Do I belong here? Some expats may be in mourning for their old culture

Jul 6, 2018

By Robert J. Catino

So you have been here in Cuenca for a spell, maybe a year or two more or less, and you are asking yourself: “Do I belong here?”

The CuencaHighLife archive has its share of articles on this and related topics: “Why do some expats stay while others leave?” and “An expat explains why she pulled up stakes in Vilcabamba and returned to the U.S.” are a couple of examples. While the question of staying or leaving in Cuenca or nearby communities may be multi-faceted and lead to a variety of actions, the underlying feelings that create the uneasiness about belongingness may be psychologically rooted. I suggest that many expats deal with problems associated with mourning.

Expats tend to cluster together, staying close to cultural roots.

Many immigrants and expats experience a loss of their culture during the process of relocation to the new country.  While specific expat-oriented research is difficult to come by, researchers at the Miami University (Ohio) who studied immigrants found that manifestations of losing one’s culture through immigration can lead to problematic responses to the loss, which are denial of or clinging to this loss.

Upon moving to a new country, exactly what do immigrants lose?  Birth country values, traditions, songs and familiar food are all affected by the move. Social status and significant relationships may also be lost.

Immigrants may also feel a decrease in feelings of safety and connectedness to others, and the home country that immigrants give up leaves a sense of security and direction in their lives in the rearview mirror.

As many in Cuenca and other expat destinations may well know, a deep sense of loss of self-identity may result from the loss of their mother language. Because new language acquisition is interconnected with the incorporation of new values and ideals, an individual’s self-identity is likely to be impacted as the new language is acquired. Thus, with the incorporation of the new cultural norms, the resultant instability from the change and upheaval increases the risk of disruption to one’s identity. In other words, language is deeply integrated into our identity and as we learn a new language, some values and ideals are inextricably dragged along, and for many of us, these potentially challenging elements can cause inharmonious conflicts in our thoughts and feelings.

In response to these deep losses and the associated changes, many expats and immigrants may be faced with a new life that is confusing and challenging and in conflict with their previously held assumptions about daily life. Thus many may be faced with a new situation that negatively impacts their decision-making ability. The Miami researchers found that the negative reaction to the loss of culture was dealt with by immigrants by denial of loss or clinging to the essentials of their culture. The trouble with denial or clinging is that these ways of dealing with the loss may inhibit expats and immigrants from effectively coping with the challenges and psychological stresses of the loss. Furthermore, by not coping effectively with the loss, many affected may develop problems such as depression, anxiety and isolation.


One theory of mourning states that bereaved individuals respond to their loss by denial, which is the inability to recognize and acknowledge loss and the pain that resulted from the loss. In the context of expats and immigrants, many deny the loss of elements of their native culture because of the possible pain that accompanies the process of acknowledgement. Consequently, deniers may seek out comfort foods or exclusively visit restaurants frequented by expats or others that speak their mother tongue. While denial may have a seemingly protective impact to the mourner, the approach may present an artificial, “make believe” or superficial adjustment to the host country.

For those coping with immigration-associated loss, many may experience prolonged grief reactions, which are emotional reactions to the loss that persist for a lengthy period and the reactions are sustained in intensity and range during the initial period following the loss. This prolonged loss is synonymous with clinging to the loss and may prevent adjustment to the new country. The tendency for clingers is to idealize their lost culture while at the same time denigrating the new host culture and hence many expats go through symptoms of lost culture withdrawal.

While denial and clinging to loss are not effective long-term approaches to coping with loss, there is a healthy response and coping process.  Some theorists have argued that mourning reaches its end when a continuing bond is formed with what has been lost. Rather than “just letting go” of those essentials that have been lost, bereaved individuals can integrate and continue to identify with those lost elements, maintaining a continuing bond. Through this approach there is no emotional detachment, but rather losses are assimilated into the mourner’s life experiences and emotional bonds are maintained. Mourning a lost culture is not a discrete activity with an obvious beginning and end point, but the lost cultural essentials are integrated within us and we take them forward and assimilate and integrate them into our daily lives in the new culture.

The Miami researchers conducted a study to examine the process of loss and mourning associated with immigration through data collection of observations of immigrants’ experiences. In their study, researchers used a structured assimilation model to trace the experiences of loss associated with immigration and its relation to the continuing bonds approach to mourning. Their assimilation model suggests that problematic experiences of loss are “internal voices” that are integrated into the personality or a “community of voices”. Thus, through assimilation, what were once considered problems are instead considered resources.

A cultural value from lost culture that becomes a resource could include having dialogues with locals that educate them about the values of the one’s home culture and contrasting that with counterpart values of the host culture. For example, how do the country rights and values expressed in the United States constitution, as embodied by the immigrant, differ from their counterparts in the Ecuadorian constitution and as embodied by Ecuadorians? To better understand the process of the assimilation of the voices of the lost culture, researchers tracked immigrants’ progress on an eight-level sequence, which starts with denial or clinging and finishes with assimilation of the lost culture into a transcendent identity that contains elements of both the native and host cultures.

While the mourning associated with lost culture is real and the road for dealing with it is fraught with the potholes of depression, anxiety and isolation, the map presented here is an optimistic one. The approach of continuing bonds and assimilation of lost culture challenges expats and immigrants to transform problematic experiences into resources that may transmit cultural values into their new country.

Instead of being preoccupied with the question of “belonging in Cuenca” perhaps expats should recognize that settling here is a process of sequential steps that involves dealing with assimilating the resources represented by the lost culture into a new identity that combines those resources with all the rich cultural elements that Cuenca has to offer.  The reasons why expats settle in Cuenca are most likely varied and personal, but an unexpected optimistic outcome of moving here may be the chance to create a new, transcendent self by effectively working through the lost culture mourning process.

Bob Catino, Ph.D. has been a resident of Cuenca for two years. He has been a consultant for global corporations leading projects in technology, training and development, and organizational psychology for over 25 years. His research interests include furthering web technologies in Ecuador in the fields of e-commerce and e-learning.

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