They say ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, which is a fairly brutal way of saying ‘don’t worry, it will get better and you will be the better for it.’ Either of these phrases may be exactly what newly arrived expats are hoping to hear.
It can be an overwhelming time, being afflicted with a strong dose of culture shock, recovering from jetlag and suddenly struck with acute homesickness.A triple whammy of unpleasant emotions await expats on first landing, making the early days of living overseas the worst to endure.
It’s a sharp learning curve, packing a lifetime of sessions into a few manic days. You’ll be getting a crash course in the language, local customs, the foibles of international finance, project managements and your own personality. Even the most organized expat faces a few days of scrambling to deal with all the little jobs that are generated by a move, each one frustrated by an unfamiliar culture and a lack of whatever paperwork may be needed. Thankfully, things do get easier, and you rapidly find yourself better equipped to deal with the next round of challenges.
As you strike out into this alien world in which you find yourself, starting work, enrolling the kids at school and setting up numerous utility bills, you’ll be amazed by how quickly you are getting the hang of things.
There are a million different lessons that expats have learned from their experiences around the world, from how to haggle in the market to navigating the labyrinthine London Underground.
Finding the lessons which all expats report isn’t easy, but here are five that do recur, common across the expat experience.
This is not easy
A well-prepared expat will have a rough idea about how much stress is involved, but until you get there, you just can’t comprehend it. Not only are you in a headspin of confusion from arriving, you’ll still be expected to go in to start your new job, to settle the kids in at school and start meeting the neighbours.
Anyone dreaming of sun-kissed beaches and refreshing cocktails can keep dreaming: there is a long list of things that need to be dealt with first.
Alison Cornford-Matheson, a nomadic Canadian who blogs at cheeseweb.eu, explains that many expats underestimate the stress of day-to-day tasks. “Expat life certainly isn’t all about glamorous international travel and fitting in with the locals,” she writes. “There are still bills to pay, laundry that piles up, rude people to deal with, and a million other stressful situations you would deal with, wherever you live.”
Newly arrived expats struggle, not just with the burden of the extra work, but with the stress that these tasks cause. Trying to establish yourself in a new you, learning the layout of a new city as well as setting up bank accounts, internet suppliers and a new driving licence would drive anyone to distraction. Try doing all those things at the same time in an unfamiliar language, in a sea of strange red tape, without any of the required documents and without a shoulder to cry on afterwards.
New arrivals probably won’t have trusted friends to turn to and let loose with all their frustrations, and confidants from back home just won’t understand. Communicate with your spouse and find ways of dividing the labour, but also be supportive of each other’s struggles.
Remember, you are not alone and every successful expat has gotten through those awful first few weeks.
You don’t fit in
Even if you speak the language fluently and have an understanding of the culture, you are only borrowing them. The locals have grown up in their culture and understand it in ways that you never will.
Accept that you can respect the culture, exist within it and even enjoy experimenting with it, but you’ll have to find a balancing act between your heritage and the local traditions. This is especially true if you are living overseas with kids.
Youngsters are often quick to adapt to new ways of doing things and just as quick to forget how things used to be done. If you’re heading back home after your time overseas you need to keep them familiar with how things are done at home in order to minimize culture shock when they return.
Older expats often complain of rudeness, bad drivers, bad food and a myriad of things which grate their nerves. In reality these irritations are just differences between cultures, things that need to be accepted and even enjoyed. Trying to battle against them is just going to lead to more frustration. If the country doesn’t queue in shops, you can’t force shoppers to line up. If your colleagues bluntly comment on your appearance, accept it and return the favour.
Even if you start to feel settled and part of the crowd, you may be reminded by the locals that you stand out. Older Japanese people on the street may gasp in amazement and point out the “Gaijin” or “Foreigner”.
Expats in Thailand may need to grease the wheels to get their businesses off the ground. Frances Khetrat, a Brit running a bar on the beaches of Railay, told the BBC that she faces stricter rules than Thai competitors. “You get penalised a lot for being a foreigner,” she said. “I’ve had to do things in a much more official way than Thai-owned businesses – and I had lots of visits from people checking I had the right permits and licenses, which is often quite complicated to get right.”
Fundamentally, the adventure of living overseas is about exploring these cultural differences, learning how to play along and enjoy them. You can actually use your differentness to your advantage, opting to duck out of particularly uncomfortable traditions, but also to make friends.
Everyone is curious about strange new arrivals in the neighbourhood, so be open to those strangers asking questions and be ready to introduce them to your culture as much as you learn about theirs from them. Invite new friends over to celebrate your national holidays or to partake in festivities, and let them explore your culture as you explore theirs.
You will miss family and friends more than you thought
You have probably accepted that you won’t be seeing your nearest and dearest on a daily basis. But you may not have given much thought to exactly how much you will miss them.
You’ll be thousands of miles away when they come together to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, engagements and weddings. You’ll be sat on your own, writing congratulatory emails and toasting them from afar. There may be new additions to the family that you won’t meet, boyfriends who become husbands who become fathers in the the time that you are away. Nephews and nieces may go from bumps to bundles of joy to toddling tots before you ever get to meet them. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that life goes on, and even if you are in the thoughts of loved ones, they will not put their lives on hold until you get back.
As well as new faces joining the clan, you need to accept that you may lose people while you are away. Aging relatives may become ill, accidents may happen and illness may strike. It’s possible that you may face the agonising dilemma of flying home to say goodbye, or hope that the patient’s health improves. In the event that the worst does happen, you may not be able to fly back in time for the funeral.
It’s not just extreme cases in which loneliness will strike. Sometimes you’ll just need a shoulder to cry on or a supportive hug, reassurance that someone cares for you and that you aren’t as alone as you feel. Thanks to Skype, social media, email and web messaging, it’s easier than ever to carry on a conversation across oceans, but that’s no substitute for human contact.
Remember to keep in contact with home, but don’t waste time in reaching out to people in your new neighbourhood. The friends you make overseas are likely to be closer and more dear to you than some people you have known for years. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, join clubs, talk to strangers and reach out to fellow expats as well as locals to start building a support network.
Your mind will not be as open as you thought it would be
Throw on the national dress, start munching the national dish and learn as much local slang as you can. As hard as you try, there will be some things you just won’t be able to take on board. Any expat living abroad has to balance their desire to experience the culture with their own preconceived ideas.
Once you’ve finished reeling from the sucker punch of culture shock, you’ll start the process, consciously or otherwise, of evaluating how much of the culture you are willing to take on board. Of course, any expat living in another country needs to play by its rules up to a point. It may be impossible to get by without a basic grasp of the language, or without paying officials a few extra notes to get things done.
You may find that your upbringing in one society makes it difficult for you to respect cultural norms in another. Growing up in a liberal western culture, it can be galling to live in a country that outlaws homosexuality or doesn’t afford women equal rights. Conversely, you could find revealing clothing in some countries to be shocking.
Any daydreams of becoming fully integrated, naturalised and adjusted and part of society will quickly be replaced with a practical balancing act, blending your beliefs with adopted habits.
Remember to keep a sense of perspective. It may be that the things that are driving you nuts aren’t offensive to you, they’re just different. Service with a smile in North America is the norm, but in Europe grinning sales assistants are sometimes seen as disingenuous and false, so the grimacing clerk at the grocery store isn’t being rude, just honest.
Whenever your defences go up and you find yourself recoiling from a situation, take a deep breath and analyse what’s going on. Are you offended or just surprised? Frank, a Canadian living in Croatia, took some time to adjust when supermarket workers would chat to other customers whilst serving him. “When people chat with a cashier in a supermarket, they are not trying to mess with you,” he wrote on his blog, frankaboutcroatia.com. “They are just chatting. Keep your calm. Relax and go with the flow. Try to use these queues to learn the language. Listen and challenge yourself in understanding what they talk about.”
Learn to laugh or you’ll cry
A lot of the challenges you face will seem bizarre, unfair and utterly ridiculous. Take a mental step back and imagine telling the story to friends over a glass of wine. You’ll quickly realise how amusing expat life can be.
Whether you are battling with the bank or struggling with a street peddler, you’ll see fairly quickly that most situations lend themselves to an injection of humour. Find ways to laugh at the challenges that come your way, not just in order to entertain dinner party guests, but as a coping mechanism for yourself.
Taking everything to heart and getting angry every time an obstacle is put in your way will only make you more miserable and focused on the negative aspects of live overseas.
Stop sweating the small stuff and accept that things are different, don’t reference how things were done at home as ‘normal’ and stop yourself from being stressed about the variation. This way, when something big does crop up, you’re not already battling with a head full of stress.
Just being able to laugh at a situation helps to shrink it and make it seem more manageable. Being on the other side of the world and feeling totally overwhelmed can be panic-inducing. But laughing in the face of disaster can inspire confidence and bravery.
Do you have any tips on dealing with life as a new expat? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer