Life as an expat can be fun, exciting, eye-opening and adventurous. Meeting new people, experiencing a different culture, seeing sights you never imagined you’d get to see – these are just some of the perks of expat life and living in an environment different from the one you grew up in. People can forget, however, that expat life can also be extremely challenging, lonely, and frustrating.
While I try not to focus on the negatives of living in a different country, there are certainly times when I feel overwhelmed and unsure of my place in my new surroundings. I’ve included some frustrations and doubts that I (as well as other expats I’ve spoken to) have experienced firsthand since living in my new expat environment and offer my advice for dealing with these negative feelings.
Comparing your expat life to your pre-expat life
It’s natural, perhaps even healthy, to compare your expat life to your pre-expat life. What is your life like now compared to how it was in your home country? Are you more adventurous? Do you travel more? Are you more open-minded? You might compare your two lives and see how much you’ve grown by being out of your comfort zone on a daily basis. On the other hand, you might look back on your pre-expat life and realize you were happier, healthier, more social, or more independent and long for that life again. I think it’s important not to idealize either your expat or pre-expat life. Both have their high points and low points – neither one is (or was) prefect. I try to be grateful for the good memories of my life in Canada and also for the new opportunities available to me now that I live in Germany. Focusing endlessly on the things you miss or the obstacles you now face is counter-productive and can ultimately lead to greater frustration and doubt in your expat life.
Integrating into your new country and community
The ease with which expats integrate into their new country or local community can vary greatly. Some are eager to move abroad and have the full support of their family, friends and workplace to rely on, the local language under their belt, and a go-with-the-flow attitude that makes it easy for them to immerse themselves into a new environment. Others may be unwilling to move but forced to do so for a variety of reasons, do not speak the local tongue, and do not have the confidence, time, energy or desire to put themselves out there and attempt to integrate into their new community. Every expat falls somewhere along an integration spectrum and can move along it either forwards or backwards. I often envy expats who seem to integrate themselves so easily – they have established a foreign career, they have joined local teams and clubs, they have made expat as well as local friends, and have set down roots in their new country. Try as I might, integrating into life in Germany is coming more slowly than I would have hoped. I try to be patient with myself and encourage myself to try new things – practice German, attend social gatherings, volunteer for local organizations and learn more about my surrounding area. I hope that my willingness and effort to integrate will ultimately allow me to do so, and I’m sure the same will be true for you.
Comparing your expat experience to another expat’s experience
Expats will often bump into other expats, ones who may have been in the new country for decades or maybe just a few weeks. The questions they ask each other often fall along the lines of “Where do you live?” “How long have you been living here?” “How do you like living here?” “How often do you go back to your homeland?” From these questions, expats can start to glean what their fellow expats’ lives are like. Are they happy in their adopted country? Do they have a healthy social life? Do they have a fulfilling career? Is their family adjusting well to their new life? Whatever answers they give, it’s hard not to compare their experience to yours. I’ve definitely had some of the following thoughts and doubts after meeting some fellow expats in Germany: “He’s only lived here for 4 months but his German is perfect! I wish my German were better.” “She knows her way around the area so well and I’m still trying to figure out the transportation system.” “This family doesn’t seem that tied to their home country anymore but I still miss Canada and my family and friends a lot. Why am I still homesick?” It’s normal to compare your experience to others’, but it’s important to remember that you may not know the full story of their expat experience and that you’re on your own expat journey. Everyone is unique and thus will have a different expat experience. Be kind to yourself as you adjust to your new life and remember that fellow expats who seem to have it more together than you can offer you advice and wisdom to make your transition easier.
Have you had frustrations and doubts as an expat? What challenges did you or are you currently facing? Let me know in the comments below.