The first few years abroad are often the hardest. You’re not even immune to the challenge of settling abroad and building a life from scratch when you’ve moved abroad a few times before.
This is exactly what Mélody went through after selling everything she and her husband had in Switzerland and moving to the US for a fresh start.
Mélody’s story has a happy ending of feeling grounded and fulfilled, but it took an identity crisis and lots of soul searching to get there.
Keep reading to find out how Mélody overcame her struggle of adjusting to life abroad.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are and your expat journey so far.
I’m Mélody, a 34-year-old Swiss citizen and I expatriated with my husband in 2019 to the United States. This is currently our 3rd summer in Seattle.
I grew up and lived most of my life in Switzerland. I always embraced (solo) traveling, learning new languages, discovering new cultures and places.
I did several language exchanges in Toronto, Seoul, and Shanghai.
“I always felt very excited to start new experiences abroad and meet new people. Basically, in my early twenties, my purpose in life was to work, save money, and travel abroad.”
I met my husband at my workplace. He is a laid-back person who doesn’t mind staying at home during his time off. In 2016, he needed a significant change in his life.
He applied to the DV lottery, better known as the green card lottery. And to our great surprise, he got selected!
My first intuition was to stay at home while he would leave first to secure a job, and I would follow later on. But this idea quickly changed once we understood the opportunity it represented for us.
So, we got married, sold everything we had, quit our jobs, left our cat behind, and got ready to move to America.
Three years later, we finally landed in Seattle where we had to start from scratch. We stayed at a relative’s place until we could find a place for ourselves.
We needed to start looking for a job but had enough savings to not feel in a hurry. We had big hopes that our action plan would go as smoothly and successfully as planned.
“But little did I know that this was going to be “a bit” more challenging than I expected. And for the first time in my life, I unexpectedly had an identity crisis, where I lost who I was and what I wanted.”
This feeling lasted for nearly 2 years.
Beginning of this year I came across Bad Days Abroad Instagram account.
It was such a relief to find a community with expats that were also experiencing a difficult time abroad. Because so far, I found mostly expats’ success stories online.
Interestingly enough, my life started to change a few months after that. And today, I hope to live a few more summers in Seattle!
So how did the “should I stay or go?” dilemma come up for you?
I’m enthusiastic about new starts and new experiences abroad. Having experienced living abroad similarly earlier in my life, I was confident that I would quickly make friends and set up a routine in our new city.
This feeling was even more emphasized as my relatives and friends also had high hopes for me.
But in reality, it didn’t go as expected.
“The first 1-2 months were fun because everything is new, and you feel empowered that you’re finally abroad. But once the real difficulties started, that’s when it got challenging.”
I failed to live up to my expectations and dreams. It wasn’t just one circumstance that made me want to quit, but the accumulation of many little things and thoughts such as:
- We didn’t find our own place as quickly as planned, and we stayed 7 months at a relative’s place with her family.
- I didn’t find a job and got interview anxieties. Also, I wasn’t sure what kind of career I wanted anymore.
- My husband took an intensive coding boot camp and I was often alone.
- I didn’t have a strong bond with the city and downtown didn’t feel very safe.
- I constantly compared my life here with everything I had before. This made me miss my previous life even more.
“Instead of embracing my expat life, I constantly felt useless and wanted to hide. I had a hard time making new friends, and my expat dream started to fall apart.”
During that first year abroad, I felt confused and cried a lot. I couldn’t talk about my feelings because I didn’t want my relatives to worry about my situation.
I didn’t want to look like a failure to my friends.
I didn’t want to disappoint my husband, even if he already knew that I was unhappy with the situation.
I regularly thought that all the sacrifices I made to come to live in the U.S. were not worth it.
I also thought about flying back home so many times.
“Looking at the situation from the outside, it didn’t look that bad.”
We were traveling regularly, enjoying the city life with all it had to offer. My husband landed his dream job and earned enough to cover all our expenses.
But I just wasn’t happy, and it felt like it was too late now to give up.
Your previous experiences with language exchange abroad had been easier for you. What was different about them compared to this move?
Great question. I thought about it hundreds of times! What went easier when I traveled for language experiences, and how is being an expat different from being a language student abroad?
First, we sold everything we had to move abroad. This was the first time in my life that I gave up and sold almost all we had – our cars, our apartment, bank accounts, clothes, furniture, but most importantly; our lovely furrball (my brother in law fosters our cat now).
The sacrifice seemed scary at first because I wasn’t sure what we traded for.
Second, it’s a lot of pressure to start from scratch when you’re in your thirties. It was pretty scary to quit our full-time jobs without having a job in the U.S.
“Meanwhile, returning to Switzerland wasn’t an option as we would be in the same situation. It just had to work in the U.S.!”
Third, and I’m going to be really honest here… the U.S. wasn’t my favorite place to move to as an expat.
It wasn’t easy at first to get over that thought. I decided to follow my husband rather than move to the U.S.
“Although it isn’t the worst country in the world, it felt challenging to leave and settle in a country that I wasn’t convinced about at first.”
Earlier you mentioned that it was a few months after you found Bad Days Abroad that your vision started to change and things have improved since then. How did THAT happen?
March 2020, one year after moving abroad, the pandemic hit the U.S. and everything shut down. For some, Covid-19 was a real struggle because their life stopped.
But for me, the pandemic did not only stop my life but also allowed me to sit back and think.
We were among the lucky ones since my husband could work from home, and we had just moved to a brighter and bigger apartment before the lockdown started.
“It might sound a bit silly, but this global lockdown allowed me to take a break from the stressful job hunting.”
Since most companies had their hiring processes put on hold, I took this extra time to enroll in an online course at the University of Cambridge about a topic I’m passionate about: Sustainability.
I met a lot of like-minded people online and was busy writing my assignments every week.
Next to that, I also volunteered at my local pet rescue center. I signed up to be a foster mom for abandoned kittens since I had to leave my cat in Switzerland, which was a heartbreaking moment for me.
During most of 2020, I stayed busy but in a different way.
“The future of Covid-19 was unknown, my expectations of our expat life had disappeared, I just lived day by day and stopped considering going back home to Switzerland.”
First, because it seemed complicated to repatriate during a pandemic.
And second, because we were better off here in Seattle than we probably would have been in Switzerland.
The pandemic “forced” me to stay and live my life in Seattle.
Today, when I reflect on 2020, it seems evident that I was slowly healing and making my way out of this indecision between my life in Seattle and my “previous” life in Switzerland.
In January 2021 we flew to Florida on holiday. And for the first time, I did miss my home in Seattle!
“After that everything started to look brighter. The very next month, I found my first full-time job in a company!”
Seattle entered a phase where things were slowly opening up again.
I went back to the gym, met my colleagues and I felt like I had almost a regular life again. I had fewer mood swings too (no more crying, stress and anxieties).
Fast forward to summer 2021 – everything came together. For the first time, I realized how far I had come and how much I enjoyed my life.
I quit comparing my previous life with what I have now and made a list of things I have achieved so far.
I’m really proud of myself and that I didn’t give up!
“We have everything we need, it probably doesn’t look like what I had imagined at first, but I can’t think of a better way to start this next chapter in Seattle.”
I remember very clearly this one day last August, just after paddling with dolphins in the Puget Sound, whispering to my husband; “I hope we stay here another summer or two!”. 🙂
What advice would you give your past self now to help her be better prepared for what’s to come?
I think that there is no one straightforward advice that I could give to my past self to get prepared for the unknown.
“I believe that I needed to face those challenges to gain confidence, get comfortable with decisions that were out of my control, and build a lasting relationship.”
Our decision was a leap into the unknown, a challenging path in our life together, but it was entirely worth it.
During our first years abroad, there were many apprehensions about the unknown and our future. This resulted in many fears and, more globally, as homesickness.
“It’s essential to not let those fears paralyze you and control your decisions. You needed to let go of your expectations to ease into the unexpected.”
Communication with your partner is also essential. It’s not simple to express one’s feelings to each other when both are not on the same wavelength and have different expectations.
Waiting out the storm and retreating into silence is not going to help.
In hindsight, I could have sought help sooner to get unstuck from this constant hesitation. It would have made things a lot smoother from the beginning.
But now all of this is experience gained for future adventures!
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.