Expats turning towards therapy to address the issue of ‘culture shock’

Expats turning towards therapy to address the issue of ‘culture shock’

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 9 January, 2016
Representative image
Foreign nationals living in Indian cities are increasingly relying on professional counsellors to deal with the problem of homesickness, says the American counsellor Dhyan Summers.

Some might scoff at the notion of expatriates suffering in their “adversity” and langouring in the mansion in some ritzy part of New Delhi, with all those zeroes on the pay cheques, their expensive cars with a chauffeur ,and their entourage of servants scurrying after them. But once you speak to Dhyan Summers, a Californian who counsels expats in New Delhi with her Expat Counselling and Coaching Services, and the problems begin to seem real enough.

Q. You have earlier said even simple things seen on the streets can stir up serious emotions in a foreigner’s heart, for instance the sight of a beggar. How so?
A. Everyone has to find their own comfort level with beggars. You can give beggars food or money or nothing at all. There are no standard answers. I tell them that they can help if they wish by doing voluntary work but what they can’t change, they must accept.

Q. For how long have you been a therapist?
A. I have 30 years of experience as a trained counsellor and therapist and the practise has flourished ever since I started in India twelve years go. As India’s economy grows at the rate that western economies can only dream of, a regular influx of foreigners arriving to work in India has expanded the expatriate community. Foreigners accustomed to processes, systems and discipline find India impossibly anarchic. The Germans, say cultural counsellors, find India harder to deal with than, say, the Italians.

Q. What are some of the biggest problems expats face here?
A. Apart from a handful of expats who hit the ground running, many come seething that the plumber came five hours late, that the maid left three ingredients out of a recipe, that the gardener hacked the tree instead of pruning it and that at the workplace, people miss deadlines. The different work ethic is perhaps the biggest problem expats face. They are under tremendous pressure from their home country to meet expectations – but they can’t and the people back home don’t understand why.

Q. Can you give us an example of such an event?
A. European chief executive, who set up an auto parts manufacturing plant, had his frustration quickly mounted when none of the targets set by the parent company were fulfilled and he began to sound as though he was making excuses all the time. Of course the targets were not being met – it’s a different work ethic. The expectations have to match the reality. Eventually, the executive had to ask colleagues from the head office to visit India to understand for themselves why he was not performing and to scale down the goals. To help him cope with the situation my key message was not to take the situation personally.
What are major differences work wise expacts need to keep in mind while in India?
Expats have to remember there is nothing personal when workers fail you. It’s not a judgement on them. It’s simply a different way of working. For example, in the Indian workplace, there are several things to keep in mind: it is important to ask about family; not to show aggression; not to criticise someone in a group because loss of face is anathema; and to learn to pick up culturally determined signals. Westerners have to learn that since most Indians tend to be deferential towards those in authority, they may not be forthright in the presence of a senior. So, during a discussion, if they remain silent, it is a mistake to regard this as acceptance.

Q. What are some of the other common isses faced by someone on arrival in a new country?
A. Some clients need help with more than the culture shock, which could be classified as relatively superficial. Far more serious is the fact that the difficulties of being in a Third World country affect marriages by generating conflict, made worse because the couple are far away from their home, family and friends. So the husband is under pressure and working long hours with very little time for his wife, who has lost her identity and is suddenly a housewife, coping for the first time in her life with domestic staff, often seeking succour in an expat wives’ group, which, by dint of relentless India-bashing, plunges her into more negativity.

Q. You also offer online courses, how does that work?
A. I offer online counselling via Skype to expats in Russia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Greece and Venezuela, among others. Though the cultures are different, I can extrapolate from my knowledge of India to help them deal with their problems. For online counselling is the way of the future. Half my practice is online. The beauty of it is that clients can get help from an English-speaking therapist while sitting at home. And research shows that it is just as effective as face-to-face counselling.

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