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Culture Shock for AF Expats

I arrived in Bahrain, and two weeks later found myself sitting in the glorious Arabian sunset smelling the delicious aromas wafting over from a barbeque. I'd been invited along by some friendly and welcoming expats. All of a sudden, I was asked,

"Would you like a glass of wine?"

My head was reeling.

For a minute I wavered… what would I say, who was I in this new place, and what would they all think of

me if I said I didn’t drink?!

An expat is a person who lives outside their native country. There is a common perception that expat live glamorous party lifestyles full of boozy get-togethers and warm sunshine. People have different reasons for moving abroad and becoming expats but many people are in search of a better life.

A while ago, I moved to Australia for a year. When I was there, I realised that the one thing you take abroad with you is yourself, any problems you have will come along with you. Living somewhere else does not change who you are; only you can do that.

The year in Australia ended up a time that my drinking really ramped up and I was determined this time things would be different.

A few years ago I took up a fantastic opportunity to come to Bahrain and work in a brand new state-of-the-art cardiac hospital.

When I first moved to the Middle East I had not drunk alcohol for 4 years and I was fairly sure I would never drink again. I was excited to go and live somewhere new and meet people who had never known me as a drinker.

But there were some big challenges to be found.

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are subjected to an unfamiliar culture and way of life – it is caused by your brain not being able to predict its usual patterns and provoked by unusual greetings, food, language, and local customs. It can lead to confusion, loneliness, and physical symptoms like fatigue and stomach upsets.

From the first month, I definitely found myself going through all the stages of culture shock. I was super tired from all the new information my brain was taking in every day and the time difference and the early starts at work… at times it was overwhelming and some nights there were tears of frustration and homesickness.

It would have been easy to reach for the bottle for some numbing comfort but I was determined not to do this.

People were very friendly and welcoming; the local people are mainly nondrinking muslims and there is a large expat community of all nationalities. I was invited to many people's houses and out for dinners.

British people have a very strong reputation as big drinkers and everyone I met seemed to expect that I would be the same. One thing I had underestimated when meeting new people – it had taken me a lot of courage and time to explain to my close friends and family that I had stopped drinking and why… now I was meeting a whole lot of new people and had to go through all of this again!

Amazingly though, at the same time, OTI started and I began to find it easier to talk about quitting alcohol and feel happy and proud of my sober self.

I was so relieved that I was meeting new people and making a good impression on them, not wondering what I’d said or how I’d come across in a drunken blackout. I had thought alcohol relieved the anxiety of meeting new people but actually, it had increased it.

With time I found there is a boozy, hard-partying expat group here but not all people are like that.

I joined a local beach club and gym and now have a whole variety of expat and local friends, some of whom drink, some don’t. But they all know and like the sober, present version of me.

I’m so glad I had a soft drink at that BBQ, no one cared and I made friends I still have now.

I read a lot about culture shock when I arrived here and the stages of it are similar to that of giving up alcohol:

1 honeymoon stage – you feel euphoric, things are exciting, this is the “pink clouds” stage of giving

up alcohol. Everything looks fresh and new.

2. negotiation stage – after a few months frustration and anxiety set in, excitement starts to disappear – you experience difficult and uncomfortable situations and this makes you feel disconnected. You start to idealise the life you HAD back home/ when you were drinking and miss it.

3. adjustment phase - after 6-12 months you get your bearings, you have made new (sober?) friends, you can deal with difficulties with strategies you have learned.

4. adaption stage – you feel comfortable in your new country, it’s the new normal, you feel at home.

This is what happens after time with your new sober life as well.

Ways to deal with culture shock are by reading about it (devour quit-lit and podcasts) , remembering feeling like this is normal, finding a community, finding something you love to do and keeping your mind open to this new experience and grateful for the changes it brings.

Be kind to yourself and soon your brain will be able to predict this new pattern and start to feel a lot more comfortable and you will be a happy sober expat!

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