Straight-forward answers to common expat FAQs
COFFEE WITH TANYA
I struggled to adapt during my first expat move. I felt lost, alone, unsure of who I was, and who I was supposed to be. My life was so different than I had envisaged.
I know many of you go through similar feelings, so I hope some of these answers will help you.
It will take 3 months for our container to arrive. How do I manage our home once we’ve packed up, and our new/temporary home while our ‘stuff’ is still floating around?
Simplify, simplify, simplify,
As daunting as it might feel, being forced to simplify can make life easier and offer the space you need to gently transition into your new life. Old routines fall away in familiar surroundings and you have a chance to try out new routines before you’re up to your eyeballs in boxes.
You learn to cook full meals with one pot, your kids learn to amuse themselves with fewer toys, you have less laundry to do… life is just less full.
The beauty is that it gives you time. Use that time to say goodbye, and in your new country - go explore!
My family and I cherish the times we spent in temporary housing. It was like a warm-up for real life.
My Advice: Treat it like a gift, offering you opportunity to adapt and explore more easily.
We have been here 4 months. How do I support my child who is really struggling with this transition?
The first thing you have to acknowledge is your own feeling of guilt.
When watching your child struggle, it’s tempting to imagine a world where you never moved and see them idyllically happy and well-adjusted ‘back home’.
The problem with that is the tendency to let your best parenting judgment get overshadowed by the pangs of guilt you feel. I mean, they would be happy had you not moved, right? Wrong. Kids go through ups and downs no matter where they are in the world.
Moving to a new country is challenging for every child and each of them will cope in their own way and time. They’ll go through a phase or two before they feel at home and have friends in their new country.
That doesn’t make it easy to observe, but remember that the best we can do is help them learn how to overcome challenges to instil a deep-set sense of confidence in them.
As parents it’s our job both to empathise and impose boundaries. It’s precisely those boundaries that will help them grow into the amazing adults we know they can be. If you let guilt cloud your judgement you’re not serving your child.
My Advice: Don’t let ‘moving guilt’ overshadow your parenting skills.
NOT GOING TO PLAN
When I found out we were moving I was so excited! I had a vision of what life would be like and it was amazing. Now that I’m here, I feel completely overwhelmed, and the timelines I‘d set have gone down the drain. I feel so disappointed in myself. How can I get back on track?
It’s human nature to make a plan when you’re stepping into major change. It’s also likely that the plan is flawed.
Before you land in your new country and start experiencing first-hand what life is like, there are simply too many unknown variables to come up with a realistic vision of how your life will unfold.
The most common ‘plan’ I hear is the idea that you’ll move, unpack your home, start language lessons and be fluent in 3 to 6 months. From there you'll look for a job, volunteer locally or integrate yourself in the local community in a meaningful way. Sound familiar? Looking back you can see how crazy that was.
It’s time to make a new plan.
You might simply revise the initial plan by changing the time frame, or you might realise that your initial intention is just not how you want to spend this precious time as an expat. Either way, about 6 months in, scrap your old plan, let go of any disappointment or guilt for not achieving that plan, and ask yourself what you really want.
My Advice: Scrap your old plan to make room for a new and improved plan that’s realistic in the context of your new home and all it has to offer.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
Before I moved, I was determined to take local language classes, but everyone here speaks English so well and I am really struggling in the class. Do need to learn the language?
I’m fluent in French, can get by in Italian, know about 400 words in Japanese and never learned Swedish.
Did my knowledge of the language, or lack thereof, affect my happiness in those countries? No. But it affected my experience.
The better I knew the language, the more cultural opportunities I had. But in a place like Japan for example, where the expat community is plentiful and divers, I led a full and cultural-rich life. I gained understanding of Japanese culture, and was introduced to Indian, Israeli, Chinese and Greek cultures through my expat friendships which enriched my life in other ways.
The question is how do you want to prioritise your time?
If the language thing is a source of frustration, find other things that interest you that ticks your boxes. Then upload the google translate app, learn how to say the phrase “I only speak a little (insert language)” in the local language, and pursue your passions. You’re in a unique position to be able to do so, take advantage of it.
A word of warning: If you want to learn the language, don’t put it off. If you wait a year your life will have been shaped and you will have found a way around the language. I know many-an-expat with the intention of starting in year 2 and never did - including me in Sweden.
My Advice: This is your opportunity reshape your life. If learning the language excites you, go for it. If it isn’t a personal priority, pursue other ways of connecting with your host country and respecting their culture.
HARD TO STAY POSITIVE
I am generally an optimist, but this transition is wearing me down. We have been here months and every day seems to bring a new dilemma. I am trying to stay positive for my family, but it’s hard to keep smiling. Help!
Being an expat spouse requires a healthy dose of optimism, but as the support pillar and emotional mainstay for your family, this can become a double-edged sword.
You start to feel that if you aren’t 'happy' you’re letting your family down, not doing your part. You therefore start to bury your own feelings of inner-turmoil and allow your default response to heartache become a positive comment, bordering on cliché.
I’m here to say it’s ok to have a bad day.
This doesn’t mean you need to dwell on your bad days, but gently revealing your vulnerable side can have a very calming effect on members of your family that are struggling. It relieves them of their own guilt that they may be letting you down by allowing their challenges get to them.
Acknowledging this is hard sometimes without putting a positive twist on it can be just what your family needs to process things in their own way. I’m not suggesting you become a pessimist, just leave some room for the raw emotion.
My Advice: You don’t need to be the perpetual cheerleader. Sharing some of your ups and downs without dwelling on them can act as a healthy model of how to deal with life’s challenges.
NO ONE TO TALK TO
I feel like I have no one to talk to. I can’t talk to my family back home because they just say ‘see, you should have never left, come back home’ and my spouse has a community at work and comes home tired. So who do I talk about my ‘stuff’?
I was also asked this in the Q&A session. As soon as the question was asked, a bunch of women instantly raised their hand and said “You can call me! I’ll give you my number.”
Talking to family back home is hard because they simply can’t understand what you are going through. It isn’t in their scope of reality… I mean, could you have understood this had you not been through it ? of course, not.
And yes, the working spouse is going through their own adjustments and challenges. Although you are in it together, your experiences will be very different.
The expat community is incredibly warm and welcoming and I guarantee you, if you start opening up to a fellow expat, you will be pleasantly surprised at how understanding they are.
I realise it took years, even decades, to build a support network back home that you could count on, but in the expat world, that can happen in an instant. We all have lost our cherished friends and understand that we just need to buckle down and be there for each other.
Expat friendships are some of the strongest bonds you will ever have and they are forged in a flash of fire. Go out an meet them.
My Advice: We are all in the same boat. When you first arrive, make the time to go out and meet other expats, they will understand and probably be looking for someone to talk to as well.
I FEEL LOST
I left a job I love and a full social life moving here. I am happy to be an expat, but now I feel so lost. I started volunteering at the school store to try to give me structure and feel less isolated, but it isn’t helping. I want to feel like ‘me’ again, where do I start?
It’s understandable to believe that if you replicate old routines and stay busy that you’ll get the same sense of satisfaction and fill the void. Unfortunately, in this new life the old puzzle pieces don’t fit.
You need to figure out what made you tick.
For example, if you had an office job, was it the routine that kept you sane and balanced? Or was it a sense of achievement, keeping your mind busy, positive feedback from bosses and peers, feeling organised… or was it something completely different?
You’ll find that getting a similar job, going to the gym, or joining the local theatre group won’t give you the same sense of self or fulfilment because the context, people and culture are different.
So instead, look to replicate how you felt about your life, not what you did.
Ask yourself, aside from getting fit, what did you get out of going to the gym? A sense of belonging, social interaction, anchors in your week? If that is the case, look for activities that will address those needs.
My Advice: To rebuild that confident person, don’t get stuck on an image of what that looks like. Think about how you felt about what you did and look for activities to create a new vision that suits the new context.
THE DREADED QUESTION
When someone asks me, “What do you do?” I start stuttering like a shy teenager. I feel like all my confidence just drains out of me. Any advice on how to handle this?
This is probably the worst question that anyone can ask an expat spouse.
It’s nearly impossible to explain what we do and how all-encompassing it is. I tend to think that someone who asked that question probably won’t understand, no matter how well I explain it. I have yet to hear a coherent response that envelops it all. So my advice is to find an exit strategy.
The quicker you can divert the conversation to something else, the more likely it is that you’ll walk away with your self-confidence intact.
How can you do that? Anticipate the question and prepare a short answer ahead of time.
The great thing about the answer is that it can be ANYTHING, as long as it makes you feel good about yourself.
I have heard answers as simple as “I am a stay-at-home parent” and “I’m looking for a job”, and as whacky as “I am a domestic goddess” and “I am a Starbucks VIP”.
I think my favorite answer ever was a lady looked the person right in the eye and said “I watch TV.” That was the end of that conversation.
As long as it’s short and rolls off your tongue easily, it will work. The idea is to end that line of questioning quickly so you can move on to conversation that is interesting and stimulating.
My Advice: Prepare a short answer ahead of time so that you can breeze over it and move on to the next topic.
EASIER FOR EVERYONE ELSE
I moved here 3 months ago and I am still struggling. I do my best to go to social activitie,s but it takes everything I have just to get myself out the door. When I get there, I look around and everyone seems so happy. Why is it so hard for me and not them?
The first thing you need to know is that you are not alone.
Moving to a new country, giving up your identity, being the cheerleader for the rest of the family, and finding the energy and courage to go out and make a life for yourself is hard for everyone, no matter how big their smile.
All expat spouses go through what I call the emotional wringer. It doesn’t matter how many times you move, the wringer is waiting at the beginning of each new adventure.
The good news is, it passes. When you get through to the other side you’ll find a life full of new experiences, and friendships that will span continents and last a lifetime.
So pluck up the energy to go to an event and make a point of talking to 1 or 2 people. Be honest and tell them it’s harder than you thought. You’ll be amazed at how responsive your fellow expat will be. They will either launch into their own story, offer solutions to what your feeling, or just start crying themselves. In any case, you’ll find someone who understands.
My Advice: Don’t let the smiles fool you. Talk to fellow expats about how you feel. You are sure to find a listening ear from someone who has gone through the same thing.
I AM SO EMOTIONAL
I was happy about the move and find my life so interesting here, but I sometimes get overwhelmed with emotion and the smallest things will reduce me to tears. How can I stop?
People think mourning is only for the loss of a loved one, but the grieving process starts anytime a meaningful connection is lost. The loss of a special necklace, a job, a loved one, and yes, when you lose the life you had and have to rebuild somewhere else.
Even if you were glad to leave it all behind, the process of accepting what you lost, navigating the change and rebuilding your life involves a grieving process.
The Kubler-Ross model says there are five stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance – and each stage can raise its ugly head at any time.
The top tip here is when you’re having overwhelming feelings of anger or sadness, allow them to pass through you without too much thought. You’re grieving, that’s all. The trap is that you try to come up with reasons for your feelings and if you start that guessing game, it spirals out of control. We can always come up with reasons to be sad and if we focus on them, they get worse. The same holds true for happiness!
My Advice: Allow yourself to grieve without trying to figure out why. It is simply part of the process.
I’ve been here about 6 months and am starting to learn the language (although it isn’t going as fast as I’d like). I’ve met people, but mostly other expats like myself. I’d really like to get to know some locals so I can understand their culture better. Do you have any suggestions?
Ensconcing yourself in local culture is a tricky thing. The obvious hurdle is the language barrier, but I’ve found that many people around the world speak English, so that offers a mode of communication. Nonetheless, it’ll always be easier to connect with other expats as you have a shared experience - navigating the new culture and new world.
Also remember, locals have lived all their lives in the country and most likely have a full social network, so looking for new friends isn’t a priority like it is for you. To boot, it’ll be far more difficult for them to relate to some of your struggles as they’ll be looking at it from the inside out, not the other way around.
Having said all that, I know many who have developed solid, fulfilling friendships built on common interests - and there are the key words, common interests.
No matter where you are in the world, friendships are built on shared experiences. If you’d like to build connection in the local community my best advice is to find something you love to do and join a local club or group to do it… even if your language skills aren’t quite up to snuff.
A common goal or activity is an excellent way to build bridges and I have found, even with limited language skills, an interest or passion for something tends to transcend communication barriers.
So go out and join the local horticulture society, the local tennis group or Zumba class, any thing you enjoy doing. You might not get the warmest welcome to begin with because to them you might be a bit of a novelty, but stick with it. In time they’ll see you’re committed and slowly let you in (or you might hit the jackpot on day one, who knows). Not only will you start connecting within the community, it won’t hurt your language skills one bit!
My Advice: Figure out what you love doing and find a local group or club that pursues your interest. Finding a common passion is the best way of making friends…. And don’t let your lack of language hold you back.
I'm moving abroad in 6 weeks time and am overwhelmed with all that needs to be done to prepare for the move. After doing it so many times, what are your top tips to handle all of this??
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in all kinds of preparation. It seems like the ideal opportunity to clean things out, give things to charity shops and sort through all those things that have being waiting for ‘sometime’ to come.
I would say… wrong. Do it when you get to the other side.
You can do as much work as you want before you leave, but it will barely leave a dent in the chaos that will be waiting when you arrive. Remember this: When unpacking you will need to take every single item in your house into your hand, make a decision about it, and do something with it - put each book on a bookshelf, hang or fold each item of clothing and find a place to put all of your treasures, mementos and knick-knacks. This is completely unavoidable on the unpacking side.
That means that your pre-work doesn’t really make unpacking easier. When the boxes are unloaded, everything is in disarray anyway.
I have a couple of practical top tips when preparing for the move:
- If you really can’t help yourself before you leave, take time putting ‘like things’ all in one place in your home so that they'll be packed and unpacked all together. Linens, books, vases and candleholders, cleaning cloths and accessories…etc. This will make it easier to find the right place for your things when you are setting up your new home.
- While planning with the movers, ask for a box pickup +-10 days after your move in. Although movers will unpack all of your boxes if you ask, it’s often easier for you to take your time to organise it all. Asking for a box pick up The worst is tho that you then have a whole stack of boxes you need to get rid of too. By asking for a pick up you create an incentive to get things done.
- If you have issues with space or cost of the move, then focus on the big items you can get rid of that will make a real difference and still leave the smaller sorting to be done upon arrival.
For the rest, leave your mess and stuffed cabinet clean-outs for when your arrive . You'll need to sort through it on the other side no matter what. Instead, enjoy the time you have left with your loved ones.
My Advice: Do the bare minimum before you leave, focussing instead on spending time with friends and family making memories that will last.
Still looking for answers?
Drawing from my experience as a Mindset Coach and my own personal journey, I paired up with fellow expat Lana Wimmer to write a practical guide, offering straight-forward answers to your most common dilemmas.