I want to get personal with you.
After almost eight years of living as an expat in different countries, I can finally say I have enough perspective on the pros and cons of the expat ‘lifestyle’ we live, as well as the highs and lows that come along with it.
I always knew I wanted to live abroad, but had no idea how it would actually play out or what it would require of me. As a child, I had severe separation anxiety and went through bouts of homesickness when I was away from home if even for just one night. Who would’ve figured? Now that I’m on the other side of things, I’ve learned lessons on navigating long-term life abroad and want to share that with you.
My new normal involves uprooting every 2-3 years. It’s a rhythm we groove to and a routine we’re finally starting to get down. I know that each person’s experience with expat living is extremely different, but the more expats I meet abroad, the more I realize we’re a special breed doing an unusual thing, often times navigating our personal journey within a literal journey.
The nature of being an expat (and expat partner) abroad is complex, so I want to share the good and the bad! Yes, the beautiful and the ugly.
It’s a complicated and exhilarating existence where distance, identity, experience, and fulfillment all come into play at once.
Maybe you’re considering moving abroad, or maybe you already are. Either way, I hope this post resonates with you even if only a little bit and that it can offer a window into the realities of expat life.
1. There’s no other novelty like it.
Starting over in a new country is extremely rewarding and exhilarating. The flush of newness is a high that I love chasing. To be honest, I’ve gotten addicted to experiencing it. Some of my best moments within the past several years involve exploring and being introduced to new sights, sounds, tastes, and customs. If you’re someone who lives for novelty, expat life is a treasure trove. Personally, as an extremely curious person, I value these new experiences and revelations more than any object money can buy. As a writer, it’s observation gold and there’s never a shortage of inspiration. Sure, eventually the novelty wears off…and that’s where the travel bug kicks in.
2. Stability is a luxury….that I’m not sure I even want.
Stability in the form of a house, predicatable career path/job, and a consistent friend group has alluded us even now that we’re in our thirties. I see other people around us anchoring down into adulthood and realize that moving every few years makes creating long-lasting stability incredibly hard. Some days I think it’s just not for us and others days, I think of stability as a far-off luxury. What I know now is that I’m not convinced that conventional stability would make us happier than we are today. I’ll let you know what we decide 😉
3. The longer you travel, the more you find the world is an incredibly small place.
When I moved outside of Texas, I was shocked to discover that I encountered traces of home as much as I did; like meeting someone from my hometown the first few weeks of being in Paris; sitting next to a fellow Aggie in French class; running into a highschool classmate in Sevilla, and the list goes on. I can think of so many instances of finding home abroad. In a larger sense, living as an expat gives you experiences in different places that allow you to connect and relate to different people on a deeper level regardless of where you are.
4. Language anguish has a lot to do with feeling (frustratingly) foreign.
After living in Spain, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Belgium, I can say that knowing a language (or not) can serve as a barrier or a motivator during the delicate adjustment phase. Whether it’s been French, Bahasa or Flemish, I’ve been faced with the choice to let embarrassment and reluctance hold me back, or to dive straight in and see language as an essential tool to navigate my new home. In some countries I made more progress than others. For instance, in Indonesia, I spoke a basic level of Bahasa and was able to hold my own in daily situations like bartering or ordering a meal. That alone gave me a huge sense of independence and pride; In Belgium, I took classes but felt defeated at my slow progress and the notorious difficulty of Dutch. Although I couldn’t speak it, by the end of our time in Ghent, I was able to eavesdrop at work and understand quite a bit. Now that we’re back in France, I’ve picked up where I left off and feel proud when I’m able to have an entire conversation in French.
This major exposure to languages is one of things I value most about expat life and one of the biggest rewards.
5. Living as an expat weeds out the non-essentials in your life.
When you move as often as we do, essentials in the form of material objects and personal priorities rise to the surface, and they rise fast. There’s a lot we can’t bring with us to every country, and only the truly important stuff can find its home with us. Sure, we collect souvenirs and other random things along the way, but we’re always aware of the fact that overall we need to live lean. Everything else? In storage. You also find that when you live on-the-move and with so many changes, the things and people you chose to keep your in life are the real essentials. The same goes for hobbies and passions that you pick up along the way. It’s interesting to see what we make time for and the passion projects we nurture no matter where we are.
6. Putting your career on hold can hurt.
In my case of following my husband abroad, I’ve had to put my career on hold due to visa restrictions, job markets, language barriers and other reasons. Sometimes I got lucky, but the longest I’ve worked one job since we started traveling has been two years. Luckily, I found ways to get creative and improvise with my skills as a writer and editor. There were times when not working lead to me feeling bored and unhappy. I grappled with the notion of leading a life of leisure. As I know from talking to other partners abroad who worked in the corporate world before, it can be really hard for them to take that break and find other ways to stay mentally busy and fulfilled.
7. Cultural perspectives are going to change even if you don’t think they will.
Take it from me. I’m a girl from Texas who was raised very Christian and with staunch Republican sensibilities. The more I started to travel, the more I found my pre-conceived notions about the world and other culture and religions were flat-out wrong or just pretty skewed. The simple fact is that traveling fosters empathy and it makes you reassess what you thought you knew about the world and its people. I’m no longer a strict Republican Christian and I know leaving the US and living outside of it has a lot to do with that.
8. You’ll meet amazing people that will make it all worth it.
This is something I can’t emphasize enough! Living an expat life exposes you to so many fascinating, interesting, wild and diverse people. In every country we’ve lived in, we’ve been lucky to make amazing friends with people who we never would’ve met back home in Texas or Belgium. From Russia to Australia, I have friends literally sprinkled all over the world and love knowing that no matter how much time goes by, these friendships are still pretty solid, and alive and well. Expat friends in particular understand the life we lead and they seem to cherish these connections in a different way, in a way that doesn’t come around often. Saying goodbye hasn’t necessarily gotten easier for me…I cry every time I have to say goodbye, and that’s just a fact.
9. Flexibility will feel like a super power.
Plain and simple: living away from home means creating a new one for yourself. Creating a new home means striking a balance between being who you are and fitting into the new norms and rhythm of that country or city. Being flexible is a secret weapon that you’ll learn to wield at a moment’s notice and trust me, it makes life so much easier! Dodging the ins and outs of the expat process takes skill, but I can say that adaptability and flexibility have opened so many doors for me and have reduced friction in situations that would have been impossible otherwise.
10. Oh hi, identity issues. Nice to meet you.
Depending where you are in life and how secure you feel with yourself, this could be more or less of an issue. At 23 and with no major life experience, I struggled with my identity abroad more than I’d like to admit. Moving from home forces you to look at yourself even if you don’t know who that is yet exactly. That left me to carve out my existence from scratch while having one foot in Texas and the other in Europe and Asia. It was extremely difficult and lonely at times, and I can still remember the raw feeling of vulnerability and uncertainty. Now as a 30-year-old woman, I feel like I’m less changed by external factors and have a better internal compass to direct me to do what’s best for me.
11. Living through recurring phases of adjustment is both exhausting and exhilarating.
Maybe you’ve heard of the four phases of culture shock.
Each time you move countries, there’s a big chance you’ll feel the highs of the Honeymoon phase, the annoyances of the Frustration phase, the calming down of the Adjustment phase, and the peace of the Acceptance phase. Even when we moved to France this January, I felt myself ride the waves of all four phases even though we’ve lived in France before and I thought I was immune. The roller coaster of adjustment and expectations is sometimes inevitable. Some days you’re excited to put in the effort, and others days you’ll wonder why you’re doing it in the first place. I’ve learned to take the phases in stride and not fight them too much and accept them for what they are. Just know you’re not the only one who goes through the ups and downs!
13. Being an expat couple can make or break you.
I’ve only known my husband in the realm of moving to foreign countries. For the first three and half years of being together, we didn’t know any different from being in countries other than our own. When I took a step back to think about that, I realized it was a huge hurdle for us to jump. There were some countries we lived in where our relationship thrived, and others where it simply didn’t. No, it wasn’t permanent, but moving often as a couple can present personal challenges. It’s hard enough to adjust to a new environment as one person, but as a couple the culture shock effects can be heightened. When I look at the good that came of expat coupling, I realize our main source of bonding comes from experiencing the world together, and how cool is that?
14. Planning is presumptuous. Going with the flow? Better.
I’m not a planner by nature, at all! Sometimes I think that’s for the best with the life that we live. If you’re someone who has to know exactly what will happen and when, being an expat will be a rude awakening. When you move around this much, you have to be willing to leave some things open ended. For instance, this year my husband is in business school but we still don’t know where we’ll end up after December. We have a vague idea of possible continents, but that’s about it. If I start to overthink our future plans, it would drive me crazy. Going with the flow (within reason!) is sometimes the best way to get the most out of expat experience.
15. It’s the most fulfilling part of my life, hands down.
When I say I’ve lived in five different countries before the age of 30, I still can’t believe it really. I can’t believe that I’m living the kind of life I hoped for. When I look back on the months and years of experience I see that some of my lowest lows were brought about by hard-hitting cultural changes, but by the same token, most of my highest highs and blissful moments were thanks to risk taking and courting that change. I wouldn’t replace any of it if I had the chance and that’s the honest truth. Who knows how much longer I’ll be away from the US…It could be months or years, but for now the adjustment adventure will keep on.
Do you live abroad? Let me know what you think. Does any of this ring true for you? What have been the highs of and lows of life abroad?