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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Expat Syndrome

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Life can only get better abroad: The new opportunities and friends, the freedom, the chance to reinvent yourself where nobody knows you.

  With these thoughts, Anna, a psychologist from Poznan, Poland, left for Eindhoven in the Netherlands with her husband. He had a three-year placement there, and she'd given up her job to go with him.

But the move didn't herald a feeling of exhilaration -- just six months of depression.

"The first morning was terrible," said Anna, 32, who has lived in Moscow since 2005. "I woke up, and it was like, 'OK, this dream is coming true, because we wanted to move here, but what now? I'm so far from my family, from my mother, my sisters, friends. What am I doing here? I don't have anything to do.

"Who am I? I'm just the wife.'"

Experiences like Anna's -- of culture shock, loneliness, depression or crises of identity -- are common among expatriates, and often unacknowledged, experts and psychologists say. They aren't limited to the "trailing spouse," as therapists call an unemployed partner, with the working partner and children also susceptible.

"Expatriate failure has become an international crisis for multinational companies," said Anita Brienza of the Worldwide Employee Relocation Council, an association of professionals who manage employee transfers.

A 2006 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, tracking 3,450 expats at nine multinationals, put the percentage of expat "failures," when an expat leaves a posting early, at only 4 percent, with normal annual staff turnover at 8 to 15 percent. But because the average foreign posting costs a company $311,000 per year, firms likely liberally compensate employees to retain them if there's a problem, said Alan Johnson, one of the authors.

A 1997 study by U.S. academics J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen published in Harvard Business Review said failures were 10 to 20 percent. One-third of those who stayed did not meet their employers' performance expectations.

Yekaterina Shiryayeva, human resources director at Deloitte CIS, said there had been four cases of expat failure at the Moscow office over the past four years. Deloitte Moscow employs 78 expatriates from non-CIS countries. A source at TNK-BP, where there are about 100 expats, said there were no cases of culture shock that he knew of.

The majority of expats follow an adaptation curve and could take a year or even two to acclimatize to a foreign environment, said Susan Saint-Rossy and Tatyana Drusinova, both Moscow-based therapists. Upon arrival in a new country, it's usual to feel a burst of enthusiasm and motivation.

"When I came, I saw huge monumental buildings. I loved everything, loved our apartment," Anna said about moving to Moscow. "I was sure I would get a job, I would find my place so easily."

After a few months, or weeks, culture shock can set in. For Anna, it was from being pushed on the metro, feeling isolated as expat social clubs were closed for the summer, and being turned down for jobs. Other factors might be confusion as to how things work, or the incomprehensibility of the Russian language.

The dangers are worse for trailing spouses, "who have had a career, or who felt at home in a place, even if they were a full-time mother before they came here. It's a loss of who you are," said Saint-Rossy. They have to build an identity all over again.

Jo Parfitt, a Briton who's published five books on expat issues, has followed her husband across the Middle East and Europe, and now lives in the Netherlands.

"When I lived in Muscat, Oman, I wrote a cookery book called 'Dates,'" she said. "That became my life -- I cooked dates, sold dates, I was interviewed on the radio as the date-book lady. And then I went to Norway, where they don't have palms and my identity was completely lost, because I wasn't the date-book lady anymore."

Culture shock can intensify into panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder and depression. Rifts emerge in relationships: A stay-at-home spouse might complain of feeling isolated, even abandoned, provoking aggrieved sentiments in a partner working long hours in an unfamiliar environment. Drusinova, the therapist, said wives complained that Russian women were targeting their husbands.

Moving with children often provokes guilt, with some parents fearing they've grievously disrupted their offsprings' lives. Problems may be revealed as psychological pathologies or medical symptoms, said Hilly van Swol-Ulbrich, co-author of a guide for young expats.

"Children can regress in terms of their developmental stage. ... All of a sudden, they start to wet the bed again, they will start to be clingy again, will start to be ill on an unusual basis," she said.

"One young woman, 14 years old, was refusing to eat, and at the same time wanted to make absolutely sure that her parents knew she was refusing to eat because she was punishing them" for taking her overseas.

Culture shock is thought to be cyclical, not a one-off experience. Anna said she adapted to Eindhoven -- she even developed a strong attachment to the Netherlands, and would like to settle permanently in a Benelux country. But there were still gray days, times when disorientation would again engulf her.

"Living and working, or living and not working, overseas is a real roller coaster," Parfitt said. "It's up and down, up and down."

How to Cope




Vladimir Filonov / MT
Experts say those arriving in a new country should force themselves to socialize to ward off culture shock and depression.
The best attitude to adopt in a new country is one of receptivity to cultural differences, Saint-Rossy said. Think of a move as an anthropological expedition. "Just be very open and observant of what's happening around you. You can be angry, but don't let that get in the way of being observant and open."

Join a language class, she suggested, both to connect with the local culture and others having similar experiences. Find a Russian friend who could be a cultural mentor, or choose a "nag" -- someone to whom you can vent frustrations.

"Force yourself to get out and do something that involves other people," Parfitt said. "Do not wallow alone. Don't kid yourself that you feel better sending e-mails."

The International Crisis Line (8-926-113-3373, 8 a.m.-11 p.m., ICL@list.ru) is a free, confidential psychological help service. Therapists speak English, French, Polish and Russian. Moscow also has an English-language Alcoholics Anonymous (8-985-773-8092). Most clergymen at places of worship catering to expats are versed in problems related to moving abroad.



Sites offering support and sharing stories include Tales from a Small Planet (www.talesmag.com), Expat Interviews (www.expatinterviews.com), Expat Expert (www.expatexpert.com) and Expat Women (www.expatwomen.com).