No one really understands what it’s like being an expat (especially if they’ve never done it themselves), and unfortunately, the things listed below are all part of the price we pay being expats. I’ve learned a lot since moving abroad, and most expats struggle with these things I’ve listed below just comes with the gig. Moving abroad is not easy and, as always, our goal is to help others who are in the process. We hope this list of common challenges that expats often struggle with will give you some comfort in the fact that you are not alone. And if you’re still in the process of moving, these are somethings to be prepared for.
1: Maintaining relationships with friends and family back home.
Maintaining long-distance relationships and staying connected with your friends and family after you move abroad is not easy. Life gets so damn busy, time-zones are a pain to work around and—the sad reality—out of sight, out of mind. It’s even more difficult at times when friends and family back home don’t understand the emotional rollercoaster that emigrating can be. As a result, don’t be surprised if some of your friends do not take proactive steps to maintain the relationship with you. They actually still love you.
You might be noticing this now because of social-distancing, but people are much more candid in person. While all the incessant video chats are feeling a little awkward now, it’s practice for when (or if) you move. The way I see it, social-distancing is kind of like a trial run—times infinitum. Human connection from afar is a skill, and you’ll have to practice to keep up.
2: Missing friends and family (and all the big life events that happen without you).
It’s inevitable: expats struggle with missing all the things about their previous life, but most of all, the people who used to fill it. The thing is expressing that sadness and loss often leads to unsympathetic comments from loved ones about how ‘you chose this!‘ The thing is, actively choosing to be apart from loved ones does not change the fact that we are sad about missing this event, or seeing that person. Our choice to emigrate from South Africa came with a cost, and it hurt, even as we chose to pay it.
3: Visiting Home—and then saying Goodbye, again. 💔
Visits home are always chaotic. With the need to max out quality time with everyone that you can, you end up juggling a lunch with the parents, coffee with a friend, a quick stop by so-and-so’ house to get some last minute time in with them and then, of course, a dinner with another friend after work (because they’ve still got to work). While it’s necessary to reconnect in person, it’s so hard to be in vacation-mode when everyone else isn’t. Your annual vacation becomes a tour of visits to all your loved ones which can become exhausting.
Then the cherry on top of a chaotic vacation: the realization that I’m going to have to say goodbye to my mom. It’s something we’ve done so many times before but it doesn’t get easier. It feels a lot like breaking our parents heart every time we leave them—and you can’t fix it.
4: The expectation of visiting and to not be visited. (It sucks!)
Unfortunately, as the expat, you’re expected to make the long trek to visit family. While we’re fortunate to have family who have made the trip to see us more than once (something not all expats have experienced), we’ve definitely spent more time and money visiting them. But that’s how it goes, ‘because we were the ones who chose to leave them’. That expectation of visiting home becomes more obvious when you choose to vacation somewhere else. Cue next struggle.
5: Choosing between visiting family or vacationing somewhere new.
To be totally honest, I feel guilty just admitting this, but the choice has become harder. The first few years, it was a no-brainer to visit ‘home’ whenever we got the chance. Homesickness was reeling us in and the invites gave us the added nudge we needed to book flights: weddings, big birthdays and important life events that ‘we just couldn’t miss‘. But four years in, we’re starting to feel the financial effects of annual (sometimes, bi-annual) visits. Like we said, most expats struggle with visiting home and don’t consider these trips as holidays—and we would agree!
Clearly, we love to travel—for most of the past four years in Canada we have opted to travel over furnishing our own home. As we slow down on travel, to try settle into our new life and home in Calgary, we’re often faced with the decision: travel home to see family or travel somewhere new for an actual vacation? And well, what would you choose?
6: Guilt, it comes with the gig!
Guilt over not communicating with loved ones back home because life gets busy. Guilt over missing out on big life events because we can’t afford several flights a year. Guilt over aging parents. The guilt you’ll feel over enjoying your new life while others struggle back home, or feeling selfish, or not doing enough. You get the picture. It’s a never-ending list of guilt that can consume you if you let it—I’ve been there.
7: The Blues (a.k.a. ‘Expat Depression’—it’s a real thing!)
No one actually talks about this but many studies have shown that expatriates may be at greater risk of mental health problems, often manifesting in the form of expat depression. It’s a common challenge when adjusting to a new culture that you will feel out of place and lonely, and that can lead to a type of situational depression. Moving, for many, is comparable to the death of a loved one and grieving a previous life is strange. I’ve written about my experience with expat depression; signs and symptoms as well as ways to manage your expat depression here.
8: Making new friends as adults (who would have thought).
Making new friends as adults is already difficult. I mean, can you even remember the last time that you—as an adult—made a friend? Throw in a few cultural differences, expat blues, plus the awkwardness of remembering how to make friends and you have yourself a weird mix of social anxiety that you’ve never felt before (Was i always this awkward?!). It’s no wonder we start missing home or feeling symptoms of expat depression.
Almost all expats struggle to make friends in their new city and yet it’s one of thing things you need to do: find a support system other than your immediate family. We all take for granted our established connections back home. Much like being home without a support system would be hard (imagine you were the only one left in South Africa), starting a new life without one is tough. Most of us don’t even know where to begin finding friends that we can connect with, who can understand us on a level that our friends back home do.
9: Dealing with unsupportive family members or friends (and the comments).
There’s nothing more upsetting that family members who throw out unsupportive comments about your move, especially while you’re going through the thick of it. The thing I try remember is that family members are trying to come to grips with the fact that you have left and are probably not coming back. It’s a loss and grief of their own. Neither easier nor worse than ours; feelings are valid no matter what. Support needs to be a two way street: for days that they are struggling help them with what they need; for days that you are struggling reach out for the support you need.
10: Being misunderstood (because no one gets it until they’ve done it) —and that’s okay too.
I’ve only recently come to the conclusion that I will never be able to explain just how life has changed for us. To the family members back home, who have stayed in the comfort of their familiar bubble, it’s been hard to justify certain decisions we’ve made for ourselves. Their judgments can feel unkind and unsupportive in the moment. But you also need to realize that they cannot begin to understand the emotional rollercoaster you’ve been through, and you can show them grace in their ignorance. You are misunderstood for a reason; they haven’t been through what you have.
Have you experienced any of these common challenges that expats struggle with?
We’d love to hear about your own experience as an expat and if you’ve faced any of these common challenges. What have you struggled with? How has it improved? The reality is that the more we share, the more we realize that we are not alone. We all go through this (some in lesser degrees) and we need to support each other through it together, because no one else will understand what you have gone through, except us.
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