and anxious, in anticipation of the change. Going away as an au pair creates both excitement and anxiety about the move, the work with the children, meeting new people, etc.
- Homesickness is very common in the first few days or weeks after arriving. Everything is new: new food, a new language, a new family – you are outside of your comfort zone. It is normal to feel a little homesick while you find your place in the host family.
- You might be fine at first, and then be surprised to find yourself feeling homesick later on, when the daily routine kicks in. There will be times when you feel like you are doing the same thing, day after day. When your motivation is low, try to change your routine and find new challenges.
- It is also very common to feel homesick around the holidays or a birthday. We all miss our family and friends most when they cannot be part of special events.
- Be prepared for homesickness whenever a challenge comes up – and that can be at any time. If things don’t work out as planned, it’s just natural to miss home where you imagine everything to be better. But don’t let your mind trick you; there will be ups and downs no matter where you are.
- Some au pairs feel challenged during winter time when it is colder and darker and outdoor activities are limited.
SYMPTOMS OF HOMESICKNESS
There is no universal symptom of homesickness. Most describe it in a simple way as a longing to be home. People may describe their feelings as a deep sadness, depression, frustration, anger or hopelessness.
Sometimes the feelings are so intense that you may experience physical symptoms. People who have severe homesickness may experience nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and be crying. During times of homesickness, you may even think about going home early.
Some quickly overcome the feeling of discomfort as they adapt to a new environment. For others, the transition takes longer. Sometimes homesickness emerges when there is a preoccupation with home-focused thoughts. People long for what is familiar and secure. They might feel sad over the loss of family and friends. Feeling the loss of places and routines, and the realization that family life continues without you can also be upsetting.
Missing home is one thing, but if and when you experience real homesickness you might notice an increase in depressed feelings, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and minor physical problems. Homesickness can often be distinguished from depression in this way: in depression, sufferers find both lives as an au pair in the USA and home awful, whereas in homesickness, life in the USA can feel awful, while home may be seen as perfect even though you didn’t think so when you lived there.
TIPS FROM AU PAIRS
Talk to your host parents and/or your LCC.
Talk to your friends! Let them be involved so that they can help you. They will not know how you feel unless you tell them. Don’t wait for homesickness to just go away by itself.
Talk to other au pairs.
They are a fantastic resource for you. Speaking to other au pairs can really help you if you feel homesick or are having a hard day. Don’t hesitate to get in touch. Whether an au pair has just arrived or is near the end of their stay, they have been through the same things as you and will have valuable advice.
Prepare well and be realistic.
Let’s face it: most au pairs become homesick at some point during their stay. There may be some hard times, but the more prepared you are, the higher are your chances to be successful on the program. So, take some time to think before you travel. Consider how you normally process change and how you plan to overcome the challenges ahead.
Be patient with yourself.
Feeling like home probably doesn’t happen overnight. Participate in your host family’s life and make an effort to bond with them. For many au pairs it takes a few weeks until you feel like a family member, so give it some time.
Find the best way to stay in touch with your family back home.
Some au pairs overcome homesickness by speaking with friends and family back home; others cope much better if they reduce the contact for a while. Whatever works best for you, it’s always a good idea not to call your parents and/or boyfriend/girlfriend immediately!
Hearing their voices will make you miss them more. If you really feel that you need to talk to them, try to wait a few days. In most cases, after a few days, your homesickness will have calmed down and you will have a better perspective on your situation.
Write a journal or letters to your parents and/or your friends.
Even if you decide afterward not to send them, it is always constructive to put your feelings on paper.
Divide your au pair term into parts.
Don’t look months ahead. Try to look days or weeks ahead instead. Take every day as it comes and uses your bucket list to keep track of your accomplishments.
Make new friends and experience new things. Be adventurous and active, and you won’t have time to think about home. Sign up for classes in your area, join a local sports team or find out more about voluntary work in your community. Make plans to travel and explore the US. Contact your local tourist and information center for ideas.
Do something good for your body and mind.
Get enough food and sleep, exercise and stay active. Continue what you enjoyed doing in your home country and keep that routine.
Treat yourself every once in a while: go to the movies, eat out, go see a concert. You are allowed to enjoy yourself—it isn’t being disloyal to your friends or family that you miss. And most importantly, don’t forget to smile!
Get professional help.
If you have trouble doing normal social and academic things or become depressed, Cultural Care Au Pair has a program counselor you can talk to. Talk to your program director to learn more about this.
A WORD ABOUT YOUR PARENTS BACK HOME
It is important that your parents encourage you to work through the difficult times that will surely come. Before you leave to the USA, discuss the probability of homesickness, difficulties adjusting and the sadness that might come from missing events at home. Your parents will worry about you but make sure they understand what you are hoping to gain from this experience and that you are committed to working through the hard times. Share your goals with them; your parents will surely remind you!
While in the USA, consider trying to take some time thinking about an issue instead of calling your parents immediately. Many times, a homesick au pair has called her mother while upset and cried for a weak moment. The next morning the au pair feels better but her mom is now extremely worried.
Of course, you are able to talk to your parents whenever you want, just remember that they too are having a hard time with you so far from home. Having your parents call you several times a day to check in on you during an episode of homesickness will only make things worse. Sometimes a worried parent will encourage an au pair to come home if he/she is feeling sad or homesick. Unfortunately, this is a decision that cannot be reversed so discuss this in advance and let your parents know what they can do to support you.
BEFORE YOU TRAVEL: WRITE A LETTER TO YOURSELF
If you get homesick, it may be a good idea to remind yourself why you decided to go as an au pair to the USA and what you will do to feel better. Write a “letter” to yourself that you can read if you should need it at some point. The letter could contain the following things:
- If I get homesick, I would like to remind myself of why I decided to go as an au pair (to learn English, meet new people, experience the USA, etc).
- If I get homesick, I will do the following to feel better (cook a dish from my home country for my host family, meet other au pairs in the area for coffee, etc).
Before I left Colombia, my local Cultural Care contact made me write a homesickness letter. Every time I’m feeling down, homesick or tired I read the letter and it reminds me of the goals I set before I came. I see how much I’ve achieved and it encourages me to continue.
– Yudy from Colombia
Tip: Bring some of home along with you! Make sure to pack photographs of family and friends or your favorite music. These familiar things can help you feel better when you are away from home.
Remember: This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and your time in the USA will not last forever! Your family and friends back home will still be there when you return. Don’t miss out on the fun you can have right now, right here.
I’m never at home! I go to the gym every day with my friends. On weekends we go out to eat, go shopping, go to some parks just to sit and talk, and go on trips. You won’t feel sad and homesick if you make friends and go out to have fun!
The best tip is make friends and don’t spend time in your room alone! Try new things, new places. Enjoy the American culture. Your experience depends on you. You can meet au pairs in our meetings. They have the same experience as you and you can find great friends in this group.
– Fernanda from Brazil
In the beginning you are going to feel funny, sometimes also weeks, maybe months later. Your thoughts, even your body, are going to feel different. One moment you might be happy, and the next nervous and homesick but that is just for a while.
You have to take a deep breath and consider that this is a new experience for one or two years, so eventually you go back home. You have to learn and enjoy as much as you can. Always breath and love each day!
– Janeth from Mexico
Keep yourself busy! Even if you don´t want to go out, do it! Sitting home by yourself just makes homesickness worse. Talk to your au pair friends, who are in the same situation and make the same experiences. Don’t be in contact with your people from home more than you normally are.
Make little steps and make goals, what you want to see and do!
– Regina from Germany
AUTHOR PAMPAM CULTURAL CARE
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 5:50 PM