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Thriving Despite Expat Culture Shock–A Chat with Belinda Nicoll

by Laura on May 10th, 2013

Where were you on 9/11?

It’s the question that ties our generation. Through a twist of fate that some may call a mere coincidence, Belinda Nicoll and her new husband happened to begin their expat lives … on that awful morning  … landing at JFK airport … in time to see the second plane fly into the WTC.

Now, Belinda’s memoir, Out of Sync, isn’t just about 9/11. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating to read about how in her husband’s words, the couple were “now a part of history.” These South Africans moving to the United States, now navigating American life at a time when America itself was changing. I was intrigued by her “outsider” perspective, and simply had to interview her about her own expat culture shock.

Check out my review of Out of Sync on Amazon and read Belinda’s post about Adopted Reality on her blog, The Rite of Passage.

Laura – 9/11 was such a national tragedy for Americans; we turned inward and became very nationalistic and patriotic. What was that like from your South African perspective?

Belinda – On the one hand, the tragedy and consequent jingoism made us feel a lot more alienated than we might’ve felt under normal circumstances.

It started at JFK Airport already, when airport staff was formally evacuated and travelers were not given any assistance or advice whatsoever. Whereas locals knew how things worked in the U.S., we didn’t know what to do or where to go—the uncertainty made us feel very vulnerable, and the severe security response (like shutting down all the TV monitors, escalators and elevators in the airport building) was very intimidating.

Once we’d made it to San Francisco five days later, we saw Stars and Stripes wherever we looked. The constant replaying of those TV images and news reports about the hunt for Osama bin Laden intensified our culture shock for sure.

On the other hand, as I looked back on that time years later, I realized how much 9/11 had also bonded us with America—we were there, experiencing it ‘first-hand,’ so to speak (I saw the 2nd plane crash into the South Tower). When we had walked as close to Ground Zero as we could to pay our respects, all that grief must’ve seeped into my pores…settled in my cells…to this day, we’re plagued by some PTSD symptoms.

“What happened to the United States?”

Laura — What were the things about American culture that most shocked you when you arrived? How do you feel about those things today?

Belinda – As a trailing spouse without a work permit, I decided to further my life coach training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). During this program, I met a lot of locals who’d been unemployed since the dot-com crash, people with masters degrees and PhDs. I couldn’t believe it; their stories sounded more like a nightmare than an American Dream. As you well know, the economy kept declining and what used to affect a small portion of the public has now become a national crisis.

I’m an American citizen these days, so the country’s plight is mine too. But what I don’t get is that, instead of sharing responsibility for where the country’s at, there seems to be a general expectation that the government should ‘fix’ the situation so that all can ‘revert to normal.’ Surely, progress means moving forward: changing your ways, values and beliefs to bring about a new identity and embrace a new outlook on life—to contract and become insular at a time when only the blind can deny the existence of a global world is regressive, if not foolish.

Also, the post-9/11 nationalism has turned into divisive party politics—what has happened to the United States?

Tips for Expats

Laura – What are your top three Expatriation Tips, for acclimating while retaining your own sense of identity?

Belinda Allow yourself to be exotic: you’ll probably feel like you’re sticking out like a sore thumb in a wholesome crowd initially, so you might as well raise your flag from that outlandish thumb—you’re not expected to ‘blend’ because you ARE different.

Learn the difference between culture comparisons and culture criticism: you don’t want to offend your hosts—it’s one thing saying, “we do things differently where I come from,” and another saying, “I don’t like the way things are done here.”

Ask for help/advice: locals generally enjoy playing tour guide or mentor, whereas they might get irritated by the ‘arrogance of ignorant fools.’

*  *  *  *  *

Belinda Nicoll is originally from South Africa. She expatriated to the United States in 2001 and has been a citizen since 2010. She holds a BA degree in Communication and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She is the author of Out of Sync – a memoir about expatriation that explores the impact of change on relationships.

Belinda works as a freelance writer and teacher of creative writing. Her works-in-progress are a novel and a guidebook on the craft of writing, and she blogs at My Rite of Passage about issues related to writing and creativity, as well as her favorite subject: change.

Connect with her on: Website, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

“New York” by chayathonwong2000 and “Flag Of United States Of America” by digitalartrom, from; other images courtesy of Belinda Nicoll.


From → Expat Mommy

  1. Fascinating to see 9/11 through the eyes of both someone who was THERE and someone who was new HERE.

    I hadn't thought of how scary that day would have been with the added burden of being on new soil and all that comes with that.

    Those 3 tips are really good ones. Thanks for a terrific interview — sounds like an awesome read!

    • Hi Lori,

      Yes, it was a scary day, indeed. I'm glad you found the interview interesting and I hope you get to read my book. If you do and would like to discuss any part of my story afterward, you're always welcome to contact me at any time.



  2. Laura,

    Thank you for hosting me here at your wonderful blog, while I'm enjoying your presence over at My Rite of Passage. I just love the notion of reciprocal support.



  3. Belinda,
    This is very interesting from your point of view, I wonder what affect it had on you coming from South Africa , I herald from Zimbabwe and have been living in the UK for what seems like a very long time – we saw those events through very different eyes

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