A guide to the six stages of the immigrant experience

geneva-plane

Integration is a long road, with many twists and turns along the way. There’s always going to be some conflict in the mind of an immigrant; after all, this is a complex relationship with a lot of psychological wheels turning behind the scenes. For some people, a new country is like a step parent. They will never forgive the newcomer simply for being who they are. Bearing in mind that it’s not the same for everyone, here is my guide to the six stages of the immigrant experience, based on my 13 years in Switzerland.

Stage 1, Honeymoon: This will only happen if you have come to live the country under positive circumstances. If not, skip to Stage 2. This new start may be daunting but it is fundamentally an adventure for you. You waltz through the early weeks and possibly months (days if you are unlucky) in a state of hyper observation, mostly noticing the charming things and the positive differences – the street markets, the architecture, the trams, the cleanliness, the landscape. You will be discovering new tastes, sights and sounds, picking up phrases of the local language. It’s the perfect time to sign up for a language course. Enthusiasm is the order of the day. You’ve had no time to miss people at home. You may in fact be busy with a steady stream of visitors, keen to share the excitement of the new start.

Stage 2, The First Wobble: It might be a harsh word from someone in officialdom, a work or parent-teacher meeting where you felt out of your depth, or a bolt of loneliness brought on by an important event missed back home. Something will set you off on the first round of doubts, and the gloss of everything being new and different will suddenly disappear. Constantly learning and adapting is tiring. Is it possible this has all been a terrible mistake? The first wobble may be followed at any time by other wobbles in the future, varying in severity from a cold to a serious dose of flu. I hope you’ve got a good immune system. From here you will transition somewhat unhappily into …

Stage 3, Reality Bites: Just like that, the novelty wears off, you are faced with the realisation that life still has to be lived, in all its tedious repetition, with or without picturesque walks, cobbled streets and Christmas markets. There are days of work to get through, bills to be paid and housework to be done. From a promising start, you hit your first wall with the language learning. Fluency seems more unattainable than ever.

Stage 4, Frustration: All those things you found charming at the beginning start to get on your nerves. You adopt a hypercritical frame of mind: Why are they speaking like that, behaving like that? Oh, how much better [insert the thing(s) you miss] is back home. Linguistically, culturally and socially, you are still (still!) an outsider, and that’s discomfiting and humbling. The effort required to lose your outsider status is so great that it seems easier just to take refuge in negative judgments. Warning! Some people get stuck permanently in this phase. Don’t let this happen to you.

Stage 5, Transition: This is the point where everyone who might come to visit has already been at least once. Most will not come again. You have missed weddings, births and funerals back home. By not being there to share the fun and the tears, you have grown apart from people in your home country. There’s an unavoidable sadness in that, which can overshadow the new life you are trying to build. But it doesn’t have to. Because something unexpected is happening at the same time. Opportunities arise to support other people, or receive support, in the place where you live. New friendships are being tested and getting stronger, as you accompany people through marriage break-ups, illnesses and the challenges of child-rearing. Around this time, the language starts to flow. It might never be perfect but you’re making a decent go of it. Many logistical things that took effort before are now second nature. What’s that you notice around you? Could it be a community? Some days you feel a strong sense of belonging. You start to create your own traditions, favourite places to go and things to do. You are close, very close.

Stage 6, Comfort Zone: How do you know when you’ve reached this stage? You might notice, arriving back from travelling somewhere, that you feel the relief that only comes with returning home. Or, you might throw a party and realise the guest list would probably be shorter in your home country. You will be part of a community – people you can rely on and who can rely on you, from the small things to the major emergencies. Whether it’s through culture, sport, work or chance, you will have found like-minded people who share your values or passions. You will feel a bond with your familiar environment. The streets, the fields, the mountains, the well-worn paths will have become yours through use and experiences lived there. You catch yourself thinking or speaking like the locals. You dare to use the word home again.

We can’t get far in life without community. My experience, once I got over my first few wobbles, was that new communities were waiting with open arms to take me in. Whether it was the other students in German class, my in-laws, my work colleagues or the people in my neighbourhood. Many years later, I am still finding new communities, such as the small writers’ group I joined in Bern this summer.

This is why my book, which aims above all things to be fair, is written from a position of affection for the Swiss. My adopted country is not perfect, and I have highlighted some of those problems in The Naked Swiss. But there is so much here that is positive and admirable.

The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths was a challenge to write, but a good challenge. My hope is that it will spark a conversation and some reflection among the Swiss and foreign residents here. If we can bring out the best in each other, the future is bright.

What stage of the immigrant experience have you reached? Have I left anything out? And, what I am most curious to know, what comes after the comfort zone? I’d love to know what’s around the corner!

21 thoughts on “A guide to the six stages of the immigrant experience

  1. I think I went through a good bit of frustration and realized the negativity was killing me. I forced myself out of it and what helped for me was being true to some of my needs, getting back to writing and building up a community around that. I have started that transition this past year and it’s been such a relief to not feel that negativity covering everything. I think I’ll be in transition for a long time, but day by day, life is good.

  2. I would say I’m at stage 5 Transition although language fluency still seems a long way away, and possibly even unobtainable, which makes me a bit sad and frustrated!

    1. Language is a huge hurdle in Switzerland, probably the hardest place in the world to learn German. Firstly because of dialect and secondly because everyone speaks English so well, you look like a fool for trying. If fluency is out of reach, at least feeling comfortable in the language would be a good goal, mistakes and all. You’re probably closer than you think.

  3. I absolutely love this. Spot on. Goodness you have racked up a lot of years in Switzerland! We are officially on our third year in Switzerland, with two years of training in London to get used to the wobbles that come with a new country. A lot of me feels like #6, with the occasional #1-#5 on any given day or month. I definitely love coming home after a holiday away. To the beautiful, peaceful, quiet, Switzerland.

    1. Thanks Kate! I’m amazed that you have come so far in three years. But your determination to explore and experience everything, as seen on your blog, must be helping a lot.
      I know what you mean about shuffling between the different stages on different days. It’s not that linear.

  4. Here I sit aboard a ship in the middle of the Atlantic happily on my way home and I find great relevance in your post…but not in any way that you would have probably anticipated. I have never moved from one country to another, buy I have lived in three cities within one country. While the element of language does not apply, everything else in your six stages does. I wobbled so much in one location that I eventually returned to where I lived previously …and never will I budge from here evermore! As usual, nice piece, Clare.

    1. Thank you Marc! How exciting that you are crossing the Atlantic by ship. I am really glad that you find this post relevant to your experience of moving cities, and I presume states, within the US. I’ve only ever visit Boston and New York but from what I know of America, the cultural differences from state to state can be enormous, so it makes sense that migration inside the country would be challenging.

  5. ‘Yes, I met someone in stage 4 – even though they’ve been here for many years (I guess they got permanently stuck) – the other day. It was not nice to hear their views on Switzerland. I am lucky to live in a village with a very strong community – so I feel despite not having much language yet, I am very much in that transition phase. A great post 🙂

    1. Thanks Rachael! That just shows it’s not only time that determines how much progress you make. That hostility is hard to understand, unless the person feels trapped here by circumstances. There’s probably no way back for those who have hardened their hearts against the Swiss. They will continue to have negative experiences to reinforce their views. Just like an unhappy marriage.
      It’s great that you have been welcomed into the community, and that your experience is positive. People might think smaller communities are harder to crack but it’s probably more difficult to settle in in a more anonymous urban area.

  6. This post is so truthful. Sometimes I feel like being in stage 6, but then I hear about my family and friends back in my homeland, about their struggles they have to fight and I am totally frustrated that I can´t be with them and help them 😦

    1. I know exactly what you mean. It’s not just that you feel you’ve let people down by not being there in times of trouble, you actually have let them down. Somehow we have to avoid letting that colour everything with regret. It’s not easy.

  7. I must say I haven’t been through too much frustration. I lived in Vietnam before coming here, and after a hectic and polluted city life, Switzerland felt like a dream. But I’m permanently stuck in homesickness. I will always miss England I think, even though our life here is wonderful!

    1. Wow, Vietnam. Couldn’t be more different to Switzerland, I’d say. That defnitely puts a different slant on things. At least you can get back to England easily now, not that return trip are always the best cure for homesickness. Usually make it worse for me!

  8. I’ve been in all these stages but I tend to float back and forth between them during the year. Friends and family sometimes think I’m on a permanent vacation instead of real life with annoyances and frustrations.

  9. I definitely see the challenges, but I can’t help but long for some day when I may be able to have immigrant experience *head in the clouds*!
    Do you feel like the move was worth it, given how difficult it can be?

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