Everyone knows that life overseas offers opportunities that life at home just cannot match. Expats can look forward to sunny climes and laid back lifestyles or the electric thrum of a vibrant, busy city.
We all accept that we will have to learn our way around new streets, perhaps learn to speak a new language and to operate in an alien culture.For most expats, this is part of the appeal, reinventing ourselves from urbane Londoner to relaxed Sicilian or from a fashion-conscious Parisian to a casually dressed citizen of the world.
As well as adopting the national dress, learning the lingo and dining on the delicacies, you’ll find yourself transformed in a number of deeper, longer lasting ways. Living overseas isn’t just about walking the walk, it’s about talking the talk and thinking the thoughts as well.
It’s impossible to live, work and play with a people without finding yourself sharing in their outlook on life. Even the busiest, brusquest New Yorker has to slow down and appreciate life when living in Barcelona.
These changes might be big alterations to your personality, switching around your worldview and challenging your politics. There may be epiphany moments where you realise your eyes have been opened, horizons expanded and mind blown by a close encounter with another culture.
Equally, changes to your values may be slower and more subtle, with your nearest and dearest pointing them out to you after you return. You may also find that old habits of yours just don’t seem natural any more, or that the things you used to love about home are now jarring and alien.
In some cases, this is just reverse culture shock. When arriving back at home, surrounded by a language you understand and a different pace of life, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Where you used to love the convenience of fast food, you’ll now crave homemade delicacies.
But once culture shock has subsided, there will still be niggling little annoyances and irks about your fellow countrymen and your home culture. Why does nobody talk to each other? Why is the city so dirty? Why does everybody take work so seriously?
When this is the case, you’ll know for sure that your time overseas has changed your values and that you are looking at your old life with new eyes.
Read through our list of the most commonly reported changes that expats report in themselves after living abroad.
You’re not too proud to ask for help
This is probably one that kicks in very early in an expat’s time overseas.
Almost as soon as you land, you can start sinking into the mire of confusion and cultural misunderstanding that plagues the first few jet-lagged hours after arriving. Sure, you can struggle through on your own, negotiating the airport, bus timetables, confusing street maps and social graces of the city. Or you could just turn to a friendly face and ask for help.
We’re brought up to avoid approaching strangers, especially those we have trouble communicating with and even more so if we are already lost and confused.
A seasoned expat knows that there is nothing more valuable than local knowledge, with a simple enquiry often yielding a wealth of useful information.
Trying to get everything done by yourself is a sure-fire way to cause stress and upset, but as Spanish Angie Castells found during her time in Edinburgh, asking for help can be a reward in itself. “When you live abroad, the simplest task can become a huge challenge,” she wrote at masedimburgo.com. “Processing paperwork, finding the right word, knowing which bus to take. There’s always moments of distress, but you’re soon filled with more patience than you ever knew you had in you.”
You are more comfortable being uncomfortable
Everyone has a comfort zone. A safe area they are happy to occupy and remain in. Expats have to very quickly venture out of theirs and start renegotiating its boundaries.
Suddenly you may be in a hot, humid city, with no air-con in sight. Where once you would have avoided anything approaching a sweat, you now exist in a permanent state of sticky, damp perspiration. Everyone else is hot, so there’s no reason to be bothered by it.
You’ll soon become accustomed to travelling in cramped minivans, with someone else’s luggage on your knees and a chicken perched on your shoulder. Where once you would have demanded some personal space, you’ll now share a laugh and even a bite to eat with your fellow travellers.
And it’s not just cramped transport that will push your boundaries. You’ll soon adjust your standards for hygiene too, as Whitney Cox found in Asia; “my first expat breakdown happened in Vietnam over hygiene. I was sick to death of lax standards in restaurants and markets, of dirty glasses and grubs clinging to my lettuce.”
“Of course, there’s nothing I could do about the national pandemic of hair in my food—it was a case of patience or perish,” Cox writes at bootsnall.com. “I knew I had come full circle when an American friend came to visit and a rat ran across the floor of the restaurant where we were eating, causing her to recoil slightly. “Yeah, that happens,” I explained, shovelling noodles into my mouth.”
You don’t worry about ‘normal’
Teenagers worry about ‘being normal’ and adults spend vast amounts of money trying to blend in with their peers. Then there are the expats, who pick and choose what they like in order to create their own ‘normal’.
Everything is weird, strange, or unusual when you first land. That doesn’t mean one country does it better or worse, they just do it differently. The sooner expats accept that ‘this is the way it happens here’, the sooner they can start to make the system work for them.
Considering how much variation there can be in manners, habits and attitudes within one country, it’s hardly surprising that different countries have entirely different ways of doing things.
As Cox found in Vietnam, what is polite in one country is rude in another. “To get the attention of a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant subtle hand signals or eye contact won’t cut it: it is imperative that you shout “Hey you!” as loud as you can,” she writes.
“Did this make me feel like a jerk? Absolutely. But after a few weeks, I decided that it makes me feel like less of a jerk than sitting around waiting to be doted on like a princess. It’s all relative.”
You are more confident
You’ve flown to another country and set up a new life. You have every right to feel confident; you’ve done something amazing.
In fact, you’ve done several thousand amazing things, conquering daily challenges that non-expats can’t even consider. You’ve set up a bank account without speaking a word of the language, you’ve beaten local candidates to win a lucrative job, and you’ve done all this without the help of family or friends.
Being on your own, far from home, can be terrifying, but it’s also empowering to realise that you are the only person who can make a success of your time overseas. You’ll learn to ask for what you want and not to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Aylin Erman, an American living in Istanbul reports, “to get things done here, you have to skip the niceties, talk louder, and push harder.” She wrote for OrganicAuthority.com, “I know that I am taken less seriously than a man would be (and by a much larger margin than in the U.S.), so out of necessity, I have to rise to the challenge in order to get things done in the workplace and out on the streets in everyday life.”
You can make strong friendships quickly, and learn to walk away
It’s bittersweet, but expats tend to be good at making new friends wherever they go, quickly establishing a rapport and meaningful connection. On the other hand, they are just as good at saying goodbye and moving on alone.
You’ll miss your friends and they will miss you, but you are both chasing what you want to get out of life and that may pull you apart.
As Manon De Heus writes for elitedaily.com, “choosing different paths ends friendships, just like it ends most relationships. It’s inevitable, and it’s life, but that doesn’t make it easy. By losing friends, you lose a part of yourself and your history.”
‘Home’ becomes a relative term
Home is where the heart is. But it can be where little bits of your heart have fallen in love with. Living overseas may divorce you from the country you were born in, making you feel a little more footloose in the world.
Much like the concept of ‘normal’ expats are able to adapt ‘home’ to suit their needs at any given time. Home is wherever you lay down your favourite blanket, set up your laptop or put up your favourite pictures.
Home can also be any city you’ve never visited before, just as long as you meet some friends there.
You become less materialistic
If you can’t put it in a suitcase, it has to stay behind. Even if your employer is picking up the bill, it’s expensive and difficult to ship everything overseas.
Instead you have to strip back your possessions to those things that really matter; essential documents and gadgets, a sentimental trinket and some comfy clothes. Moving back again is just as spartan, with acquired items given away or binned in an effort to keep luggage weights down.
Even the most fashion-conscious, materialistic expat soon learns to value memories and friendships over objects and possessions.
You are less tolerant
Being free of peer pressure and cultural norms, you are free to make your own decisions and to pursue them as you see fit. Consequently, you’ll become less patient with those who can’t make up their minds.
On returning home, you’ll surely be irritated by those around you who complain endlessly, especially when the conditions you have returned from are much less hospitable.
It’s easy for the transient expat to avoid getting close to negative people and to be stubborn enough in refusing to let their complaints ruin a good thing.
Intolerance and ignorance are unpleasant whenever they are encountered, but to hear this from privileged fellow countrymen after your return is particularly galling. You’ll find yourself biting your tongue or attempting to re-educate these individuals.
You are braver
Expat life can be lonely. You are on your own and it’s down to you to get things done. So roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.
Even the most daunting of tasks can be conquered with the application of will and determination. After all, bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability to get things done in spite of it.
You know yourself a lot better
There’s nothing better than complete cultural disorientation to reset your compass. You’ll have been stripped of possessions, cleansed of preconceptions and reborn as a new, simpler person.
Things you once held dear will become unimportant and you will be a lot more open to those things that interest you and less tolerant of those that offend you.
You’ll have been through setbacks, made lifelong friends and achieved things you thought were impossible. And you’ll have only yourself to blame or thank for the results.
Looking back on the world that you left behind at home, you may wonder if you can ever go back to a world of hum-drum nine-to-five career work. It may be that you are acutely aware of your own desires and are now filled with the self confidence to go chase those dreams.
You’ll be acutely aware of your strengths and weaknesses, along with those values that you hold too dear to compromise on.
In which ways did you change after you moved abroad? Share your experiences in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer