Lows in expat life – things that change for ever when you live abroad


Have you ever been abroad, for a family vacation, business trip or individual travel and said to yourself: ‘I want to grow old here someday’? Or ever read about a foreign culture and thought: ‘I want to live in a place like that’? Mobility today helps people around the world to take a big step and move, live and even settle in a different country. Similarly, it happened to me, I took the leap of faith and moved abroad. After an initial honeymoon-grace period, I experienced a few lows in expat life (or irreversible changes if you want to call them so) that foreigner faces if he lives abroad for a longer time. Here’s the story.

May 2018. It’s been more than 10 years since I stepped out of my home town to explore the world and live the experience abroad. 10 long-short years where I found out that experience abroad doesn’t ever leave a person, but fades, as you move on to new ones. I studied in France, I got my first professional experience in Germany, Czech Republic, Russia, and India. Each of these countries touched my soul so I left little of my heart there. And yes, when I was (still I am!) living abroad I missed my home, I missed my family, relatives, friends, I missed so many opportunities to celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries or simple weekend coffee with them. I felt lonely many times when I understood their lives back home move on too, we are no more college teenagers with open minds ready to conquer the world.

lows in expat life

And that’s the point. We all start speaking our own languages. All of us got our first grey hair, first “smiling wrinkles”, families got established, careers progressed. On dropping home for 2-week’s visit we cannot understand each other as it used to be. When people move a lot, they accumulate multiple identities, and this makes things a bit tougher when coming back home, even for a short Christmas time visit. Sounds similar? Few lows that each expat can refer to.

Stuck in limbo, neither here nor there (where to build the life?)

Visiting home country after looong time? Old places do not look familiar? Sooner than later you will notice you cannot recall that corner bar name you used to spend hours gossiping about the latest trends with your school friends. That you are lost in new city bus routes and need to check on google maps how to get to the shopping mall. That you do not have a change to buy a bus ticket and you need to use your foreign card to withdraw pocket money to pay for a taxi to get you home. And you have no idea how much a can of coke costs. You become a visitor in the place that you grew up in and slowly it turns out more distant every time you go back.

You are unconsciously getting a “double” status. Two sets of currency in your purse, debit cards, ID proofs, two addresses, two time zones in between.

You know by heart where is the embassy to get your new visa and which documents are required for this, how much time it takes and how much it costs. You mastered the cheapest and fastest flight connections online search and how to transfer money online from one country to another. You always leave home to be back home, you learned after each goodbye, there will be another hello. On the other side of the ocean.

Dual light identity (there’s nothing back home now)

After spending a couple of years abroad you will have difficulties in stating clearly, I am 100% Polish or I am 100% Indian (or any other country you wish to fill in). It will never be fully one over the other, no matter where you go. You will find many things from one culture penetrates another. You will start mixing words in sentences, start saying one thing in one language and finishing in another one. You will be offended if treated as a tourist, you are already a resident, paying taxes and having a foreign mobile number and you expect to pay local prices as well.

Little by little, you will become almost a local. It will start with learning the regional language or its regional structures but eventually you will end up knowing how to bargain as pro, how to swear in local language not to get cheated, what is the fastest way to get you home by rickshaw driver, you will know all exotic vegetables and fruits names and ways of cooking them, where are the cheapest deals in town and where best parties are held. And even you will be trying hard, you’d never become as local as someone who grew up in your new home country but still – getting this feeling of local inclusion is pretty nice.

What and where is “home”?

It becomes hard to answer the question of where your home is. Sometimes, it really is where the heart is. Sometimes, it’s where you spent your childhood or where you currently pay bills, go shopping, see a doctor when you are sick. For some of us just the place where you have your favorite couch to lie down after a tiring day or where your bank letters reach you is enough to call the place home.

Different level of communication with family (and friends)

There is unspoken magic when you meet your closes family in person after a long time. Both of you want to spend valuable time together but unknowingly you face storming. Why is my dad eating rice with fork? Why is my mom trying to hide all chilies so as they are not added to today’s lunch? Why are they expecting me to sit on the chair when I happily eat my food sitting on the floor? When you adopt new culture habits in your daily life quite a few misunderstandings would happen. Toughest weapons are taken once they all try to take you back to the civilized side (meaning the way they remembered you before your expat life). Did you come across similar situations? Compromise and understanding help if everyone is willing to adjust.

Living far from your family makes things slightly complicated even in sharing day-to-day moments, no one will be there if you are down, if you want a shoulder to cry on after hectic day and on the other hand you do not want to bother your family with all these silly small things that may make them feel unsure whether their child is ok far away from them. This feeling you are on your own, no matter if good or bad things are happening can make you stronger and will teach you how to turn off your emotional organs and stand on your feet independently, as an adult expat.

Staying away from those who care for you (and vice versa!) is hard. You will quickly learn who – out those you thought is worth being taken care of – will not stay in touch or will plan their day to simply have 10 min skype talk to share casual talk. There will be people who automatically come closer and those who naturally go away.

Foreigner-expat battles to fight (and to win)

After the honeymoon phase, the excitement of whatever new land has to offer, culture challenges will reach you. You will need to understand how to be a white skin person in the Asian world or dark skin person in the white community. You will experience one form of racism or another. You need to grow a thick skin if you want to really live in a foreign country as you still need to pay your bills, go shopping or visit a doctor when you are sick…  Grass is not always greener on the other side…

Living Peter Pan-like existences

Living abroad as an expat is an intense but wonderful experience as it gives as much as you did not get long years at home. It forces you to adapt to things that are unusual to you. You get out of your comfort zone almost every time you step out of your room. You become flexible and open to new challenges and that is the most rewarding of all: the opportunity to learn and grow as a person because you discover things about yourself that you may not have known before.

There are many more lessons you learn. You understand that if you are persistently striving for a goal, then a lot is really within our reach. And while others will say that you have no experience, that it is difficult, that it is not for you, then if you believe in yourself and work hard, you can do it. Thanks to this experience, today it is much easier for me to live, it is much easier to believe in yourself.

Still, the main concern is that while being temporarily abroad, there might be a time when you start thinking of coming back to your old home country or move on to a new place. End of contract? Spouse got a job in a new location? Or simply you want to move on? At the moment of repatriation the recent traveler finds him/herself in a situation where a new job needs to be found, new accommodation arranged, and social ties renewed. Starting over and over again it seems. Is there any good time to put down roots permanently for once in your life?

Have any more lessons learned? Share them below!

I would love to hear your comments on this! How is your expat life-changing? Do you have any more suggestions or a question that I haven’t answered? Thank you very much for reading this article. I am curious if you have/had any experience of yours? Any comments? – please share your experience. And if you liked the article – share it, click “Like it” and subscribe to my newsletter.

picture source: picjumbo