No one moves abroad with the goal of not feeling at home in a foreign country, even if it’s a time-limited relocation.
Of course, as an expat, part of the thrill of moving abroad is the excitement of everything new, but alongside that you also want to feel at home after a while.
If you’re reading this post, then you’ve probably lived in your chosen country for a considerable amount of time by now, but somehow living in a foreign country still feels like a struggle.
You’ve made all the effort, followed all the tips and tricks out there, and yet you’re still having a hard time settling in abroad.
What’s up with that?
Shouldn’t it be relatively straightforward that once you get all the paperwork sorted, you find a place to live, go to work and find some friends then you will naturally feel more at home?
In theory, sure, and that’s definitely what most expat advice out there would like you to believe.
But ticking all the boxes that concern the practicalities of settling in does not address the emotional side of feeling at home.
Four walls, a job and a valid visa does not a home make.
But they sure help as a basic starting point.
So this post is about the emotional side of living abroad that may be stopping you from feeling at home in a foreign country (after you’ve sorted out all the practicalities).
And there are five major reasons that stop expats from feeling at home abroad.
1. YOUR EXPECTATIONS DON’T MEET REALITY (OR CHASING THE DREAM OF LIVING ABROAD)
If what you thought would be a dream life actually feels like some kind of a bad joke at best or a straight up nightmare at worst, then your biggest obstacle to feeling at home in a foreign country are your expectations.
If you moved abroad to chase visions of constant travel, food, culture and excitement, but landed yourself in bureaucratic nightmares, language barriers and seemingly impossible cultural differences, then your visions were not rooted in reality to begin with.
But it’s not your fault.
Very many expats, or even normal people who fantasize about moving abroad, have bought into the idea of life in a foreign country as some sort of non-stop vacation.
Where does this idea come from?
We don’t have to look very hard for answers because traveling and international lifestyle have always been seen as something exotic and coveted, something out of reach.
Social media and a booming travel industry have had a big role to play in perpetuating the idea that everything is just wonderful the minute you get on a plane.
But you’ve lived abroad for some time now.
You know that air travel is a far cry from glamorous unless you’re flying business class or own a private jet (as you do).
You know that sorting out paperwork, finding housing and making friends can all be insanely time-consuming and at times demotivating.
But because the dark side of living abroad does not look very photogenic, so very few people dare to share their struggles abroad and describe the humdrum of everyday expat life.
Even an Instagram filter can’t make the reality of trying to start a new life in a foreign country look pretty (at least not without glossing over the ugly truth).
So if you’ve subconsciously bought into the dream what life abroad as an expat should look like, I encourage you to embrace a different idea…
…that normal life and normal struggles do not stop when you move to a foreign country.
Expat life can exaggerate normal problems because you have to solve basic things in a foreign language and in a different legal and cultural framework.
So if you don’t feel at home because you’ve been chasing a dream that no one will ever realistically obtain, it’s not your fault.
But you can still turn things around by accepting the dark side of expat life as an inevitable part of the deal.
2. YOU’RE LOOKING FOR PERFECTION (OR THE GRASS IS GREENER SYNDROME)
Perhaps you didn’t move abroad because you were chasing some kind of dream.
Rather, by moving abroad, you expected to find better quality of life and a broader range of opportunities to pursue your goals in life.
And you probably did find it – better salary, better career prospects, more time for your family, better weather, and anything else you were looking for.
But you were so focused on those few things you were looking for that you sort of closed your eyes to the less than perfect aspects to your destination country.
Or maybe you genuinely didn’t know beforehand.
But now you’re kind of bitter about it all.
On the one hand, you got what you wanted, but now you also have to deal with all these other issues that you didn’t sign up for.
Language barriers, unwelcoming locals, poor housing market etc.
These are all real struggles that can absolutely make or break your ability to feel at home in a foreign country.
Even if you got the one thing that motivated you to move abroad in the first place.
If this is you, it’s time to do an honest assessment of your life abroad by looking at all the nuts and bolts that make up your life from a wholistic perspective. Because things may not be as bad as you think overall.
3. IT’S ALL TOO DIFFERENT (OR WHEN YOUR HEART IS STILL SOMEWHERE ELSE)
Being in a new environment is overwhelming, even if you’re otherwise good at adapting.
Just as an example, even after living abroad for 10+ years and making several trips per year, I know that I always need the first few days just to orient myself.
I’ve got helping myself feel more comfortable and at ease over the first few days down to a routine now.
But I still need to give myself that time to get over the overwhelming amount of new impressions and information.
In some places it honestly feels like I’m drowning in the unfamiliarity of it all.
So if someone with my track record and experience can feel like that, then someone with almost no experience of adjusting to a new country is not doing anything wrong if they’re struggling to settle in even after a considerable amount of time.
When you still continue to feel like a fish out of water in social encounters, when you don’t have a solid daily routine that makes you feel in control of your life, and when you don’t have people in your life abroad that make you feel comfortable – well, the more you’ll then long for familiar places and faces.
As long as your immediate surroundings continue to be disorienting, the easier it is for you to feel homesick, lonely and isolated in a foreign country.
And in turn, the less able you are to feel at home in a foreign country.
Because you’re emotionally stuck between two places.
A key way to get out of this in-between-but-nowhere-really headspace is by intentionally spending less time on friends, family and other connections back home (or in a previous country) and pushing yourself to set the foundations for a life in your chosen country.
For this purpose, I love the intentional settling in process described by Maggie Hari on InterNations.
4. IT’S JUST NOT A GOOD MATCH (OR THE CASE OF FINDING OUT WHAT YOU NEED)
You know that feeling of having just landed and being so relieved about it?
Not because you’re afraid of flying and you’re glad to be on solid ground again.
Because it just feels like you’ve landed both literally and emotionally speaking.
It feels like home. It feels comfortable somehow.
Yes, in some places you will never have that feeling, try as you might.
I’m still waiting for this feeling after having lived in Denmark for close to 10 years now. You’d think I would have left by now?
And I have for some periods of time. But I’ve always come back because, for now, a particular quality of life is more important to me than feeling at home in the wider Danish society.
But I battle with myself on this on a regular basis, even more so during tough periods in my life.
In other words, I’ve worked my way through point 2 previously (the grass is greener syndrome) and made peace with the good and bad that living in Denmark comes with.
But there are two places in this world where the plane only needs to have touched the ground for 2 seconds and I let out a sigh of relief.
But living in either of those countries is simply not in the cards for me right now.
Sometimes you know on a gut level that this place, this country just isn’t it (and some other place is). Rationally – the country you’ve chosen to live in may have all the bells and whistles – but emotionally, it just doesn’t stir your soul.
You just don’t identify with the place, or at least not enough to feel at home.
And that’s okay. But it does force you to then ask yourself, what is home and how can you have that experience of home on a smaller scale?
This brings me to my last point in post.
5. WHAT DOES HOME FEEL LIKE? (OR THE CASE OF FINDING OUT WHAT FEELS RIGHT)
For me, feeling at home is a feeling of ‘this is right for me’.
This feels good. This resonates with what I believe in and what I envision for my future, and sometimes what gives me a sense of roots and belonging (but that’s a topic that deserves its own post).
What feels right can be a profession, an activity, a group of people, or the person you’ve chosen to grow old with.
When something feels right, it won’t necessarily look like what society or your family says is right. In fact, whatever it is can easily go against societal norms but feel exactly right for you.
When something feels right, it defies national borders and it defies logic.
That’s how you can be born in one country but feel truly at home in another country.
That’s how you can fall in love with someone that has a completely different cultural background to you but you understand them better than you do your own siblings.
So if you’re not feeling at home in a foreign country, you need to ask yourself one rather difficult question:
Do you know what feels right for you?
Because when you feel that some thing, some place, some person is right for you, that’s when you also start to feel at home abroad.
Maybe you won’t feel at home in the wider society and in every situation, but you will at least be able to carve out a pocket of home within that.
Often that’s all we ever need.
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.