If you've ever been in a romantic relationship, you'll remember those early, golden days when everything is new and exciting. You love discovering everything about your new partner, you find their laugh and the cute little noises they make when they sleep just adorable. You rejoice in every new experience, laugh at everything and just can't get enough of each other. But then, after a few months, you start to feel differently. Gradually, those 'cute little noises' begin to irritate you until, finally, you imagine what it would be like to smother them to death in their sleep! The 'Honeymoon Period' is over. (Disclaimer: I've never wanted to smother my husband!)
To help us prepare for our epic move from Buckinghamshire to Chicago, we were provided with a day of 'cultural training' . It included sessions on cultural differences, day-to-day life, and what we can expect to feel as we culturally assimilate. As I'm writing this, Son#1(whose very first visit to the US is drawing to a close) is currently with a relocation manager downstairs, having his own one-to-one session about 'what to expect from life in America'. But as for myself, my husband and Son#2, we're now three months down the line and the process of settling here and making a new life is well underway.
We arrived in the US back in January, when Chicago was still in the harsh grip of winter. Our 'honeymoon phase' was spent in awe at the amount of snow and how efficient the Americans are at dealing with it. We were excited by the space and size of everything from houses, to cars, to food portions. In those early weeks we loved the free parking and friendly faces everywhere, the natural beauty of vast, blue skies and frozen lakes. Those early weeks were a time of discovery and the glasses were definitely rose-tinted. There were whole days when I felt nothing but joy and elation and a real sense of peace about being here. Whether it was the fact that I no longer felt bone-achingly exhausted from working a 50- hour week as a teacher, or whether it was the freedom of being able to do anything I wanted with my time, I just felt totally happy. But my cultural training had warned me that this might not last... inevitably, I would soon come back down to earth with a bump. And now, as winter turns to spring, there's a change in the air and it's not just the weather. I'm beginning to feel different emotions and beginning to wonder whether the honeymoon is over.
The science behind this process can be explained pretty simply with the diagram below, and so far, it's fitted with our experience.
The first, initial culture shock or 'anxiety' came pretty early on when my husband woke up with severe flu-like symptoms. Our medical cover hadn't kicked in, I wasn't insured to drive the hire car we had and I knew no-one. Thankfully, an Uber trip to the local pharmacy sorted him out (The American cold and flu drugs here are amazing!) and he was back on his feet the very next day. But for those few hours, I was scared. Properly scared. Something as simple as calling a doctor and making an appointment (I haven't forgotten how long we have to wait to see a doctor in the UK!) were unavailable to me. I just had to work it out.
By the time Son#2 arrived for Easter, I think we were in what can be called the 'superficial adaptation' or 'adjustment' phase. We've made some wonderful new friends, joined a church, we've found the supermarket we like and we're beginning to find our way around without relying on Sat Nav. There's a level of normality to day-to-day life.
But there are still moments of anxiety - when you're reminded of the differences, whether it's in our language, the school system or in the bureaucracy. And we still have a long way to go in building new traditions and activities. There are just so many opportunities it's overwhelming to the point that sometimes it's easier to do nothing rather than try something else that's new. Maybe that's a whole phase in itself - the 'inertia' phase. I'm doing my best to push through this. I've signed up to a gym (note: haven't actually been yet!) and I'm beginning to serve at church. If I can keep adding to my experiences, slowly but surely, a full acceptance of my American life and integration into my American community will come.
But there's one more phase, and this is the one that really intrigues me: going back to our home country. Our first planned visit won't be until Christmas, and I'm wondering how much 'home' will have changed? Will I experience what's called 'reversed culture shock'? Will I see England through rose-tinted glasses? Or will I be anxious? Will I need to try hard for acceptance? Maybe my old home won't have changed that much, but one thing is for certain - I definitely have. Perhaps that's the real 'culture shock'.