Expat life is hard because it’s just “normal life” with further obstacles thrown in.
Some of those obstacles you chose knowingly because you were willing to pay the price for more excitement or a better quality of life.
Other obstacles, well, you probably didn’t even know you were signing up for them.
Many expats buy into this glamorised idea that moving abroad entails a completely fresh start in life. No more old problems (or at least not to the same extent), more adventure and excitement, better weather, better career, better everything.
To a degree, yes, you do get to reinvent yourself and your life while living in a foreign country. And, if you do your homework when choosing a country to live in, your life quality can and does improve.
But starting a new life from scratch is still not easy.
Not only because of all the practical arrangements that you need to figure out. You will also need a whole new skillset for:
- dealing with normal life problems in a foreign country
- dealing with country-specific life problems
- dealing with the repercussions of being an expat during a pandemic… (but that’s not the focus of this post)
As exciting as life abroad can be, I want to briefly touch upon the most common challenges of living abroad before I reveal what’s the one thing that has helped me deal with the ups and downs of expat life.
5 MOST COMMON DIFFICULTIES OF LIVING IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY
1. LEARNING TO LIVE FAR AWAY FROM FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Expat life means missing important life events of your friends and family (and vice versa) because you can’t just fly back whenever you feel like it. First of all, it’s expensive and you have a life of your own to keep going in the country you’ve chosen to live in.
However, perhaps the most soul-crushing aspect of living far from friends and family is that it will not be easy for you to be there for them (and vice versa) during sickness and other hardships.
At the moment, this last point is a particularly raw spot for most expats around the world.
2. PROBLEM-SOLVING WITHOUT AN ESTABLISHED SUPPORT NETWORK
Normal life has a lot of surprises in store for eveyone. These surprises can entail financial trouble, health issues, finding a home, family drama, needing help with child care or simply knowing what to do or who to talk to in very specific situations.
Expat life is not exempt from any of the above problems. The added challenge is simply that you’ll have to solve all of the above with your usual support network either being too far away or unable to assist you in your specific situation.
In short, you’ll find yourself bearing a lot more responsibility all on your own and/or relying on complete strangers for help (typically other expats who’ve already been through the meat grinder).
3. UNDERSTANDING AND ADAPTING TO A DIFFERENT CULTURE
Living in a foreign country means that your idea of what ‘normal’ is will be challenged on a daily basis. At least until the day that you go back to visit your friends and family and realize that you’ve changed, and what used to be foreign has become your new taken-for-granted normal.
But getting to know and adapting to a different culture is a long and unpredictable process. It involves a lot of blind corners, two-steps-back-one-step-forwards and periods of debilitating doubt about whether you’ve made a mistake.
But it can also entail excitement about getting to reinvent yourself, delight about something new and feeling like you’ve found your place (even if the road there proved rocky).
4. GETTING USED TO FEELING ISOLATED DUE TO CULTURAL AND/OR LINGUISTIC BARRIERS
Even if you’ve already had some kind of experience with the country you’ve moved to, living and actually building a life there is a completely different experience.
Most expats are able to figure out their practical arrangements in the first few months of their life in a new country (but these will keep cropping up as expats usually have way more legal and bureaucratic hurdles to get over).
However, figuring out the local ways of being, behaving and talking demands that you get comfortable with not being 100% sure about what the hell is going on around you for a long period of time.
This means learning to deal with the yucky feeling of being socially, culturally and linguistically isolated – at least for a while. For many, this sort of isolation is too much to bear while others live to tell the tale (with battle scars to prove it).
5. BEING FORCED TO GET TO KNOW YOURSELF BETTER
But perhaps the hardest, and most time-consuming, aspect of expat life is the process of getting to know yourself. Being forced to understand and adapt to a different way of living around you throws the questions back onto your…
…who are you, what are your values and passions in life, and what do you need in order to live a life where you feel like you’re thriving and authentically you?
Even if you had never moved abroad, you would still have had to go through this process your whole life. Because figuring out who you are truly is a life-long mission.
Expat life simply speeds up this process by a lot and forces you to ask yourself the hard questions – alongside you trying to build a normal life in a new country.
Even if you didn’t consciously sign up for an adventure into yourself, the fact that you’re trying anyway, is something to be incredibly proud of. Knowing who you truly are is something that will serve you well throughout your life.
Needless to say, expat life demands a lot from people. What’s more, you can never truly be sure what lessons are in store for you specifically.
That’s why living abroad is not a one-size fits all experience. One expat’s good experience in a specific country should not invalidate the bad experience of someone else.
In this sense, it’s difficult for someone like me to give advice that’s applicable to every single one of you out there because of the very different life circumstances you all face.
But there is one skill that will take you through life no matter what comes along.
WHAT YOU NEED TO MANAGE THE UPS AND DOWNS OF EXPAT LIFE
And that’s the ability to examine your thoughts and feelings, followed by taking proactive steps.
I learned this the hard way (duh, as if the best lessons in life come packaged in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) in my second year of living abroad.
At the time I was a bright-eyed 19-year-old living in Australia.
- I did zero homework on Australia before moving over there (as you do at that age).
- I had no tangible plan (as you do at that age).
- And I had to figure everything out along the way (as you do no matter what age you are when you move to a new country).
Australia was my first experience with the dark side of solo expat life.
Looking back, I was in deep culture shock and feeling completely lost about who I was, what I wanted out of being in Australia or what I needed to do in order to get to a better place with things.
In short, I was experiencing a crisis that many of us go through to a greater or lesser degree. And that’s the crisis of not knowing who you are, what you want or how to go about getting what you think you want.
So what helped me? It was indeed reflecting on my feelings and thoughts, and over time understanding what these were trying to tell me about me.
To get some clarity, I’ve always journaled in some shape or form. Journaling and doodling helps me get my thoughts and feelings out of me and relieve some of the pressure from overwhelming life situations.
Nowhere have I needed introspection more than when I lived in Australia – because I felt wholly and completely lost, without even realizing the full extent of it.
It’s only now that I can clearly see how I was 100% in the wrong country and living a life that wasn’t actually right for me.
Except I mistakenly thought at the time that moving to New Zealand would be the answer. So I spent another 6 months in New Zealand, until I finally realized some pretty core truths about myself:
- That my heart belonged to Europe.
- That I wanted to live closer to friends and family.
- But I was in no way done with living abroad (13 years later I can happily say that I will never be done with that).
Many of us are forced to go through some introspection right now as we’re self-isolating in different countries around the world, separated from friends and family.
So it should come as no surprise that I’ve turned to my trusted practice of journaling about my thoughts, feelings and daily habits to gain a modicum of control over my life and feelings during lockdown.
I’m also a lot less wordy about my feelings and thoughts these days. Instead I appreciate short comments about my day and visualizing my moods in color.
If you find that putting pen to paper is something that brings you solace and clarity (or even if you’d like to try it out), then my tried-and-tested workbook might be useful for you, too.
Comment below – how do you manage the ups and downs of life abroad?
Katherine is a clarity coach for expats who can’t decide whether to stay or go. She has combined her PhD research on internationals dealing with change, professional expertise in change management and insight from serial expat and repat life into a powerful signature coaching method. Katherine’s mission is to help expats create fulfilling lives that feel both fun and secure (yes, that’s possible!).