7 Things I Desperately Wish Someone Told Me About Being an Expat
I liken the differences between traveling to another country and living there, to the differences between observing a bucking bull and being on the back of one. I learned this after living in Puerto Rico*, Amsterdam and my husband David’s hometown, a small village outside of Barcelona.
What do I wish I would have known before all of this?
1. You Will Have Frequent Moments of Profound Loneliness and Complete Inadequacy
Every country has two worlds: the citizen’s world and the traveler’s world.
The traveler’s world is comprised of people who likely speak your language, are trained to deliver the comforts you expect and shelter you from the discomforts normal citizens maneuver around daily. They are paid to be patient with you, and their livelihood is entirely dependent on your happiness – so they do their damndest to deliver it. (Yes, independent travelers, this applies to you, too.)
The citizen’s world is comprised of people whose primary concern is – themselves.
What so many forget about living in another country (because it is not the most fun thing to remember) is you are not simply driving by, walking through or snapping pictures of a foreign and beautiful land – you are attempting to navigate your life, your career, your relationships (most of which will be via a brand new language you ain’t so hot at), your health, your banking, your utilities, your transportation and every aspect of your day to day life – in the deep abscesses of a culture you – no matter what you would like to tell yourself – don’t know shit about.
Couple this with leaving everyone and everything you know behind. (And when I say everything – I mean – the way you buy tomatoes is about to have a massive shake up and the WTFs increase dramatically, and daily, from there.)
The feelings of ineptitude become quickly countless and the nagging awareness of your outsider status, with all of the loneliness that accompanies it, is going to stick with you for a long, long while.
2. You Are the Best Joke Around. Get Used to It.
My sister, David and I were at a gas station outside of Denver shortly after arriving in the U.S. David kindly, as David does, jumped out of the car to pump the gas, something he does not do at the 100% full service gas stations in Spain.
First, he had to decide how many gallons (he is accustomed to liters). Next, how to use a credit card in this gallons of gas distributing machine (credit cards being something no one has in Spain) and lastly, what a zip code was. It involved a lot of experimenting with credit card insertions (at one point he tried cramming the Visa into where the receipt comes out), mad beeps and transaction cancellations.
Inside the car, I was in uncontrollable and sobbing laughter and my sister was repeatedly telling me I was being a jerk.
The moral of this story? The little differences are huge differences and what can you do about it? Expect a lot of laughter – in your direction.
3. You Need to Take Language Classes IMMEDIATELY
I assumed I didn’t need to incur the expense of language classes because I would learn Spanish via “immersion”. As my husband David was the only person around me who spoke English fluently, this seemed a logical approach, no?
EXCEPT for the people where I lived only spoke Spanish – some of the time. The other times they spoke Catalan. And still other times they spoke Catalan and Spanish interchangeably. (It was not at all rare for one conversation to continually switch back and forth between languages for a number of factors I may or may not ever understand.)
Awesome thing about this? Catalonia is a place full of millions of people whose brains can easily adjust to this without them seemingly even noticing.
Not so awesome thing about this for me? Learning Spanish via this method was not “immersion” – it was insanity. My advice to expats? Get in language classes IMMEDIATELY and NOT the private ones. Pay whatever you need to, to do this. Group classes mean not only learning the language but being with others who understand the “immersion” process.
4. Live in the Big City.
Small towns stay little, sweet and charming for a reason – because people typically don’t move into them, people typically don’t move out of them and pretty much everything stays the same. That is why we love them. It is also why foreigners (and by foreigners I mean anyone from two cities over to seven countries away) typically do not fit to very well within them.
I write about numerous expats and their small town expat experiences and without fail the verdict is: “He who moves to a small town in a foreign land moves home quickly.” (This, BTW, is from people who both spoke the local language and those who did not.)
Many people move to small towns because they want to experience the local culture.
The problem with this?
The local culture may very well not want to or know how to experience you.
My advice to expats? Start in the big city. There are eight zillion cultural norms you need to adjust to and no one gets an award for being the most culture shocked, the most overwhelmed and the most uncomfortable.
Easing yourself into a culture is the best way to guarantee you will want to stay in it. Utilize the “big city’s” numerous people, places, cultures, social circles, expat organizations, job opportunities, resources and general know how of working with outsiders to build your friend and professional base, learn the language, work to understand and honor the culture and if at the end of it all a small town still appeals to you – then by all means – move there. (p.s. There are lots of small town success stories that used this approach.)
5. Find Expat Friends IMMEDIATELY
A friend who moved to Paris after she graduated from high school told me that if I found expat friends I would never learn the language. It was good advice for her and I thought it was good advice for me.
Until after some months I learned this – learning a language, the culture and customs of a new place are very important. Doing so at the expense of your sanity is just stupid. Friendships, especially those where you can have real conversations, i.e not at your three year old local language speaking capabilities which drives both you and them crazy, are extremely important.
These expat friendships provide stability and a sense of normality to your not-at-all-normal life. They can also provide a much needed sense of “immersion empathy” which expats and only expats can give.
My advice? Find every friend, friend of a friend and friend of a friend of a friend in and around where you live. Do your research on who these people may be before you leave your country. Get over the discomfort of reaching out to them and set up time to go out for coffee, lunch or dinner. (Hound them if you must.) Find Meet Ups, expat organizations, volunteer opportunities and anything else you can come up where you can meet other expats. The 20 minutes of initial awkwardness is worth the months and years of comfort, friendship and love of your new country that will result in you doing so.
6. Implement the 2 for 10 or 10 for 2 Rule
One difference between the US and many other cultures? In the US you hang out with a friend or two for a few hours. In countries like Spain, you hang out with the entire high school graduating class for 12 hours a day – while, in my case at least, they were speaking Spanish and Catalan interchangeably.
I attempted this.
Consistently around hour eight (on the good days) I was in human Chernobyl mode. After a few too many near human nuclear meltdown misses, I implemented this rule: Two Friends for 10 hours or 10 Friends for Two Hours but never 10 (or 40) friends for 10 hours.
AND I highly suggest anyone who values their sanity (and their relationship) do the same – starting day one.
7. You Will Have Moments of Desperately Missing “Normal” and Home
And no matter what anyone tells you – that is ok.
*Puerto Rico is not another country (assuming you are American) but it is quite different from US mainland.