I recently reflected on the conflicting emotions behind being an expat. On one hand, you’re doing something unconventional, you’ve left your comfort zone (perhaps more than once, and you know the drill). You’re learning the local language and have made some expat friends (if you’re lucky, some local friends). You’re getting a hang of your new job, getting along with colleagues (more or less), and you even have some cool trips planned to nearby destinations. All the bureaucratic paperwork is sorted, and life at home alone or with your partner, family and/or flat mates is getting easier. What could be better?
Then you notice cultural differences that at first made you chuckle but now begin to truly frustrate you. The work ethic at the office (or home office) is different than what you’re used to, and it’s either too fast-paced or too relaxed – and that is stressful. Your friends in the new place are all in the same boat, probably here temporarily, in varying stages of their career or family life, but they’re sort of superficial. They don’t know you profoundly from your early 20’s or high school. The memories you share with them are only recent, and frankly, it’s harder to connect with new friends as you get older. And then you begin to get sick of the local cuisine and crave that food from back home, that special snack you’d indulge in that would always bring you comfort, and you can’t get it anywhere now. Suddenly, your honeymoon is over, and you see things for what they are.
You’re a stranger in a new land, and no matter how acclimated you get, you’re still a foreigner and that’s exactly how you feel. Out of place, annoyed at times (or all the time), and scrolling through your social media feeds to see all the faces of friends and family back home doing what you used to do together without you stirs a huge FOMO.
I experienced this cycle three times now at different stages of my life. Third time’s a charm, right? No – the third time is hard as sh*t. When I was little, my family moved from Russia to the USA for my dad’s job. I remember everything quite vividly, especially flying in an airplane where I was convinced the pilot was talking directly to me when he came on the loudspeaker. Never mind that, moving abroad as a kid feels like it’s much easier, because you don’t have a choice, and your family is there with you adjusting as well. And children adapt quicker to new environments, where their identity is still forming and things like learning a new language come easy. I acclimated to American life fairly quickly, and I felt less and less foreign after a while.
The second time around, I moved to Moscow for my job when I was 26. This time I was parting with everyone and everything I knew (including my partner) and was going alone at my own volition for a career opportunity in my motherland. So there I lived a lavish, fun and adventurous life for three years, physically single, but mentally my heart and mind were elsewhere and silently doing a countdown, because I knew this experience would end one day. I had one foot in Moscow and one foot back back home. I was home, technically, in my homeland; I spoke the language; I knew the customs and people; but I still felt foreign. Not unwelcome though, just observing life through a translucent crystal ball, if you will. The experience was enriching but it seemed always at a safe distance, so I could pull away at any time. And when I did pull away, it didn’t hurt as much to leave.
And coming to the third and most profound move yet – moving from to Madrid for my husband’s job. This time, it wasn’t for me – it was for him, or more correctly, for us. One huge hurdle was behind us (long distance for four years… that’s another story) and now loomed another cycle of adjusting to a new place, but one with a new language and no local job for me. I remember looking at the metaphorical mountain of yet another expat life as I got on the plane to Spain – every cell in my body was tired in advance, but also excited. It was trading one huge stress for another. Starting over is hard. Even if your loved one is by your side or the destination is very comfortable to settle into. I think once you know the cycle, the emotional rollercoasters aren’t as extreme, but you still can’t help but wait for the ride to stabilize.
I recently completed my third cycle of expat life after leaving Spain, and I reflected on the experience. I chose to accept the bad with the good. It’s just part of the package. No, I didn’t get to see my friend’s kids grow up, but I got to live in Europe and have that on my life’s resume. No, I didn’t get to spend much time with my mom, brother and grandmother, who aren’t getting any younger, but I will always have cool stories and photos to share with them when we are together. No, I didn’t get to have happy hour with my best friends whenever I wanted, but I did get to make some awesome new friends from all over the world who taught me something new about living abroad. And that’s the ugly truth – or maybe, that’s the beauty of it.
What are some of your ugly truths about expat life?