Stages in an Expat Life
I’m inspired to write this because someone I went to high school with has just embarked on a life-changing journey as an empty nester, teaching in China! It’s been fun to see her post photos of every day things in another country with that excitement and air of discovery. They have funky street lights! Photo! Apartment door with Chinese characters! Photo!! Photo!! Photo!! I remember that excitement when arriving to somewhere new.
I’ve lived in a variety of places. I’ve moved a lot. Three international moves in the past five years — each one intended to be the last one for a long time to come. So I have developed a certain expertise in arriving in a new place. I have moved to different cultures and countries and have organized for myself the stages of being an expat so that I can better adjust to things as I go along. Here, I present the five stages of an expat experience.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Phase
Everything is exciting! The strange sights and sounds are enticing and you are an adventurer for even being there! It’s fun to figure out what the food packaging means when the writing is completely unintelligible! You run about your new city being a tourist, taking in the scene, learning a few words in a new language, and posting gobs of photos for your friends and family back home! Moving abroad is awesome!!
Stage 2: Loneliness
At a certain point, it hits you that you have left your entire social circle and support network at home. It’s hard as an adult to go out and make new friends, especially when you have not had to for a long time. At my age and for the past years, the people who are my own age are pretty busy raising young families so they may be sympathetic and interested in my life and vice versa, but they just don’t have the time. This is the stage where you resign yourself to being more on your own than you are used to until you can tap into a social community in your new home.
In some cases, this turns out to pretty easy. In others, it takes a while. If you’re an expat, then there are sure to be others around as well. I’ve enjoyed going to Hash House Harriers runs/walks and met tons of new people that way. The exist everywhere. However, I don’t drink so there’s a limit to how much I can really get into that particular scene. There’s often a hang out, a pub or a bar, or a club, where you will find your people. People who speak your language and who understand your jokes the first time.
But the thing is, when you’re at home you have the whole city and country to pick from. When you’re away, the only thing you may have in common is a language that you both speak. The other folks may well speak three or four languages before they get to English, and put us North Americans to shame for speaking only our own. So you hang out with people to whom you can talk without struggle. And that means hanging out with people who are really different from your usual friends group. In the long run, that is really cool. In the short run it can make you miss your old friends group even more. It can take a while to bond with the new people that you meet.
Someone told me once long ago that it takes a good year to settle into a new place. I make friends slowly anyway, and I find it takes me closer to two. I’ve developed a set of interests that I explore everywhere I move, and hope to find a group of people who are open to new friendships in at least one of them. For me those activities are: paddling or rowing, board games, and choir. In my last place, paddling didn’t work out for me as well as I’d liked so I left it. Choir was fun, and the board game people were amazing and I miss them all still.
Phase 3: The Slump
The buzz wears off. You find it less and less fun to grocery shop buying mystery products. You run out of shampoo or toothpaste, and discover that there’s nothing remotely similar in the new place. Or you need new clothes and there’s nothing in a size that fits you in any of the shops. Someone in the street was rude, or you just couldn’t convey what you wanted to a vendor because of your limited language skills. The taxi got lost because you couldn’t give better directions.
At a certain point it all becomes just too much. I find this sets in around the six month mark. The culture shock took its time to settle in and now all the weirdness is just weird. It’s one thing to go on a vacation to another land and experience all the weirdness as an “exotic other” way to live, but it’s another thing altogether to deal with it on a day to day basis, and never get a break. Why does the bank need an extra set of documents for a simple transaction? Why did the government office suddenly ask for a copy of my last utilities bill? Why would I carry my passport with me to deal with my cell phone bill? Why does every taxi driver I meet want to know if I’m married? Why? Why? Why? How? WTF???
It’s a great idea to have a weekend away somewhere in here, travel to a country with more familiar cultural practices if you can. Somewhere where people speak your own language so you can think freely.
It’s a strange thing to be editing your own thoughts because you realize that the person or people to whom you might be speaking can’t follow anything more complex. To realize you are simplifying your speech or including local speech patterns that are wrong to make sure people can understand you. It always happens to me. Weird. During the slump phase, it irritates me to no end to realize that I somehow can’t even speak my own language any more.
Phase 4: Adaptation
You figure out the rules of the new place. You sorted out a car (or public transit). You have enough language skills to cope with the most common day to day needs. You’ve figured out how to grocery shop, how to commute to work, where to go out for fun in the evenings. You have made some friends, and have a social life. Sometimes it’s too much fun, and you need to say no to people in order to have some quiet time. Things are good.
It all starts to feel kind of normal.
This is good. It also means you’re a prime candidate for Phase 5: reverse culture shock.
Phase 5: Re-entry
I’m in phase 5 now. I moved home about six months ago, and this phase is still sorting itself out. I am experiencing reverse culture shock.
I spent most of the first month or so wandering around thinking we waste so much space here in Canada. Of course, we have a lot of space, and not that many people. But still… the vast expanses of lawns. The woods that block the major highway from the surrounding communities. The width of the roads. These are luxuries, as is the cleanliness of my city.
I’ve been living in Muslim countries for a while, and I’m still getting used to freedom of speech again. In my previous homes, I could be arrested for making statements that might be construed as critical of Islam or my host country. I could be arrested in some places for making atheist statements because these are critical of Islam.
On the other hand, this week is a major Islamic holiday, Eid el Adha. It is the Islamic rough equivalent to Christmas for Christians. There is a feast. There are gifts, and gifts to the poor. It’s a Big Deal, and we got a full week’s holiday where I worked to celebrate it. Many people travelled outside the country for the feast, and even though I didn’t generally participate, the festive atmosphere permeated the entire environment. This year, I’m not seeing any of the excitement, because it’s contained within Muslim households, and I’m sad to notice the absence.
I’m getting used to wearing shorts in public, and not worrying about bare arms. It was technically illegal to go out without covering up in Dubai, but nobody cared. However, I got burned so easily that I did cover up. Then the inside air conditioning was so cold I needed a sweater. I’m getting used to weather again, as in my last home there was but one forecast: insanely hot and sunny with humidity from high to crazy high. I am told it’s been a dry summer. It feels to me as if it’s been raining constantly.
It’s been worth it.
Those of us who have lived and breathed and worked in places far from our own speak a kind of secret language, and understanding of the world that enriches us. We speak of London, Singapore (although I’ve never been), and other distant locations as if they were our own, because they often are the homes of the people you meet. When you can travel to Thailand or Malaysia or France or Kenya in a few hours on a short vacation, you start to see the world as a pretty small place. We are all much the same. There is extreme poverty and wealth in almost every place.
And yet idea of a secret language is a conceit as well, as many people travel the world. I wonder how much living in place makes me more worldly than those who travel extensively to a wider variety of places. Both experiences change a person. I’m not sure of the differences though.
Yet I envy those who really know a single place, and learn it well. I’m always a visitor. Always making new friends, and then leaving them behind. I long to know the wax and wane of the seasons in a specific place, to set up a home and stay in it. I want to meet the children of my friends, and the next generation of my family, and be there when they have birthdays and other milestones. To know I can buy a concert ticket for six months from now because I will be here. To see the same friends year over year, and watch their lives evolve and to be there to help them in the dark times and celebrate with them in the joyous ones.
There is no way to live a life that gives us every possible insight into the world. I’ve growth to loath airports and hotels. The world is full of wonders but there are many right here at home. I’ve seen much of the world, and am enriched by my experiences. However, I am now ready to explore the adventures of my own place and leave the world to the rest of you.
I hope this helps with anyone who chooses the life of an expat! Good luck!