As we cross cultural boundaries whether as a tourist or as an expatriate, we find ourselves confronting a new reality, namely that our preexisting assumptions no longer have much validity. We have to discover and learn new ways of navigating in a different cultural context. Some enjoy the process, others resist, while still others may want to beat a hasty retreat. Why is it that there is a variation in terms of how individuals adjust? I would suggest that this is dependent on how individuals manage fear and anxiety. I will briefly discuss the nature of these emotions, their origins in an intercultural context, and techniques for dealing with them.
Anxiety is an emotion that arises when there is the perception of a threat. The threat in the case of anxiety is diffused i.e., there is the perception that a negative outcome might occur but the origins of that threat may not be clear. As we cross cultural boundaries we are confronted with differences in people’s values/beliefs, but we also face differences in local customs, variations in eating/drinking, and more broadly in the way that things are done in that society. If we are ignorant about the culture, we are entering into we may feel aggravated by all of the differences mentioned earlier. Fear is different from anxiety in that it is associated with a specific threat. As you move from culture A to culture B you may be fearful that you may have to compromise as to who you are as you enter another culture.
The basis of fear may vary from one individual to another but more broadly I would suggest that if you are entering a new culture for a longer term stay you might be fearful that the overseas stay may threaten your existing identity. Identity is how we view ourselves and is the prism through which we see the world. This is challenged as we move overseas and have to adapt to the local environment. Challenges to ones identity can be emotionally exhausting and make us fearful. This is not a good place to be but is one in which we can find ourselves. In my own travels from India to North America, and Europe I have experienced this emotion. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a more diffused threat, and one related to uncertainty and ambiguity.
How can individuals who are going overseas confront the twin challenges of fear and anxiety?
I will share with you some strategies that I have used as I have moved across the globe.
- Become comfortable in who you are
If you are comfortable in whom you are as an individual you will be better able to manage these challenges. I must mention that I was not initially very comfortable in who I was when I moved overseas. However, over time I have developed a feeling of inner security. Spiritual practices, self-reflection, and making wonderful friendships all across the globe have all helped me in developing a new identity for me.
- Recognize that there is always a choice
We feel anxiety because a situation might arise that we may not be able to cope with. Difficult situations will always arise but even here you always have the choice of exiting if you wish to. Not that I am recommending exiting but the mere fact that you can might allay your anxiety.
- Embrace the spirit of adventure
Life is itself an adventure as we may not often know what may happen from one moment to another. Why should cross cultural experiences be any different from the journey of life? It is through the journey of life that we become who we are. The recognition of this should not only create a more optimistic spirit but may also allay your anxiety.
This is a short summation of what has worked for me as I have navigated the globe with its wide range of differences. I hope that some or all of it may be helpful to you in your journey.