3 things I learnt from moving abroad for a career or degree (Mijke Mulder)

In today's post we hear from Dr. Mijke Mulder, a recent La Trobe graduate, who reflects on some key lessons she has learned from moving abroad for her studies and for academic work.  

Recently, I have moved from the Netherlands, my home country, to Thailand to teach linguistics and undertake research. This is not my first time to migrate for study or career purposes: six years ago, I moved from the Netherlands to Australia to pursue a PhD in linguistics at La Trobe and I have spent a year in Israel as an exchange student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In this post I am writing with the following readers in mind: 

a) those who are considering making an international move for their career or degree (yeah, I know, there is a pandemic, but let us look toward the future with hope!)

b) those who are currently living cross-culturally, and finally 

c) those of you who are looking for a brief distraction from work!

I would like to share with you three things that I learnt about adapting to new cultures while living abroad. I hope that some of it may be helpful to you!

 1. Adjust at the same time as you stay true to your core values

Moving abroad means you are entering a different culture. People around you will have different customs, do things in other ways than you were used to and have their priorities in life ranked differently. It is important that you have respect for the ways of working that exist in in the place you land. Because you are the newcomer, much of the adjustment will come from you. I could hold on rigidly to my own norms and values without adjusting one centimetre, but then I would be condemning myself to a life full of frustration, so I would advise against that. I also prefer not to go to the other extreme: attempting to assimilate to the culture of your host country, thinking of most of your values and norms as negotiable, and in a sense losing yourself in the process.

Instead, I have tried to find out which aspects I can be flexible about and adapt to, and which values are non-negotiable for me. For example, I discovered that I can be flexible in my attitude toward time management: in my own country I find being on time important, but I can also adapt to so-called Indian Stretched Time when doing research in India. I also noticed that equality represents a core value for me, so I struggle at times with cultures that have a large power distancePower distance is one of the cultural dimensions included in Hofstede’s framework for cross-cultural communication. Power distance refers to the attitude a culture has towards the power inequalities that exist in society. In a country with a large power distance, less powerful members of society accept (and also expect) that power is distributed unequally. If you are interested to read more about cultural dimensions, I would recommend Hofstede’s 2001 publication

2. Staying connected to home

When you learn to live in a new culture and you have gone through the different stages of culture shock like the honeymoon phase, the valleys, peaks, and stabilization, you might think that returning to your home country will be a smooth, effortless transition to how things were before. This will most likely not be the case! Reverse culture shock is real. You have been through experiences that your friends and family back home did not go through - you have changed. Equally, society in your country has not stood still either - things have changed while you were away. Here are two strategies that I personally found helpful in reducing the impact of reverse culture shock:

·         Stay in contact with friends and family. Invest in relationships. This can be through messages, video-calls, or even as simple as sending a Birthday greeting. You can also make folks back home feel more involved in your life by keeping a blog for them if that is something you enjoy doing.

·         Read, listen or watch the news or news background discussions from your country. This will prevent you from feeling like you have been living under a rock if you return. You will be able to notice shifts in the narratives, which can tell you a lot about changes that are taking place in your home society. Sometimes you even spot changes in the language!

3. You always take yourself with you

A third thing I learnt was that no-matter where you go, you always take yourself with you. I should not think, for example, that by moving abroad all my problems will melt away. You are still you, with the same strengths and pitfalls. Indeed, you may be confronted with your own weaknesses more. It is important to take care of your emotional and mental health when you are in the pressure-cooker of life changes and cultural adaptation. You can do this, for example, by setting healthy boundaries (staying true to your core norms and values is part of that) and by talking on a regular basis to a person you trust or a counsellor about what you are going through as you live abroad (it might be helpful to find someone from your own cultural background).

Above all, I would like to encourage you to enjoy the ride and, as you learn a new culture, also learn more about who you are as a person and be enriched by the experience!


Mijke Mulder is a linguist and currently works as an instructor at the International College of Payap University in Thailand. She wrote her PhD dissertation at La Trobe on the structure of a minority language spoken in Northeast India. Mijke is interested in Tibeto-Burman languages.