Culture SHock

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Culture shock (aka: the Digital Nomad Travel Slump) hits when you least expect it. We had been in Kuala Lumpur for almost three months when a serious case of dealing with homesickness abroad hit us like a bag of bricks.

We really do love the city, and even returned there a second time when we got stuck in Malaysia at the start of the COVID-10 pandemic. Between seeing all the sites right away and enjoying the holidays, we also spent a lot of time hanging out as a family.

The slowness allowed the newness of our life to rub off. We quickly needed to figure out how to deal with homesickness abroad.

Note: We are not medical professionals but I do know homesickness is not the same as depression. If you believe you may have depression, please seek help from a licensed professional asap!

Why Does Homesickness Abroad Happen?

Expect the Unexpected

One of the things that we didn’t really expect, and probably should have, was how much time we would need to adjust to this lifestyle.

Once we committed, we knew there would be ups and downs. People even talked to us about homesickness abroad. We just didn’t expect that culture shock travel slump to hit us so soon.

Culture shock

There is SO much amazingness about this lifestyle that it seems wrong to talk about the negatives. But we need to keep it real. No lifestyle is perfect. Pretending it is doesn’t fit with who we are. It certainly doesn’t fit with who I am. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty upfront about things, sometimes to a fault. You love me anyway right?

The Slump

Often, homesickness comes from realizing you miss the familiar. The excitement about the newness of life starts to wear off.

In our case, I missed having the resources to do what was necessary to fix an issue. Not just the tools, but knowing which repairmen to call. Or where to buy replacements. I missed the familiarity of a support network to count on when I had a problem.

For example, our Airbnb had major issues. Despite the beautiful photos I shared on Facebook and Instagram, we also had to deal with a lot of problems.

  1. Broken stuff: the master bedroom air conditioner, a dining chair, our oven, the only bathtub in the unit, and even Little Man’s ceiling fan.
  2. The day we arrived, there wasn’t proper bedding for the master bedroom. For two nights, David and I had to share a twin comforter until the property manager brought us a new bedding set for the king bed.
  3. We were never provided a microwave even though it was in the listing and our host offered to get us one just two weeks into our stay. Even after being ‘repaired,’ the regular oven also didn’t work.
  4. Our power was turned off by the electric company for a whole day (when David had classes scheduled) because our host didn’t pay the bill on time.
  5. In the last month, our internet grew increasingly unstable. David even got one Teacher No Show because we had connection issues mid-class.

    When the internet company came out, they told us the building wiring was old and we would likely continue to have the same thing happen.
  6. Since we didn’t have billing information, we had to rely on a host based in the UK to deal with all these matters. The local property manager didn’t respond to our phone calls or texts.

I don’t share this to complain. More to highlight the magnitude of the cause of our homesickness abroad slump. I wasn’t even terribly upset about it at the time.

We were only there a few months. Thankfully, we did manage to make some amazing friends in the complex who helped when our host and property manager did not.

They really helped us figure out how to deal with homesickness abroad by giving us that social support network we needed.

Time to Regroup

Dealing with all the issues really lowered my writing energy level after our son went to bed. I had some pretty strong writer’s block, too.

I even had a bunch of posts half-written and screaming to be finished! I did a lot of self-exploration and decided that work could wait.

Much of what we experienced resembles the stages of expat relocation adjustment. We aren’t technically expats, but we do live abroad long term in different cultures.

However, in hindsight, much of our experience with preparation and the honeymoon period was the same. Apparently, how to deal with homesickness abroad is a thing for us as digital nomads, too.

Five Phases of Living Abroad

The typical phases of the expat adjustment cycle are Preparation, Honeymoon, Culture Shock, and Adaptation. Repatriation is the last phase, especially when one has been abroad for a long period of time.

Although we aren’t technically expats, we have been living abroad outside our home country and culture for an extended period of time. The phases are very similar.

Either way, between the honeymoon and adaptation phases, comes culture shock. Or the homesickness slump. The trick is how to deal with homesickness abroad constructively.

1. Preparation

This first step starts when the dream of moving abroad becomes real. While it can be stressful in its own ways, it’s generally fueled by excitement. Many people, like us, ignore or look past the stress of downsizing and preparing for an overseas move.

Food for Thought: The exciting upcoming honeymoon phase often makes all the stress a bit easier to ignore during preparations.

We have talked a lot about our preparation process in other posts as well as on our About Us page.

2. Honeymoon

We didn’t feel homesick abroad because of how totally different things were in Malaysia compared to our old lives back in Chicago.

Our homesickness abroad wasn’t caused by seeing burkas and hijabs all over the place. Nor was it realizing that booze and pork were in their own (non-halal) section at the grocery store. Some of our friends jokingly called it the “sin section.”

It wasn’t even realizing that some of our favorite food items were tough to find here. Little Man really missed Kraft Mac & Cheese, while David and I drooled for a killer hamburger to rival Kuma’s Corner.

With all those surface differences, we focused on their novelty and celebrated when we find something we love. Like the time I discovered a new endcap filled with Mac and Cheese for Little Man!

3. Culture Shock & Homesickness Abroad

Culture shock and homesickness abroad come in many forms. For me, it was more the frustration of not knowing how to fix the onslaught of problems we had with our rental.

When we owned our own Airbnb, we addressed problems promptly and knew exactly who to contact for resolution. Even when we were in Mexico in 2018, we addressed a major issue remotely within hours.

The emotional exhaustion of accepting the unknown. Sometimes, going with the flow is often harder than expected. I thought I’d done my due diligence.

Maybe nothing can fully prepare you for this type of life change. No matter how much a family feels ready for this, there’s always going to be something that goes awry or doesn’t fulfill expectations when moving abroad.

4. Adaptation

I reached out to other families who have moved abroad and/or travel full time. The general consensus is that around the 3-4 month mark of traveling there’s a slump. We’d been on the road full time since June 2019.

However, we didn’t arrive in SE Asia until the end of October 2019. So we basically reached that 3-month mark on a bit of a delay because we spent so much of our summer visiting friends and family.

Or perhaps our slump hit earlier than 3-4 months because of our ongoing problems with our Airbnb.

Either way, we focused on moving on. We took active steps to reinvigorate ourselves and get past the slump. We actively searched for how to best deal with homesickness abroad and found some really helpful tips. We’ll get to those in a moment.

5. Repatriation

Sometimes people never get fully settled living abroad. It can mean that the best solution is to repatriate back to their home country. We aren’t ready to repatriate yet.

However, even when we head back to the US for a visit, apparently we’ll end up going through the same stages of expat adjustment in reverse.

It’s incredibly common among expats, it seems. And digital nomads as well. Just as with the adaption phase of newly living abroad, repatriation requires the same grace.

If you can figure out how to deal with homesickness abroad, you’ll be able to deal with the opposite when you return to your home country eventually. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Tips for Working Through Homesickness Abroad

Here are our top tips – with examples – for dealing with or working through homesickness abroad. Different things will work better for different people. The key is to not ignore the feeling or assume it’ll go away.

🥰️ Indulge in ‘comfort food’

Whether it’s seeking out ‘overpriced’ imported hometown favorites at the fancy grocery store or visiting a restaurant that reminds us of home, comfort food gets us through our slump days.

Fun Fact: It’s Kraft Mac n Cheese for our son, Dr. Pepper for me, and Rainbow Nerds for David.

As I’ve mentioned on Instagram, we found a Chicago classic in Kuala Lumpur. Garrett’s Popcorn‘s classic Chicago Mix (cheese and caramel corn) made its way home with us a number of times.

Garrett’s Popcorn at Suria Mall in Kuala Lumpur

One of our favorite foods in the US (other than Chicago deep-dish pizza) was a really good burger. We spent several weeks searching for one in Kuala Lumpur by eating burgers everywhere we could find.

Out of the options we tried, My Burger Lab at MyTown mall was the resounding winner. It even had an In-n-Out tribute burger that made my heart happy.

If you follow us on Instagram, you may recall that In-n-Out was the last meal we had in LA before boarding our transpacific cruise ship.

In n Out Tribute Burger

🥰️ Plan time with friends

Old or new friends, spending time with other families who understand the travel life helps us find common ground. Traveling kids tend to warm up to each other faster, allowing our son to make friends quickly.

Worldschooling parents have a lot to offer each other in terms of moral support as well as travel advice. Making local friends is key, too, though.

Culture Shock

People who live in the city long-term are the ones who know who to call when our cooking gas canister is leaking.

They’re also the ones who can suggest where to get a haircut when I realize it’s been over six months and the length is driving me crazy.

🥰️ Accept low energy days

Not every day is one for sightseeing. Or even leaving the house. Some days are for family videos and games and ordering delivery. That’s okay.

There is no one best way how to deal with homesickness abroad. We used all the strategies! After all, everyone needs to recharge their batteries sometimes.

Culture shock

🥰️ Know that some days will be mediocre

Some days will be just plain awful. Like the day we planned to go out and about, but the power was turned off because our Airbnb host didn’t pay the bill.

Instead, we canceled our plans and I spent the day messaging back and forth with our remote host in the UK. And looking for new Airbnb’s in case the power didn’t get turned on. It was stressful.

🥰️ Create consistency

Especially when you don’t have a standard day job taking time and creating a routine for you, homesickness and culture shock can set in more easily.

We hadn’t really created daily routines or rituals at first. I procrastinated and squandered a lot of time. Even small things like washing my face or washing dishes were put off.

Following routines are very helpful in figuring out how to deal with homesickness abroad. At first and ever since then, I found that I do better when I wake up, brush my teeth and get dressed immediately.

I set aside specific days or times of day to write or research. I also did dishes every night while David was teaching. All these things helped build a routine and kept me grounded.

🥰️ Stay in Touch with Loved Ones

Being connected to people on social media isn’t enough. Making time to talk to family helps all of us feel more connected.

Especially with video chat options on WhatsApp and FaceTime, we are able to not only tell our loved ones about our travels but also show them how and where we’re living.

Culture shock

Thanks to WhatsApp, my sister and my niece were able to watch our son ice skate on Christmas. They even congratulated him for doing such a good job as he stepped off the ice.

We’ve found that talking to our loved ones helps us through our homesickness, culture shock, travel slump, or whatever one wants to call it.

Conclusion: Homesickness Abroad

The worst way to deal with homesickness abroad is to ignore it. Don’t just pretend it’ll get better. It won’t, at least not on its own.

Lean into those feelings and take active steps to address them. Above all, don’t feel like you’ve failed for not loving every second of every day of your life abroad. Yes, it can be amazing. But it can also be incredibly stressful.

Take some extra time for yourself to do something you enjoy. Even if that means napping after lunchtime. Your slump will pass after a while.

Never travel without good travel insurance. While we have global health insurance, we also elect travel insurance for short trips.
👉 For travel insurance, we like to use Safety Wing.