Nobody can ever truly be prepared for the experiences that await us living in another country.
Heck, most things in life that involve entering unknown territory entail not knowing what to expect or how to adequately deal with the unexpected.
The purpose of this post is to share the common mistakes I’ve seen people make while living abroad (and why they then decide to leave as soon as things get tough) so you can potentially avoid the same mistakes.
Ultimately, however, you’re going to have your own experiences and your own set of mistakes to learn from.
1.EXPECTING THINGS TO WORK EXACTLY AS THEY DO BACK HOME
Expats getting stuck in making comparisons is perhaps the most frustrating coping mechanism I’ve observed over the years.
Back home the service culture is better, people are more open and friendly, it’s easier to get x y z need met, and so forth.
It’s one thing if such comparisons are shared as observations as part of navigating culture shock and learning to adapt as best as possible.
But it’s a completely different story when these negative comparisons become the basis for judging the entire country/culture as simply inferior and not worth any further effort.
As I’ve written before, some of the things that we realize are lacking in the country we’ve chosen to live in truly point to things that are non-negotiable and vital to us for a happy life. In such a case, re-visiting our choice to move to said country is indeed in order.
However, when making comparisons just becomes a way of bashing a country so we don’t have to accept that we had unrealistic expectations to begin with, we can only blame ourselves for making our life in another country harder than it needs to be.
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2. NOT BEING OPEN TO NEW KINDS OF PEOPLE
Depending on where in the world we move to and the life we’ve chosen to lead, the people around us are not necessarily going to be similar to the ones we’ve know from before.
If our expectation is to find exact replicas of the friends and family we left behind, we’re going to come up empty-handed.
While I do believe that there are many things universal about humans as such, those universal similarities also sit alongside differences that are conditioned by different upbringing, opportunities and experiences in life, cultural and social norms, personality types and so forth.
These differences, for instance, are one of the main reasons behind the difficulty of making local friends.
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With that in mind, it’s no use expecting to find the same kind of people for instance in a small town in Germany as you would in a big city in the US or vice versa. It’s just not the same kind of people that are drawn to either part of the world.
So to make it work wherever you’ve chosen to live, you also have to get real about what, or who, is available and adapt accordingly.
3. NOT BEING OPEN TO NEW ACTIVITIES
In fact, in order to have a social life, we’re going to have to step waaaaayy outside of our comfort zone when it comes to making friends and finding meaningful activities to do.
If someone had told me 6 years ago that I’d one day enjoy practising improvised comedy and doing regular weight lifting, I would have laughed in their face.
But that’s what living in another country has forced me to do – explore new activities, find out new things about myself, discover new interests and talents, as well as invite new kinds of people into my life that I could never see myself getting along with before.
I’ve also tried out a lot of things that haven’t suited me, but I can chalk those failed attempts up to experience.
And most importantly, I’ve also just sat at home wondering why nothing interesting was happening, despite living in an entirely new country.
It’s paramount that if the activities you’re used to doing are not available to you where you now live, you have to get creative and try out new things. You never know what you might end up enjoying.
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4. RESISTING CHANGE IN YOURSELF AND YOUR WAY OF LIFE
Moving to live in another country comes with the implicit expectation that your life is going to have to change and you as a person will have to change along with it.
Following from the previous three points, expecting things to be the same as before and not being open to new people or activities also means resisting the process of transformation within yourself.
It’s resisting asking yourself – who else can I be in this new context? What lies outside of my comfort zone? And am I willing to find out what’s out there?
This is where fear of the unknown kicks in most acutely. What we know is more comfortable and safe, and gives us a sense of control over our lives, even if it isn’t the most interesting life.
Moving to another country is only one step, and a brave one at that. Making a life in a new country takes several more steps, steps which take you outside of yourself as well as forward within you.
What’s beyond the comfort zone – who knows? What if you don’t like what you find? What if things go wrong and you don’t know how to handle things?
But let me ask you this – what if everything goes just fine and you will figure out what to do once you cross that bridge?
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5. NOT BEING CURIOUS ABOUT THE THINGS THAT SEEM DIFFERENT
When we navigate this world, we do so from a particular frame of reference. I’ve called this frame of reference our personal baggage. Whatever we’ve experienced and been exposed to in life makes up how we see the world and how we react to things.
For instance, something as simple as not making small talk with strangers can be seen as rudeness or it can be seen as respecting personal space. The answer depends on who you ask and what they’ve been brought up to think about the meaning and value of small talk.
Living in another country is a surefire way to challenge everything we have ever known as “the normal”. Having to adapt to things that seem different can either make us curious or dig in our heels even more to avoid change.
How successfully we adapt to a new country/culture partly comes down to whether we are rigid thinkers, believing in black and white answers, or flexible thinkers, accepting that there can be many perspectives on the same thing.
Of course there’s a limit to what extent people are willing or even able to change their frames of reference and incorporate new ways of living and seeing the world.
However, when you’ve chosen to move abroad and try out living in another country, not making an effort to understand what lies behind everything that seems strange or frustrating means missing out on a large part of the experience of living abroad.
You don’t have to like what you see or discover, but understanding why people do what they do in the way that they do things takes away much of the confusion and frustration.
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6. BLAMING NORMAL LIFE PROBLEMS ON THE CHOSEN COUNTRY
Just because we move abroad does not mean we become exempt from life throwing crazy situations at us. Life abroad is just normal life, warts and all.
Some issues are indeed directly the result of moving to a specific country or city/town – legal challenges, attitudes towards foreigners, opportunities to pursue a particular career etc.
But broken relationships, crappy people, mental health issues, family drama, realizing that you’ve chosen the wrong career, and so forth – these are not the fault of the country you’ve chosen to live in.
It’s super easy to fall into that cycle of blaming a country for everything that’s not going smoothly in your life, as well as believing that if you could just move on to a new country, things will be better. Trust me, I’ve been there on and off.
Things might be better somewhere else, or they can just as well remain exactly the same or get even worse.
If you need a breath of fresh air and a new environment to get out of a rut, sure, go spend three months in Thailand (as an example), but you may just find that your normal life problems decided to get on that same plane together with you.
Share your observations of the common mistakes people make when living in another country in the comments below.
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.