Thursday, August 19, 2010

EFM: Evidence For Moods

If you were reading through the comments in the first part of the leaky ceiling story, the last one on there might have seemed like an overreaction.

In actuality, I'll Take Mine...To Go, Please! was responding to a comment I had left on another blog. To quote Shannon from Cyberbones:
You know that handy little chart that floats around diagramming the stages of acceptance at a new post? If you are not FS it goes something like this: honeymoon, depression, resigned acceptance, happiness. Well I completely skip the honeymoon period everytime.
I added her comment section that my honeymoon period is over and I feel stuck in the depression. (Not to worry, family, that is an overstatement. This is not a call for help.) I also asked for a copy of said schematic. Well, ask and you will receive, which is where I'll Take Mine...To Go, Please! came to the rescue. (And thank you very much for that!)
OK, so first off, how did Natalie spend from September 2009 through June 2010 in A-100 (introduction to the foreign service, essentially) and Federally Supervised Instructions (FSI) without ever receiving a copy of this thing? How did I attend three or four FSI courses and never receive this thing? Sure, learning about how to seat guests at a state dinner is a skill I use everyday, but in hindsight, I wish they offered a course on coping with cultural adaptation instead of etiquette.

So moving across the chart, I didn't really have the pre-departure ups and downs. I wasn't excited about pack-out day or living in a hotel for 10 days, but it had no bearing on my emotional well-being.

I definitely enjoyed an initial honeymoon stage, or as I like to think of it, becoming accustomed to this awesome house - leaky roof aside. But after about a week or so, I began to slip into what the chart refers to as culture shock/acute homesickness. I don't know if those words feel appropriate for what I was actually feeling or not, but you get the picture. The emotional well-being red line dipped.

(Important case study note, in which I'm the case study: The chart, while cool and scientific looking, is a generalization. In my particular case, I think my honeymoon and culture shock stages were more intertwined and instead of a nice smooth curvy line, mine is more jagged with more ups and downs. Even in the culture shock area, there are still good days; it's just that the bad days are a little more intense than bad days back home and a little more frequent.)

So because FSI has failed us all by its lack of cultural adaptation class, I'll offer my four lessons from my own struggles.

1. I wish I would have been more studious in learning Spanish. This is 100% my fault, and I accept the blame, but that isn't helping much right now. I've been using the Stone a bit more (still don't particularly like it), and Spanish class is to commence soon at the Consulate. I hope ironing out this inability-to-communicate wrinkle will make life here better, but I'm not putting all of my eggs in this basket.

2. Speaking of eggs in a single basket, I wish I wasn't so reliant on a single client for my freelance work. The problem with working with this magazine - other than the fact that the editor holds a personal grudge against me - is that both the editor and publisher are lousy communicators and fear confrontations. So are they not responding to my e-mails because they are angry with me, are just being lazy about hitting the respond button, or do they just not want to tell me they think my story ideas suck? Another situation in which I saw the red flags before coming here, but I decided to leave it all to chance that it would work out.

3. I miss my stuff. I'm not really a possessions-oriented person, but I miss my coffee pot, food processor, toaster and/or toaster oven and cookbooks. I also miss our DVD player, DVDs (and VHS tapes) and books. I feel like Steve Martin from The Jerk. "I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray...And this paddle game ... And that's all I need. I don't need one other thing, not one...I need this." (And yes, that is my second movie reference in as many posts.) So I wish we had better planned our air freight.

4. This is the big one - managing expectations. I'd like to say I came here with no expectations. I thought I was coming here with no expectations. But after the first couple of weeks here, I found myself saying to myself, "This is not what I expected," so I must have expected something, right?

I had heard Hermosillo described as a small town within a big city. I really have no idea what that means. But I grew up in a small town. I went to college and had my first jobs in a small town. Hermosillo is not a small town by any stretch of the imagination. In a small town, you can count the number of stoplights on two hands or less. In a small town, there is two or three main roads that go no further than two miles without leaving the city limits. In a small town, you can live anywhere and still walk to what the locals refer to as its downtown.

Hermosillo has almost a million people here (some anticipate that the 2010 census will push past 1 million). Sure, there aren't any skyscrapers like in big U.S. cities, but a small town has like 50,000 people at most, not a million. And it is spread out. There are a couple of downtownish shopping areas, but none in walking distance from where we live. Not that you would want to walk in this heat anyway, but still.

In truth, having seen a few pictures of our home before we arrived, I didn't have high expectations for it, so I was pleasantly surprised when we got here. The few descriptions I had of Hermosillo had me expecting something else, and given my current standing on the emotional well-being line, I guess that wasn't such a pleasant surprise.

But with any luck and some hard work, will be getting the rest of our stuff soon and I'll get a better grasp on Spanish. And maybe the working situation will improve - it seems to ebb and flow. And after some time, I'll get used to this version of a "small town." For starters, just having this chart bumped up my emotional well-being line. It was refreshing to know that this is such a common experience there is a scientific-looking chart to describe it.


  1. I had great success with FSI's distance learning Spanish program. They send you a CD with a computer program that was developed by FSI and is way better than the Stone and then you get 45 mins of telephone time with an FSI instructor every week. The classes are 14 weeks long and I think the next one starts mid-September. Search for "Spanish Intermediate" at on the intranet.

  2. I have been thinking about you since I read that comment. Glad it wasn't a 'call for help'. I think identifying the issues and working to understand and resolve them is a good step...good luck.

  3. I have to admit I can't picture what Hermosillo is like at all. That many people but no tall buildings?A Walmart and Costco, but so few people speaking English that you're having trouble communicating?

    Get out there and take some pictures for us. I'm curious! Plus, that'll keep you busy for a bit! =)

  4. I don't know if I really agree with this chart. I agree that it is definitely a generalization. Oh well, I am sure people with advance degrees created this chart and it is something that has made the world a better place.

  5. I would like to put in a strong plug for a getting a part-time housekeeper. I know from following your blog that your initial reaction will be "no way!" but I think that it will really help with your current doldrums.

    Think of this as a person to practice a bit of Spanish with during the daytime... Someone you can go shopping with and learn about different items... Then come back to the house and cook something using fresh local ingredients, again while developing your Spanish.

    Living and working abroad in my pre-FS days when I had zero local language skills, I found that my housekeeper was a great guide into the local culture, food, and language. She told me funny stories about the neighbors and clued me in to local holidays, showed me how to eat items that I never would have picked up at the market/grocery, and was patient as I slowly developed my language skills.

    Even just for a few hours a week, I think that it's a worthwhile investment in your sanity. Find someone who meshes with your personality, then have fun with it!

  6. I remember that chart from my days as an exchange student with AFS. They worked on a school year schedule and they had the same chart except with an up period around Thanksgiving (who doesn't love an American holiday centered around eating), then a low point around Christmas/New Year's (because it's not like back home), then another up in the spring and a down before they leave.

    You should also check out Culture Shock books, they have good advice on things you might be confused about. I am sure there is one for Mexico.

  7. My sentiments exactly, amigo. I too, failed to manage my expectations. In a bit of a tiff last week, C (my wife) asked me what it was I expected out of this experience, and I could not answer her. I suppose I thought finding work would be easier. I have never lived in a capitol city, and adjusting to living in a town of 5 million plus is a challenge, to say the least. However, now I know what it is like to "press 9 for English" :)

  8. For a non-cry for help this sure does seem a little like a cry for help! (And the notice to the family doesnt really lift the unsettling feeling of your brother saying I'm depressed-FYI) It sounds like your miserable :( Maybe you're just adjusting like the stupid chart says-Either way i think you really need to put yourself out there to make friends. Certainly there is some group on FACEBOOK that you could connect into. Even Boston was miserable for the first year I lived here since I didnt really know anyone (and i even spoke the language-kind of, could spend and extended amount of time outside, and had a coffee maker- speaking of which, why don't you go out and buy a new coffee pot and toaster? Neither of which are expensive Dave.) Bottom line, you have to meet people. It will make all the difference in the world.
    I like the suggestion of getting the housekeeper to have someone to chat with throughout the day. I know it seems odd to us since mom and dad are a little more on the frugal/do it yourself kinda spectrum- but it seems like a good opportunity to learn a little more about he city and culture. I wish I had a great suggestion on how to spend your downtime around the house, but I really don't.

    Maybe you need a pep talk? I have two WKU friends in town this weekend but give me a call sometime next week and we can talk about how boring and uneventful our lives are.

    Hope you're doing well- even though it sounds like you're not. Tell Natalie I said hi,

  9. I totally understand what you are going through. After 2 months here I hit a big "depression" where everything about Mexico made me mad. I hated the driving especially. But now I'm finally in the "content" stage and just living life. You'll get there and hopefully you'll be able to enjoy mexico a little bit more. :)

  10. I think it'll help you learn Spanish if you read or listen to something that naturally interests you, like a telenovela or a radio station or even a narco blog. Add in a source of exposure to your everyday life and your comprehension will improve a lot. Also get some Mexican friends, but of course that's a little harder.

  11. I honestly think the idea to get a maid to help with language and culture is a good idea. Mi domestica is great to practice with. She understands I'm learning, so she tries to speak at my level.

    Also, my "honeymoon" period ended the day after I got here when I couldn't read any labels on the food. That was really upsetting and overwhelming for me. I think I started entering adaptation before my HHE arrived. It got even better after my car arrived. Now, with a job at the Embassy, good friends, and a firm grasp on where I live I feel completely adapted (especially with the driving!). I've been here for...well...tomorrow will be four months. Lucky you don't have to wait at all for the car - I'm so jealous!

  12. I know the feeling man, it's amazing how you can, on one hand feel like your normal happy self and on the other hand, at the same time feel totally frustrated about something as massively big as where you live. It gets easier! Your shipment arriving will be like Christmas and the language makes a huge difference. In China, I don't know what I would have done without a tutor for the last 4 months, it's not only learning the language, its a window into the culture around you. Hang in there!!

  13. There is a course at FSI called "Realities of Foreign Service Life" that is supposed to address some of these adaptation issues. Hope all EFMs will take it!