Kalervo Oberg a world-renowned anthropologist suggested that going abroad for work puts you through four distinct stages. He explained these are feelings common to those facing their first cross-cultural experience. In doing so, he referred to the first stage as the honeymoon phase. This is where all encounters in the new country are viewed as exciting and positive. There is a sense of curiosity and openness with a readiness to accept the unknown. The rose-coloured glasses are securely placed as minor irritations and annoyances are suppressed so not to interrupt the high of the honeymoon. Amazing! Fresh bread available on a Sunday morning piping hot straight from the oven, thanks to the German bakery on the corner of your street, and the assortment of cheese, glad I am not lactose intolerant you think. Those days idling away behind a steering wheel stuck in traffic are gone as you hop on your bike, or catch a tram on those rainy days. You start to think this is a great life, one which I could really get used to. However, like all good things, similar to your honeymoon in Hawaii, they have to end. When you are a freelance expat, that drop from the warm and fuzzy feeling of wonderment can be a downward spiral sending you straight to a lawyer to file for divorce. The bread no longer has its novelty factor once you realize the inconvenience that fresh bread from 8am to 12 is the only grocery product you can buy on a Sunday. The beer, the bread, the cheese and the vast quantities of pork sausages have begun to make tell tale signs around your waist. Those rose-coloured glasses are nowhere to be found and the few child-like German words you have are of no use when trying to process a work permit.
Oberg coined the second stage as culture shock. It rears it’s ugly head causing a slew of symptoms to appear; negativity, discomfort towards the country, the inhabitants, the job and colleagues. You are in a funk and everything seems to get on your nerves. If you are travelling solo, then you have no-one to bounce this discontentment off. If your spouse and children have accompanied you, then you have their funk as well as your own to deal with. Every person is different so culture shock can hit us at varying times. However, in my work with expats, it appears that freelance workers exit the honeymoon phase at a faster pace than company members. This might be because large multinationals usually have a support system in place for their international worker. Assistance is provided in organizing cumbersome tasks such as finding housing, dealing with lengthy paper work and buying a kitchen. While the freelance worker is basically on their own trying to make sense of it all. Their chances of coming into conflict with bureaucratic minefields is far greater than the international assignee. You have come to work, willing and ready yet at every junction, you are faced with unsurmountable obstacles: rules. Although some of these rules appear to defy logic they are ones which you need to wrap your head around, and in a hurry, as your existence depends on it. On the one side, the freedom allocated for freelance workers is a plus point, but the financial insecurity can be a great hinderance. Not knowing the specific requirements on how to write an invoice in German or where to go to apply for a tax number can send you into a tailspin.