The Life of an Emigré: The Tipping Point

It is a generally accepted theory that there are a few stages involved in being an emigrant (moving from your own country) or immigrant (in moving into another). The main five stages are summarised below:

  1. Honeymoon phase – The “Oh my god, I’ve never seen one of those” phase where everything is great, even the bad things.
  2. Rejection phase – The phase where “This is better back home” or “Why is there so much paperwork for such a simple request?” phase. Negatives are notices and weighed up against perceived positives back home
  3. Regression phase – This can also be known as ‘make or break’ time. In order to retain the best of what is being missed about home, the emigrant latches on to other emigrants, news and articles from back home.
  4. Recovery phase – If the third phase does not break the emigrant, this should be the phase of “Where I learnt to live with it”
  5. Reverse (or return) culture shock – After surviving the third and fourth phases, home becomes “…where the heart is (now)”, as opposed to “…that place I used to live in”.

From the above phases, one of the most interesting steps is that tipping point, where an emigrant moves from the phases of uncertainty to one where they feel that their life is in their new country. However, my theory now is that these stages are now becoming mixed up and muddled, escpecially as a result of technological advances. I believe that the order of the phases can now be applied much more liberally with some even coming before others in the order now. As a result of applications such as email, Skype and chat, and the proliferation of cheap flights, emigrants can find themselves back home for a quick visit – thus kicking in the reverse culture shock – before they have time to reach the regression phase.

From personal experience, I can relate to the five phases, but I have seen them appear at different times in my 2.5 years in Poland. Another theory around the five phases is the timing needed to pass through the phases. In simplest terms, they suggest about 6 months of a honeymoon phase, while the subsequent phases needed 1-2 years each to progress.

For most emigrants the above phases do apply and in the order presented, but I believe that this has to do with the mindset and expectation of the individuals before they even travel. If you have the possibility to choose your destination and do the right research in advance, this can simplify the adjustment period. The culture shock applies much stronger for those that expect life in Poland, for example, to be the same as in Ireland, the UK, the US or other such ‘Western’ countries. From my personal experience, I expected frustration with bureaucracy, freezing toes in December and so on. Thus, for me, I feel I passed through the honeymoon and rejection phases relatively quickly and painlessly.

However, challenges in learning the language can make the regression phase a difficult time. The ‘tipping point’ or moment that I felt it click for me was a day when a colleague in work decided to play with me by asking a work-related question in Polish. Something in my brain said “You are going to repond in Polish”. Now, I’ll admit that my grammar was not perfect but I was understood and by the end of our conversation we had drawn a small audience of other Polish colleagues who gave a little round of applause for the effort involved. Since then I have found myself more comfortable in Polish and as a result in Poland. I have even received a comment for the time when talking about the weather here and said “We can expect some sunshine” or “Our roads need improvement”. It was finally summed up last weekend when I had a trip back to Ireland to visit some friends. A session in the pub meant meeting up with many Irish friends but while standing at the bar and hearing some Polish spoken nearby I was more interested in what they were sayig than others nearby.

It may turn out that the above 5 stages of emigration adjustment and the timescales involved need to be re-written with modern times in mind. The internet and cheap flights allow some people to live like they never left home. Alternatively with the world becoming a smaller place, the amount of adjustment needed to acclimiatise to a new country is less and less. However, ultimately it will always come back to the individual involved and how they approach the adventure of emigrating.


5 thoughts on “The Life of an Emigré: The Tipping Point

  1. Outsider says:

    The classic stages of immigration seem only to apply to the stereotypical Western “expat”: a middle-to-upper class adult, emigrating for work and/or accompanying a spouse, with no previous experience of living abroad, moving to a country linguistically and culturally alien. This is the kind of person “The Economist” thinks of when drawing up lists of best and worst “expat” destinations.

    This kind of scenario is, however, fairly rare in the real world.

    Most economic migrants work hard manual jobs and have little time and inclination to appreciate anything in their host country besides the salary.

    Many migrants move to countries similar to their own and thus experience little culture shock.

    Then there are the untold millions living abroad illegally who exist in a parallel universe with little or no contact with their surroundings.

    And how about those poor Western sods who spend a few years in Middle Eastern oil hellholes knowing in advance their destination will suck.

    What about the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on never-ending missions abroad?

    Children forced to move abroad with their parents experience different problems altogether.

    There are, simply put, so many facets of immigration that no neat theory of assimilation will ever apply to anything but a very specific type of immigrant.

  2. maqh says:

    I kind of feel like the middle stages went very quickly or almost weren’t there for me. But maybe that’s how it has to be for you to survive the move from Poland to Oz. Cause then even “cheap flights, which help emigrants to get themselves back home for a quick visit” are neither cheap nor quick ;)

  3. Mike says:

    The cheap flights and ubiquitous Internet access has taken a bit from the adventure of emigrating I reckon. If you feel homesick now, you can fly home for a few days or just go online for a few hours and check Facebook and the Irish Times, same habits you had back home. It’s interesting that the narrative of emigration has changed in that before, you went and never returned, sending the odd letter to your mother or whoever, whereas now you can’t really disappear like before, can’t escape or be truly independent and you’re obliged to be contactable because of email and mobile phones. And the experience is becoming so diluted, sanitized and same in the globalized age. Alright, that’s a little dramatic but you get the point. GOOD ARTICLE BTW

  4. GEG says:

    I agree with the article, I passed through the stages somewhat painlessly and as I start my 3rd year in Krakow I feel more at home here than in my own country (US). I too agree that when I was back in the states and I heard Polish at a doctor’s office of all places, I immediately was drawn to the interpretor and old guy, not to the Americans. Polish does not sound foreign to me now. My tipping point was when some stranger asked me for directions and (a) I understood, (b) replied and they understood me and (c), they didn’t look at me like I had 3 heads.:) Maybe I have assimilated? Good article – but no such thing as a *cheap flight* to the states.:)

  5. Yana says:

    I think the most significant obstacle is the language barrier – if no such thing exists or if it’s not perceived as a huge problem those five phases merge into two. I’ve moved to the UK with good level of English, only local accents confused me a bit at the very beginning, so in my case those phases were:
    1) Wow, these guys really are a bit different… Why do they use phrases like (weird phrase)? Why do they put vinegar on everything? Carpets in the bathroom?!
    2) Life’s cool, it’s my home now. Still don’t like vinegar on my chips though.
    I can imagine life can be a LOT harder if you don’t speak the language/understand people around you. That’s a completely different story.

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