Things I Have Learnt from Moving Abroad as a South African Moving to Canada

May 3, 2022

I wrote this a year into our move to Canada. At the time i had felt like the hardest thing I had ever had to do. Here’s what I learned.

True to my realist nature, I had to write a post on my experience as a South African moving abroad to Canada. I sure wish someone had told me some of these hard truths before I emigrated from South Africa. It probably would not have changed my mind about moving, but it would have changed my expectations; my approach and inevitably helped the adjustment period. I actually wrote this post as a letter to myself at the peak of my struggle while adjusting to Canada (little did I know, I was probably suffering from Expat Depression), so reading it back was tough. Not being able to work, drive, get my own bank card, or vent to any one other than Craig (my husband & the main reason I was in Canada) made things even more difficult. But again, these are the realities you face when immigrating to Canada. I’ve since qualified as an Immigration Consultant and started my own business focused on helping others get to Canada, beyond just the paperwork. You can find out more here.

Moving Abroad is not a walk in the park (for most people).

And I’m not just referring to the tons paperwork, costs and admin involved, because there’s a lot of that too. Mostly, I’m referring to the fact that once you move, you uproot your entire life, leaving behind your loved ones to start your life all over again, in a very different culture and climate. While the long term goal might be for the better, the process will be long, and difficult.

We’ve blogged about all the admin and paperwork we needed to immigrate to Canada, but it was and is so much more than that. Preparing mentally for what was about to come was the biggest struggle. We underestimated the serious life decision we were making, and by doing so, we weren’t prepared for the emotional moments that would inevitably come up. We had no idea about these things would become almost daily struggles as an expat.

Do not take this decision lightly.

Moving abroad is not, and should not, be something you can just decide on a whim. Do your due diligence. Read up on everything you can so you can adjust your expectations. Consider the cost of living, healthcare costs, property prices and your potential earnings (minus taxes). Realize that initial set-up costs are going to stall your entire life. You might not be able to travel, you may have to make do with one car shared in a household and you may take a year (or years in our case) to fully furnish your house. Be sure you really want this. Be all in or nothing because if it doesn’t work, it’s not as simple as just moving again.

You’ll need a year or two to just settle in.

Be prepared for the time it will take you to settle down — some need much longer than others to truly call your new country ‘home’. It’s an individual process dependent on so many factors. Don’t expect it to happen any sooner and don’t pressurize yourself to settle faster. Give it time, you’ll need it. Nearly two years later, I still call South Africa “home”.

Consider why you are moving.

Ideally, you should be making this huge life-changing decision for the right reasons — long term reasons —and it has to be worth the move. Trust me, you’ll need to know exactly why you made this move so that you can remind yourself over and over when the time comes. In fact, maybe write it down and keep it somewhere accessible (it will become important later).

Strained finances make this much harder. 

Come with a plan based on all your research and enough money to survive the adjustment period. Plus extra, for just in case because let’s be real, shit happens, and so do unexpected expenses. You don’t want to be caught in the dark in a foreign country. Nor do you want to be stressed about every penny. Get on top of it from day one. If that means meeting with an accountant or financial advisor, do it.

Moving Abroad to Canada

Know the reality & be realistic.

If you can, visit the country you’re moving to during the worst weather, and do not play tourist. Go and see how the locals live, work, play and shop. Here is a post I wrote about some of the things you should know about living in Canada. Know what you’re getting yourself into and critically assess whether this lifestyle is what you envision yourself excelling in. Is this a life you can live? These are hard questions, but it’s the time to ask tough questions. I answer some of them here.

Read: What To Know About Living in Canada

Don’t presume to know any other country that you have not lived in.

Do not expect your new country to compare in any way to your home country. Every country, city and town has a completely different culture, mind-set, work ethic, educational system, housing and more. Most of it might even seem completely bizarre to you. This is called culture-shock and you’ll deal with it on a daily basis. Culture shock may be triggered by anything, but the usual culprits are the differences in living situations, food, transportation, and social mannerisms.

At first, the excitement of a new place will keep you going. (The Honeymoon Phase)

The reality of the move may only hit months later once the novelty has worn off. Like a holiday, you will reach a point when you feel like it’s time to go home. Except now, you can’t.

Your attitude is what will make it work, or not.

Be prepared for the good times and the bad times; it’s part of life and especially part of expat life. You will have to adapt to everything, and you need to be open-minded with a good sense of humour and tons of patience! I’ll say it again, this process is no walk in the park, but your attitude could make a huge difference. Be proactive, be positive and do what you have to to make this experience better for you.

Real Talk: Moving Abroad Caused Me Struggle with Expat Depression — and Here’s What Helped.

You won’t know it at first, but moving abroad involves a lot of risk and sacrifice.

In our case, what we gained in first-world proficiency, safety, travel opportunities and job security, we sacrificed in our day-to-day lifestyle, our culture and time with our loved ones. For each person it will be different. It’s a balance and, hopefully, it weighs down more on your new country so you feel like you made the right choice (most of the time). Nonetheless, there will still be days when you question everything. You WILL wonder what you are even doing here. It is normal and all part of the process.

It could be hard on your relationship.

Seriously. Moving across the world with your boyfriend or husband or for your partner, will not make your relationship stronger without some kind of serious effort from both partners. This kind of strain can make or break a relationship so don’t move if you aren’t fully prepared for that kind of challenge. Make sure you and your partner communicate about everything. I wrote about the five relationship mistakes we made when we moved — learn from us!

You’ll feel really, really lonely.

And that’s even if you are surrounded by many wonderful people. People in your town or city might gather to welcome you, but it will still be the loneliest, most alienating thing you have ever done.

Partly, because you don’t fit in anymore.

You will almost always feel like a foreigner. No matter how hard you try to adapt and assimilate yourself into local life, you won’t fully feel like you belong. It will be difficult to socialise and relate to people and you’ll feel like you’re the only one battling this huge obstacle. Sometimes, you’ll even feel like a failure for not fitting in. If everyone else is happy here, why aren’t I?

Homesickness is a thing.

The smallest things start to overwhelm you with homesickness. You’ll miss things you never thought you’d miss. You’ll long for home, and familiarity. You’ll smile with comfort every time you find some sort of treat from back home and you’ll creepily eye strangers in public if you hear even a hint of a familiar accent in their voice. Feeling extremely homesick can contribute to developing depression, so you will have to find ways to manage the homesickness.

You will start to glorify home.

The homesickness peaks when you haven’t been back to visit in a while and you begin to forget all the bad things about home (and possibly even some of the reasons you left in the first place). You’ll see home in a new light, that light in which your new country may be lacking. Absence really does makes the heart grow fonder and more patriotic. Here’s where you repeat the reasons why you made the move in the first place.

Life at home goes on without you.

The realisation that everyone’s lives don’t actually revolve around you, and that they are all carrying on without you, will surprisingly come as a shock. This is probably because of all the dramatic farewells and goodbyes led you to think that your loved ones will miss you everyday. They might, but they will go on. Everyone does. And you’ll be reminded of this fact daily when you go onto Facebook or Instagram, and life has done just that — gone on.

You’ll miss out on a lot.

Exciting things will happen without you — friends will get engaged and married, babies will be born, and parties will be had — and you’ll miss most of it. It’s hard not to feel left out when you see Facebook photos. Being the one that leaves is always difficult, no matter how amazing the country is, missing out on these events, is often the toughest pill to swallow. This is when you need to go on with life too. You need to start enjoying life.

You also shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving people behind. 

Leaving family and friends is probably the toughest part about all of this. The hardest is dealing with the guilt that we’ve ‘abandoned’ our parents. Our parents are the ones who have struggled the hardest with our move. And although I think it’s important to help them and yourself through the emotions of being apart, feeling guilty is not helpful.  You’ve made the decision to move and that’s okay. Acknowledge that you miss each other and communicate it! That way, you can plan a visit sooner and support each other through the process. 

It’s difficult to make friends at our age. 

Making friends as an adult will make you wish you were in school again, when you didn’t actually have to think about it, you just sort of bonded with people. Trying to make friends as an adult can feel forced and unnatural, especially in a new place when you don’t quite gel with their culture. You might even initially resist the process. I mean why should you put in the effort? You have all the friends you need back at home.

This would be your first mistake because Skype dates can only go so far and sooner or later, you’ll need a hug in person. You’ll need your person and unfortunately, your partner just won’t do. This could be the number one thing we’ve all struggled with since leaving South Africa. Several of my expat friends have all eventually reached a point in their process of adjustment where they realised that they needed more support here.

But… Making friends should be your number one priority!

Once I started a job and this blog, it opened up avenues in order for me to find likeminded people that I could ‘gel’ with. I made sure that I planned coffee dates by reaching out to complete strangers on Instagram in our area and slowly, I started making friends that gave me support without them even realising it. To this day, if I am having a hard day or week or month, I call one my new friends up and head out for another coffee date. 

The bottomline. 

Your jet-setting Facebook page might be the envy of all your friends back home, but you’re going to feel lost and question every life decision you ever made. You might even have a midlife crisis (or breakdown) every few months. You might become abnormally obsessed with having the greenest grass in the neighbourhood, or getting six-pack abs. Whatever the response to this huge life-changing event, it is normal. You’re allowed to miss your home country. But just be prepared for it.

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I’d Love To Hear From You!

What did you relate to? Or if you haven’t yet moved, what are you nervous about? Comment below and add any topics that might be helpful for you! I’ll be sure to update my FAQ post here with all my answers to your most asked questions below.

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Adjusting in Canada, Leigh.

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