Have you been wondering if life as an expat is for you?
Maybe you’ve been dreaming of a life abroad, but it’s hard to give up the security of your job, or you have a ton of student debt hanging over your head.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a language, and feel like if you don’t make a change, you’ll be stuck in the same place, doing the same things for the rest of your life.
I’m about to get real honest about the reality of life as an expat.
Living overseas means adventure, incredible friends, a new language, parties, and an experience which will change the way you think about the world, and how you relate to people for the rest of your life.
You’ll become more aware of key issues such as climate change, poverty, and politics on a global scale.
You’ll mature, while still learning to make the most of life, and gain a confidence and unshakeable belief in yourself.
You’ll be proud of who you are, you’ll hone your instincts and intuition, and be able to judge in a split second if someone is being friendly or means you harm.
You’ll feel more courageous, and improve your social skills, since if you don’t make an effort, you won’t have any friends. You’ll learn how you feel about the world, and what issues are important to you.
You’ll see how other cultures interact, raise their children, and live, and you’ll learn from them.
You will find yourself forever changed.
There are, of course, some negative aspects to living overseas. Instead of ignoring them, I found it helpful to research before I moved overseas the first time, so I would know what to expect, and accept that it’s ok to feel bad sometimes, while still being grateful to have such a great opportunity.
I no longer get homesick, but on special occasions like my birthday, Christmas, New Years, or even if I’m just sick or feeling blue I miss my friends and family like you wouldn’t believe. Living as an expat means relying on Facebook and Skype to catch up, which can be a frustrating exercise of “Can you hear me?” and “Turn your video off, and we might get a better connection”.
I’m relatively lucky and make friends easily, however there are always periods of loneliness when you move somewhere new and haven’t yet made friends. Sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself to go out and meet people, especially when you’re jetlagged or wondering if you made the right choice.
And that brings me to….
Culture shock is no joke people. Many believe that it’s the initial feeling of being overwhelmed when you move to a country and confront different languages, environments, and foods, however it actually looks like this:
True culture shock usually hits just when you’d expect to be feeling comfortable. However this kind of makes sense. When you first arrive in a new country, you’re in the “honeymoon period”, where you’re feeling pretty self-congratulatory that you made it, and excited for your new life.
Things which are different are “cute” or “quirky”, and you figure you’ll be friends with the locals in no time at all. However a few months into your new life, you may find yourself feeling depressed. You’ll compare the way they do things in your new country to the “better” way that they’re done at home. And things which were slightly annoying when you first arrived become a huge deal when you realise you’ll have to deal with them every day.
My worst experience with culture shock was when I arrived in Beijing. I had no honeymoon period, and it was the first time I had been 100% out of my comfort zone. When I arrived it was freezing, the pollution was intolerable, and I ended up homeless, jobless, and broke.
Interestingly, I’ve also experienced culture shock in Guatemala, which I wasn’t expecting (don’t ask me why). The inability to walk around after dark, constant “hola’s” from men in cars, and seeing first hand how hard women have it in this country has been challenging, but it wasn’t until around 5 or 6 months here that it started to hit.
Getting sick abroad
Getting sick is a hundred times worse when you’re overseas. You may find yourself trying to communicate with a doctor who doesn’t speak great English, or using Google Translate to figure out the best cold medication.
Every single time I’m sick I want my mother. Which may be ridiculous at 26 years old, but that’s the way it is. The best thing you can do is take your go-to cold drugs with you (you may need to check if certain medications are allowed through customs), and make sure you have travel insurance, so if you get really sick you won’t need to worry about paying for healthcare.
The worst part about living overseas is constantly saying goodbye. When you’re an expat you naturally form relationships faster than you do at home, simply because you often have more in common, and you share experiences as you navigate the new culture.
However someone is always saying goodbye. Sometimes it will be you, and sometimes it will be people who have become like another sibling, and you won’t know when you’ll see them again. It sucks each and every time, and it never gets easier.
Once you’ve said goodbye, it can be hard to keep the relationship up when you live in different countries. I’ve met people in Antigua who have asked me how long I’ll be here, and only decided to get to know me once I told them I was here long term, since they’re so sick of making friends, just to say goodbye.
So yes, living overseas as an expat is well worth it. And if you’re wondering if the expat life is for you, it will probably be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made. Just keep in mind that it’s not all hearts and flowers. Some days will be a struggle, and you’ll wonder why the hell you ever left your home country. But there will be moments and days where you’re so ecstatic with your new life that you’ll wonder how you’ll ever return.