In a few months, I will reach the milestone of 4 years of living abroad. Not that there is anything specific linked to that threshold but I never expected to live for that long in my current location. I thought we’d be gone at the end of the third year! Anyhow, we are still here and as I take a moment to reflect on these years, I thought I would pin down 10 lessons learned from my expat experience! This is definitely not a set list, nor a complete one. Ask me in a year and they might have changed although I’m pretty sure not that much!
Expatriation takes as many forms as you have expats but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my “findings” were widely experienced within the expat community. Some are positive some are not; some are obvious, some came as a surprise; some are common sense, some are silly. However you want to label them, those are real experiences that should not be neglected when embarking on the expat adventure! One last thing, this is written from my point of view: an expat woman accompanying her spouse for his job, just saying!
#1. Expatriation is a time to reinvent yourself
Back home you were a superwoman juggling with your career and your family and now you wonder what you are going to do with yourself? Because let’s face it, working is great but is not always an option for whatever the reason. Reinventing yourself becomes a key factor in succeeding when moving abroad. Many people start a blog, do voluntary work, find a new hobby, develop artistic skills. It is vital to have a purpose to get going so dedicate some time to finding that one thing that takes you there!
#2. Loneliness & self-discovery
Expatriation comes with loneliness, no doubt about that! In the first few months following your move prepare yourself: it takes time to build a new network. Don’t forget you spent your entire life creating the one you had back home! Use this time wisely; think of what you like to do, would like to learn, wish to accomplish. Expatriation is a self-discovery quest. When you have time for yourself, more than what you might have dreamed of, more than what you ever had, you end up asking yourself a lot of questions!
#3. The family central pillar you will become
Don’t underestimate your role once abroad: your family will depend on you. You will be the Chief Operating Officer of your family cell, in charge of building a network, taking care of all the administrative tasks inherent to an international move, dealing with the new school system, making sure everyone is settled in their new life. In a glimpse you will be the family backbone. Don’t loose yourself doing all of this, your role is vital!
#4. Feelings are exacerbated
Prepare to embark on a rollercoaster of emotions, to reach highs and lows as never before. Ups and downs are common in any environment but once abroad they are exacerbated. Out of your comfort zone you do not ventilate your emotions in the same way: family and friends are not around the corner for you to discuss what you are going through and sometimes it can even be complicated to translate those emotions into words that actually make sense. This is where expat friendship comes in and plays a fantastic role!
#5. Friendships, old & new
Friendships evolve over time; it’s a natural process, whether back home or abroad. During expatriation though it goes much faster. The distance impacts friendships in a way you would have not suspected possible. You lose touch with your friends, the one you thought would be there forever. You get closer with others who were acquaintances and become friends. Mostly you make new friends and rush head first in those relationships with all your heart and they become your everything. You discover the fabulous and unsuspected support network of expats (worldwide, not only where you live). You define friendship with other words. Some are just temporary patches; others are the real thing and last for life.
#6. Culture shock
Wherever you go there is one thing you should not do under any circumstances: do not, I repeat, do not underestimate the culture shock you will experience! Seriously, don’t underestimate it, ever! Even if you “only” move to the country next door (trust me on that one!). Even if you master the local language and, even better, if it is your mother tongue! Culture shock is so much more than that. It is about discovering your local supermarket, the way locals drive and therefore how you should cross the street, the mentality, the local customs, the eating habits and schedule, how they approach life (do they look at the world through a half full or half empty glass?), the climate… Similar is definitely not the same. My advice: spot, embrace and accept those differences, the sooner the better!
#7. Trip back home & food cravings
Taking a trip back home can be both exhilarating and stressful at the same time. It can leave a bittersweet taste in your mouth. The excitement of being back, grabbing every opportunity to eat what you’ve been craving for weeks or months, indulge in all the little things you can’t do in your new home, visiting all your favorite spots and mostly and foremost, seeing friends and family. Figuring out how to squeeze everything and everyone in a minister’s agenda can give proper headaches and cause a severe sense of guilt!! On the plus side it gives you the opportunity to discover your hometown/home country with fresh eyes! Being a tourist back home is a pleasant experience!
#8. Balance & expectations
Expatriation is all about finding the right balance between the here (where you live) and there (where you come from), your desires and the expectations of your close ones back home. Who said it was easy?
#9. Defining home
Home is a vast concept, a vicious one that plays with your sense of identity once you move from one place to another. When moving abroad you abandon some of the things that made you who you are and you embrace the many opportunities you discover. They shape your identity in such a way it is sometimes difficult to clearly state where home is. I discuss this topic in “Where are you from?”.
#10. To expatriation you will become addicted!
Expatriation can become an addiction! Many are left wanting more, wanting to discover a new destination and creating a new home in a place yet to discover. Going through those feelings of having to start all over again, having the opportunity to reinvent yourself, define who you are with new words, knowing there is a friend out there waiting for you to arrive, learning about a new culture, it is exhilarating and exciting. An addiction I tell you!