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Whether you are making a permanent move abroad or just living abroad temporarily as an expat, it’s important to remember that life abroad, like life anywhere, has its ups and downs. Here’s a list of some of the biggest challenges you may face and how to overcome them.
In most cases, you can’t just show up in another country and start living there. At the most basic level, you might need to apply for an initial visa and then get paperwork together every couple of years to renew your residence permit. There may be other requirements that you need to fulfill in order to continue your stay. (I had to sign an integration contract!) Administrative tasks can feel extremely frustrating, tedious, and time-consuming, but they’re a necessary evil in order to legally remain in the country.
Do your research on immigration ahead of time to determine what is required of you to move abroad. In this way, you can plan for many eventualities ahead of time and avoid unpleasant surprises. For example, many Americans do not know that if they are eligible to exchange their driver’s license in France, they need to do so within their first year of residency. If they fail to meet this deadline, they will lose out on the opportunity, their American license will no longer be valid on French territory, and they’ll need to take the French driving tests. Who wants to do that?!
Not knowing the local language is a common difficulty for those living abroad. When you’re unable to express yourself well, it can feel as though you have lost your personality when speaking a second language. This in turn can make you feel like you are unable to truly connect with others in your new country.
Everyday tasks can also feel stressful and daunting even if you have a good command of the language. Have you ever tried describing to a hairdresser how you want your hair cut… in a language other than your native language? All of a sudden you need specific vocabulary and what you learned in school might not be enough. It’s easy to feel defeated as you struggle to communicate your basic needs when you were able to do it so effortlessly back home!
While remaining in a bubble with other expats and only speaking your native language is sometimes a possibility, you’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities for integration. Before the move, learn at least some basic phrases in your host country’s language. This will help you a great deal with your everyday communications. As specific situations arise, focus first on vocabulary that is pertinent to you. Fluency can come later. Here are some more tips for learning a new language.
Understanding and adapting to a culture that is different from what you are accustomed to can take time. Culture shock is real! There are codes and norms to be discovered for every aspect of life. Social, business, and day-to-day interactions are all affected by culture.
There are a lot of things we take for granted knowing how to do but in a new environment, you suddenly question even the easiest of tasks. Something as simple as greeting someone can present a challenge. Should you be formal or informal? Do you shake hands? Do you give a kiss on the cheek? How many kisses? Would a hug be appropriate?
No matter how much research you do ahead of time about your host country’s customs, traditions, holidays, and foods, most of what you will learn and experience will be on the ground. Have an open mind when you are confronted with something new, and try to avoid looking at it through the lens of your own culture. We have a tendency to make comparisons and while it is ok to not like something, make sure you are respectful in how you react and explain. It can be a teaching moment on both sides!
Finding a new circle of friends when living abroad can be challenging, especially as an adult. Depending on your situation, you may have fewer difficulties. If you’re working in an office space or enrolled in school, for example, you’ll naturally have more opportunities to meet new people.
It’s important for immigrants to have a support system. This should include people who understand and can empathize with what you are going through. There’s nothing better than exchanging that knowing look of camaraderie when you bring up your troubles at the French préfecture, lament the high price of peanut butter in French grocery stores, or retell your story about the time you inappropriately used the word “bordel” in front of your landlord. Living in a foreign country can feel isolating but less so when you are able to share your struggles with someone who “gets it.”
If you don’t have many opportunities to meet new people in your daily life, you will need to put in intentional effort. Luckily, there are tons of things you can try: join clubs, sign up for language classes, find local groups through Facebook, volunteer, etc.
Homesickness & FOMO
Missing important life events, milestones, and holidays comes with the territory of living abroad. Unfortunately, teleportation still has a long way to go. The harsh reality is that there are going to be disappointments, tears, and hurt feelings. For most of us, it’s simply not feasible to make a trip home anytime something major happens, whether that be for a celebration or a bereavement. It is hard to not be with your core family unit at these times if that is what you are used to.
Set realistic expectations around how often you are going to return to your home country. When you’re missing the comfort of home, be kind to yourself and honor your feelings. Make yourself some macaroni and cheese from your secret stash (I know you have one), and turn your focus to the new life that you’re creating and the opportunities that you have available to you.
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Strain on Relationships Back Home
Even with the development of social media, maintaining relationships with family members and friends back home can be tricky. Life has a tendency of just getting in the way. Combine that with time zones and scheduling conflicts, and it can seem like there are very few times when you are actually able to connect.
While it can feel overwhelming to stay in touch with all of your loved ones back home, remember that relationships are two-way. It is not solely up to you to maintain the relationship, and living abroad may open up your eyes to which relationships are worth nurturing. Prioritize the family members and friends who support you and who never make you feel guilty about it being too long between chats. Most importantly, prioritize those who read your blog 😉.
Get creative in how you catch up and connect with your family and friends. You have so many tools in your arsenal these days. Send email updates or snail mail, play virtual games together, schedule a date, or plan a joint trip!
Expat guilt can be triggered by a number of things. Guilt about not visiting enough, not communicating enough, missing out on special events, and not being there to support your family and friends during rough times. Guilt when making a choice between visiting “home” and vacationing somewhere. Guilt about the choice that you made to live abroad because it might be perceived as selfish.
Break down why you are feeling guilty, and be reasonable about how you approach it. Lift some weight off your shoulders by finding a support system of close friends. Validate yourself and your decision to move abroad. Remind yourself of why this life is the one that you want, and don’t take advice from anyone who is only speaking from a limited perspective.
Although there are undeniable hurdles that crop up when you move abroad, if you know what the biggest challenges will be, you can plan for them and overcome them. Life abroad is not for everyone but for most, the good days will outnumber the bad ones. Did this article resonate with you? Let me know in the comments below!