My own journey as an expat started unexpectedly. I’ve always longed to live outside of the US, but I’d never seriously pursued it. When my partner got into his dream MBA program, however, I knew I had some big decisions to make. Social media told me that as an expat I could expect all my wanderlust and travel dreams to be fulfilled, while a closer look at the expat forums online dug up a more raw, emotional side to the experience. Ultimately I took the expat leap … and I couldn’t be more thankful for how our lives have turned out! If you’re considering becoming an expat yourself, take a look at some of the most common pitfalls of the experience and how to navigate them.
Expat Transition Depression Is Common
Most of us know that the first six months or so in a new city are the hardest, but when you’re an expat, those six months can easily extend to the first year. That’s because everything is twice as hard when you’re an immigrant. (And yes, expats are immigrants.) Not only have you moved to a new city, but a new country as well! You have to sort out immigration paperwork and work visas/registration, learn new tax processes and voting procedures – not to mention find a place to live! Plus, humans use our communities (family and friends), as well as our jobs and daily routines to anchor (and in large part define) us. When those things are stripped away, even if they’re partially replaced, it can be unnerving. It’s totally normal to be exhausted in the beginning – both physically and mentally. Luckily, this part does get easier! It takes time and effort, but as you develop a new routine and build a new community and friendships, it should get easier. (Note that new routine is key here. You can’t move to Singapore from NYC and expect to recreate your favorite Saturday bagel and schmear experience, for example!)
You won’t vibe with every country/city you live in – and that’s okay
While most of us get on-board with our new locations after 6-12 months, some cities/countries just aren’t the right fit. For example, maybe you just LOVED “City X” when you visited for that vacation five years ago, but now that you’re working and living there it’s proved to be a whole ‘nother thing. This doesn’t mean that you’ve failed at being an expat, it just means that you might need to take a step back and examine what isn’t working and make adjustments where you can. Too many things you can’t control on your “con” list? Then it might be time to consider either moving back to your native country or moving on to another country. Getting work that is either flexible/temporary/contract work OR working with a large international organization in which there is a lot of employee movement can both be good strategies for supporting yourself while moving around.
Folks Back Home Won’t (Usually) Understand With Being An Expat is “Really” Like
I remember after one of our moves I was having a tough moment and texted a friend. Their response? “Honestly I would love to be in your shoes right now”. What’s more is that they meant it. Or at least they thought they did. What they didn’t understand is that at that moment I was sorting through documents in a foreign language, immigration hurdles and setting up a bank account. It wasn’t glamorous or fun – it was stressful and, at times, frustrating. It’s difficult for those we leave behind to understand what it’s really like, moving abroad. When they visit, more often than not, they want to be tourists – and rightly so! – but that’s not what day-to-day life is like for us expats. Yes, we have access to a lot of cool things, but there are still dishes that need to be done and the bills that need to get paid!
Don’t Confuse Wanderlust with Wanting to be An Expat
Just because you’ve been drooling over Instagram pics of faraway places doesn’t mean that expat life is for you. While some additional travel is often a perk (especially exploring a new corner of the world, since flights around that area will be cheap, comparatively!), being an expat is more than just jet setting. It means planting roots in a community and really being there for a year or two or ten, getting to know a new culture, and often feeling homesick and/or unanchored as your old home melts away and your new one hasn’t quite solidified. At its core, (and very unlike being on vacation or taking a see-the-world year), being an expat requires some level of cultural immersion – you’ll still be you, but it’ll be a new you!
Time Zones Are Not To Be Underestimated
Saying goodbye to family and friends might not seem like such a big deal, especially now that we’re living in the era of WhatsApp and social media, but think hard before you jump several time zones away. What will it mean for you? For your family? Now that I live in Europe I am six hours ahead of my friends and family on the east coast of the US, and nine ahead of my west coast friends. That means that it’s typically either early morning their time or evening mine when we can talk. Sadly neither time is super convenient, and spur of the moment chats aren’t (usually) possible anymore. With planning, it’s doable, but it is definitely harder than if I lived somewhere closer to them.
Language Barriers Are a Real Thing
As with time zones, language barriers aren’t to be taken lightly! When you consider being an expat, ask yourself if you’re really and truly willing to learn a new language, or if moving to a country that speaks your native tongue (or a language that you already know), is a better fit for you. It’s definitely easy to say “I’m sure I’ll learn it once I’m there”, but the reality is that almost all expats need to work, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for studying. It’s also important to research the country you’re interested in ahead of time and see what the work requirements are in regards to language. We didn’t do our homework and look that up with our last move and I’ve been struggling to find work as a result! As with anything, prepare, prepare, prepare!
It’s An Amazing Adventure
While being an expat is a big commitment, it is also a seriously amazing adventure! Immersing yourself in a new culture, testing your limits and challenging your old ways of thinking are all priceless benefits. Not to mention the new friends you’ll make from around the world! One of the things I love the most about our current location is that, simply by virtue of being an Expat, I’ve met other expats from nearly every corner of the globe. It’s an amazing thing, to not only be learning about the cultural you’re living in, but also to be a part of a micro-group as well. We may be here in Amsterdam for different reasons, but we’re all dedicated to broadening our horizons and pushing ourselves further – and that feels great to be a part of.
Are you considering being an expat? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below! Already an expat? What are your top tips and words of advice to future expats? Let’s share our experiences!