Expat life sounds exciting and adventurous to most people. We get to experience different ways of life and to learn about new countries, cultures and mentalities. It truly is exciting! Especially the first six months are filled with thrilling excitement and discoveries about the “new” life while relocation and general adjustment keep us busy. During that time we may go through a rollercoaster of emotions. And when it finally gets a bit quieter and find a routine, we may feel a little lonely sometimes.
Even after 10 years of living abroad a feeling of isolation comes and goes in steady but thankfully reducing amounts. Don’t get me wrong, I love being an expat, I wouldn’t want it to change. I’d miss expat life back home! Only sometimes it can get pretty lonely; that’s just part of the deal. Here are 7 observations from my experience:
1. We are far away from our family and best friends.
We miss out on parts of their life and may not see our parents grow old or nieces and nephews grow up. There’s no family around to help out with our own kids. And homesickness will kick in every now and then. We may even feel forgotten by brothers and sisters who may not readily make an effort to stay in touch. I often miss hanging out with people who really know me, understand my background and how my mind works when a crisis hits.
>>> It’s important to stay connected and to appreciate old friends. Skype, What’s App and Social Media like Facebook and Instagram may help you to stay in touch! Voice, video and photos make it easier to feel connected. Homesickness comes and goes and will get easier over time.
2. Establishing long-term relationships is a challenge.
A lot of us tend to change country every 2-4 years. This is often related to job cycles of expat postings and also means that each time we have to start from scratch in making new friends, possibly learn new languages and adapt to foreign ways of life and mentalities, not to forget the culture shock. Personally it usually takes me two years to really feel at home in a new place and to really know who are good friends who I can rely on. Don’t underestimate the effort and energy this takes(!) nor those lonely moments when you haven’t found your crowd yet. Sure, you can distract yourself with superficial encounters, though I am talking about friends you connect with and who will be there for you like family.
Building friendship is hard work. We invest a lot of time in meeting new people. However coming from different cultures and mentalities, we often don’t have much in common. Since expats are by their nature relatively transient, new friends might leave again soon and after two years we may find ourselves back to square one.
>>> Be open to connect. Follow up and focus on meeting those people again whose company made you feel good. Don’t expect to meet a soul mate in each country. It’s rare but it’s possible to make best friends: you probably won’t see it coming – it’s extra special when it happens!
3. Culture shock and new environments can make us feel like we are losing our identity
or like a child who is always having to ask someone how everything works… even simple things like posting a letter. Some people say it touches on their pride or sense of self worth. You are out of your comfort zone! Sharing your thoughts becomes a real effort. This can create a feeling of alienation or being left out and not being part of something. That also counts for reverse culture shocks.
>>> Read up and familiarise yourself with the culture and their local oddities at any given opportunity: it will make it so much easier. Be open and tolerant. Try to catch up and exchange with other expats who will understand your doubts. They are in the same boat after all.
4. Not speaking the local language makes us feel alienated or like a kid learning to speak.
It’s as if you just scratch the surface of life and society. Not being able to fully understand and play with the words can make you feel an outsider more than anything. Especially when talking to people who themselves can hardly speak a language other than their native tongue. They quickly get impatient and their nonverbal body language can be pretty discouraging. It just makes it so much more difficult to connect and there we are… feeling misunderstood. The older I get the more relevant this seems to become, I want to be taken seriously. I am now learning my third foreign language (I’m a German native and speak English and French fluently) and believe me, learning Spanish at C1 level still reminds me of the hardships of learning languages.
>>> Be patient and kind to yourself and embrace learning their language and customs. Don’t get upset by other people’s ignorance and self-centeredness. Check out my blog post 8 tips and tricks on how to learn a new language.
5. We are much more prone to be single
or to have family much later in life as expats. I guess this one is tougher for us girls with the biological clock ticking… It’s difficult to keep up a relationship if it’s not really your partner’s cup of tea to change country. It sounds adventurous and fancy to move to Paris or London but when it actually becomes real, a lot of people may realize last minute that they are actually not willing to give up everything they knew to exchange it for the unknown. Well, an old-fashioned expat contract would certainly help, but they are pretty rare these days and I have never been on any of those… still, my inspiration to discover new countries has always been stronger.
>>> Be aware of your priorities regarding your lifestyle and be true to yourself. Changing country can become addictive; it’s easier to share these experiences with a like-minded partner, an expat at heart.
6. Not being in a working environment slows down integration
and makes it harder to make new friends. When we take the step to follow a spouse to a new country, we might have to make compromises in our career. In some countries spouses don’t get working permits, your particular job or career might not be appreciated or language barriers become a disadvantage.
Actually when moving to Spain it was the first time I followed a partner and a career change opened up a lot more possibilities, which I gratefully enjoy very much. But it definitely has been a whole different feel being here because of someone else rather than for a job offer or my own particular choice.
>>> Look for ways to make life meaningful: volunteer or try a work exchange. Engage with clubs, sports activities to be part of your local community. Language classes or meetup.com are also a great way to start. Create a routine and familiarity as quickly as you can. Go to your local bakery or coffee shop and take opportunities to connect, the staff will start recognising you soon and even those brief encounters will make you feel better.
7. We may have to accept some sort of downgrade in salary or responsibility in order to get a job,
if we aren’t moving with the same company. Sometimes we may even have to start at the entry level to work our way back up again. This can be due to language limitation, unrecognised university certificates or having to build up professional experience in a new field of work. Credibility and respect have to be gained through hard work and understandably some situations may lead to a certain amount of frustration: in your previous jobs you may have managed a team and find yourself back again as being treated like an intern… Frustration can make us less sociable.
>>> Be positive and see it as a temporary solution and opportunity of being able to pick up a new language while building up professional experience and taking advantage of social security cover (not a given when abroad, especially outside of the EU). Less responsibility means a lot more room for creativity and freedom to check out all your options. Your previous work experience surely will accelerate your career development.
We live great expat moments we wouldn’t want to miss – fun and extraordinary travel experiences and we learn so much from other cultures that enrich our lives. I guess we can all feel lonely sometimes and miss being with old friends especially when we see their pictures from back home on Facebook. But aren’t we all posting our best moments? I am sure your crowd back home is also missing friends and family who left home for a job or for love.
Please share your experience in the comments below.
The images and quotes are taken from one of my favourite books: The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupéry, which I recommend reading. I felt it suits this topic perfectly. 😉 I kept the French quotes since I don’t resonate too much with their translations.