What it's REALLY like being an expat
This is the first in a series of posts about the “Expat Life”.
It’s not one long vacation. Things become ordinary, even in your new home.
When I told people I was moving to Ireland, the responses were extremely positive 99% of the time. People were so excited, which was great! BUT as time went on, people started treating my time in Ireland as if I were constantly on holiday, but that’s obviously not the case. Moving abroad for the long term means you still have commitments! For example, I might be talking to a family friend about the struggle while on a trip back home and the response often goes along the lines of “Yeah but you live in Ireland!!” as if Ireland is a special place where everyone’s problems just disappear.
You may have moved to this other country for work, for education or simply because you wanted a change. All of those are valid and exciting reasons to another country, but none of those are a vacation where you get to relax all the time. It’s just choosing to embrace life’s problems in a new place that excites you, brings you a new kind of happiness or a allows you to be a part of a cultural lifestyle that suits you best.
Homesickness is much more than just missing home.
Every expat is probably familiar with the lingering feelings of homesickness. Every once in a while a snapchat from home gives you serious FOMO, or when a national holiday rolls around you miss the old times when you would celebrate with friends.
That sort of missing feeling is what most people think homesickness is like, but the reality is: homesickness can present itself in so many other ways too. Sometimes it looks like anger. Say for example you’re in a grocery store looking for a specific ingredient and you cannot find it ANYWHERE yet you KNOW it would be quick to find at home. Suddenly you find yourself peeved as hell that something as simple as a boxed cake mix is nowhere to be found! Underneath that anger is the reality that you are homesick.
Homesickness can also be physical. That feeling in your gut when all you want is your mom to make you some chicken noodle soup can have some serious effects on your body. Homesickness can often act like stress. It can upset our bellies, stress us out enough to make us break out and impact our eating habits.
Homesickness can seriously impact your mental health too. Think about it: you are uprooting your whole LIFE, probably on your own, and jumping into a new world. You are starting from scratch. You will have to make new friends, find your way around on public transport, and will probably embarrass yourself at some point in front of locals. All of that can take a toll, especially if you lean towards being a bit more introverted or have issues with social anxiety. Those lonely nights in the beginning where you don’t have a new best friend yet absolutely can make you feel down about yourself and facilitate mental health issues. If you moved to a country that speaks a different language than you do, that feeling of initial isolation absolutely can bring your mental health down.
Knowing this, it’s important to take care of yourself physically from the very start. Eat right. Exercise. Get outside and try to be engaged in the new world you’ve dropped yourself into. By taking care of your physical health, you’ll be able enough to attend to your mental health as well.
It makes you see your former home country in a new light.
This one may be obvious, but it is so true! When you move to a different country, you start to see your place of origin in a whole new light. Some things you notice may be negative – like how many preservative are in American food, while others will be positive – like how much better the healthcare system back home is! This is all part of the package of being an expat. You’ll grow and learn to appreciate what your old home offered, while embracing the positive changes in your new home.
You somehow become an ambassador for your home country without signing up for that job
As an American, this is especially relevant. People in your new home might often assume you know everything there is to know about the politics, current events and pop culture events in your old country. It’s as if just because you’re from that place you’re supposed to know everything about the place! During the previous election in The States this was especially true for all American expats. I myself constantly got questions like “who is going to win the election do you think?” or “how does America actually feel about Trump?” as if I could speak on the behalf of our entire nation.
You will NEVER please everyone
There will always be a dissenter around when it comes to your reasons for moving to a new country. I once was volunteering back in The States at a retirement home on Valentine’s Day during my senior year of college. A resident asked me about my plans after graduation and I explained to her that I wanted to move to Dublin. She proceeded to tell me that I was awful for wanting to move away and do psychological research in Ireland and instead I should be attending to the problems going on at home and not leave my family.
It happens. Not everyone will understand your motivation to move out of your home country. Some people may take it as a personal slight. What matters is to surround yourself with the people who are supporting you.
You’ll likely catch quite a few colds/illnesses in the first year
New places means new germs, especially if you’re moving to a big city! Public transport is ripe for new strains of germs that might knock you on your butt every few months. Don’t worry though, with time your immunity will build itself back up. If you’re smart about washing your hands and do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle, you’ll pull through all the sneezing, sniffles and coughs in no time. Also, often times other countries have different type of herbal medicines and that you might not be able to get back where you came from. You’d be surprised what works!
Moving to a different country is NOTHING like studying abroad as an undergraduate.
I think this is quite a common misconception. Don’t get me wrong, studying abroad is supposed to be challenging, but when you study abroad, almost everything is facilitated for you. Many times your housing is found for you, you don’t have to get a job while studying abroad, and you’re most likely in a cohort of people similar to you who you can befriend, embarrass yourself with, travel with, maybe live with, and basically lean on while you’re abroad. Sure, you may not have met anyone in your program and yeah you might not speak the language as the locals but at least you and everyone in your study abroad group can go through the trials and tribulations together.
Actually becoming an expat it nothing like that at all. You probably have to find your own housing (which can be insanely stressful, you have to force yourself to get out into the world when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and cry because you can’t find white cheddar Cheez-Its anywhere, and you probably aren’t automatically part of a cohort who are just like you all of the time.
As a graduate student, you might have access to socials and special events geared towards making friends through your international office, which can definitely be a big help making friends in a new place. If you’re starting work at a new company, there might be scheduled socials, mixers and team events there as well, so I would highly recommend for any new expat to look into those types of things because a study abroad company isn’t going to do it for you.
This point is really important to me to emphasize because when I moved to Ireland, I had already studied abroad there before, meaning I had this idea that it would be just as easy to socialize, get out there and embrace the amazing city that is Dublin the second time around. I now know that notion was completely wrong and when things didn’t happen quite that easily, it was very easy for me to get down on myself, when in reality I shouldn’t have put those expectations on what my experience in Dublin again would be like in the first place.
There is something about moving to another country that makes your gratitude for all sorts of things skyrocket. Firstly, not everyone is fortunate enough to move to a new country on their own accord and initiative. If you are moving to another country for a job you’re stoked about, to be with someone you love, or just because you can, that’s a privilege and as you settle into the expat lifestyle, that privilege will settle on you. You will start to feel gratitude for the circumstances that put you in the position to be able to choose where you take your life.
A New Country = New Music
You will be exposed to new music that you like without even trying. It’s simple. Being in a new place means there are new musical artists only know to that area (for the time being). You can impress your friends back home by showing them new music that’s only just come out in your new country (don’t we all have a little hipster inside of us?).
You will also probably be exposed to old music that is engrained in the pop culture of your new country. For me, living in Ireland, this was the boy band Westlife and the girl band Girls Aloud. These bands were huge in the UK and Ireland during the nineties and early 2000s and are still played at every ball or when we’re out on the town. You’ll soon learn all the words and will singing with the rest of them which is always a good time.
(Hopefully) You’ll Learn to find the Humour in the Human Condition
The expat lifestyle is ripe for chaos and hilarious human error. It’s inevitable that at some point you will embarrass yourself due to cultural difference, lack of street knowledge or poor understanding of local vernacular. In fact, little fuck-ups will probably happen a lot, especially in the first year. They might happen so frequently that you slowly start letting going of the annoyance when little things happen and just learn to embrace them with laughter. After a year in Dublin, I find this to be very true. Sometimes it’s something as simple as asking your Irish friend for a ride somewhere (in Ireland, ride = doing it) or screwing up how many coins you were supposed to give the man behind the counter. Living abroad gives you an appreciation for how silly the human condition really is, even after you've been an expat for a while.
You become more worldly…
Especially if you’re an American! Once you move and settle into a new country, you’d be amazed at how well educated people are on current events. I still find myself surprised by how engaged Irish people are in American politics, but also current events and politics from around the world. When you move to another country, you will quickly become engaged in social, economic and political on goings of other areas in the world simply because they're more talked about. It’s almost as if moving to a new country jolts you out of the comfortability around being unengaged in these things because you’re being jolted out of everything else already. This may be especially true if you’re moving to a bigger city than what you are used. Cities hold many more people who have seen the world and play a part in its on goings.
You’ll find beauty and enjoyment in the little things (that locals may never notice!)
When you move to a new country, at first everything will be new. Left and right there will always be something for your eyes to linger on that a local citizen may not appreciate or even notice. As you walk through the streets of your new home, you’ll probably appreciate the random things that make this new home special and different. For example, I live in South East Dublin, where no matter where you are, you can ALWAYS see the open ocean as long as you know which way to look. Even if it’s just a sliver. As someone incredibly drawn to the sea, I constantly find myself appreciating this. Yet, when I pointed this out to my landlord as one of the reasons why I love Dublin, she said she had never even given a thought or stopped to think about how wonderful it is to be by the sea all the time.
For you it could be as something as the funny noise the metro doors make when they close, or the same stray dog who is always outside of your favourite bakery – who knows! But I bet you that most of the locals around haven’t stopped to think about how special those random little things really are. Finding the beauty in the little things make life quite enjoyable and is just another great thing about being an expat that a lot of people don’t talk about.
BEING AN EXPAT IS AWESOME
When you get past those first few colds, the homesickness and feeling like an outsider, it’s worth everything you went through to get there. Being expat makes you a risk taker, a darer, a comedian and so much more. Hopefully you’ll make new friends, meet new people, and open new doors that could lead you somewhere even more incredible than you thought possible. Perhaps you’ll fall in love, or find new passions. Whatever it is you end up doing as an expat, it’s awesome. You will slowly find yourself becoming a part of something new and maybe bigger and that’s a really neat feeling to have.