The term sounds so exotic and unattainable to some. It sounds plain terrifying and unappealing to others.
When I hear the word “expat”, I feel a sense of excitement. When I hear that someone has left their home to go live abroad – I feel a direct affinity with them. Because let’s face it; contrary to popular perception, being an expat is no easy gig. You are constantly outside of your comfort zone, you have to start from scratch in each new posting, your world view is ever-changing, and if you’re like me – you can never remember your new home address. Or where you packed your grandmothers tea set.
When I was 19 years old, I left home to go on an adventure. 15 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, I call myself a long term expat. What started off with just me and 1 suitcase, has turned into a full blown adventure with a 40 foot container, an expat husband from the other corner of the world, 2 kids born in different countries and a very, very, big collection of travel photos and books. I have adopted a perpetual ‘expat state of mind’ so my phone has at least 8 different time zones (easier to schedule those around-the-world Skype dates), my bed linen bought all over the world doesn’t match (why can’t they just make 1 international size fits all?) and I shudder and draw a complete blank when I’m asked to fill out a ‘permanent address’ on any form.
Whether you are someone who’s leaving home for the first time, or a seasoned expat who can’t remember where ‘home’ is anyway – allow me to share my biggest learnings from expat life.
Here are my top 10 ways to be a kick-ass expat:
1. Excitement vs Fear of the Unknown – Your attitude is key:
When you start an expat stint in a new country, there’s always a healthy balance between your excitement for the new adventure that lies ahead, factored in against your fear of the unknown (will it be safe, will I be able to make friends, will I be able to find my favorite brand of cheese?). You could be really scared to start all over again and I won’t blame you – heck, I’ve been really scared a few times when I’ve landed in a country that I’ve never been to before and suddenly there I am to start a new life.
But if you want to make it an adventure, you definitely need a healthy dose of curiosity, optimism, resourcefulness and some self-deprecating wit and humour to laugh at yourself and your mistakes along the way. As I have moved from 1 expat location to the next, part of the thrill has been to figure out the mundane things in life in a new setting with new rules – asking for directions in a foreign language, figuring out a bus schedule, starting a new job or giving birth in yet another foreign country. I have recently learned that obtaining a residence permit in Dubai will take longer if the government official promises “it will be ready in 5 days inshallah (God Willing)”, so no need to hold your breath or get upset about it – it will happen eventually (for each ‘inshallah’ that you hear, add about 2 days waiting time roughly).
2. Don’t be afraid to put yourself “out there”:
When you are new to a place, it really helps to put yourself “out there” and say “yes” to everything. My top tip is to go to as many coffee mornings, casual get-togethers, neighbourhood meetups, new mother support groups and any other activities you are interested in, hear about or get invited to – this is how you will find likeminded people and probably make a friend or two.
These coffee mornings are sometimes where I would find answers to my most pressing questions and concerns: can you recommend a pro-natural birth gynecologist? Where can I shop for spices and South Asian ingredients? Which nurseries are open for admission? Word of mouth and recommendations from other expats are how I am used to making decisions now. Tap into online resources and expat forums as well in your neighborhood or communities – someone will have an answer for you that will make this whole experience seem less overwhelming.
3. Don’t “trail” behind your spouse, view it as a chance to reinvent yourself:
The great thing about being an expat is that it affords you a fresh start – you get a clean slate everywhere you go. This may sound like a luxury but I think it is also a necessity. Sometimes, when you’ve been living in one place for a long time, doing the same job at the same place, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Sometimes changing your scenery and moving to a new country with new opportunities and new possibilities can give you the impetus to reflect on what it is you really want to do, or quite simply the chance to explore other passions, hobbies and interests.
Being on the expat trail afforded me a huge win – I was finally able to make the career change that I had always dreamed about. I hung up my finance hat in Denmark and put on my creative one in Singapore. I started writing for a local magazine, and spent each day loving what I did. It has since led to a full time career change; one that makes me look forward to my week ahead.
4. Learn the local language:
Moving to an expat location where you don’t speak the language and cannot communicate in English is hard. Probably the toughest time I had was moving to Berlin in 2007 when I didn’t speak or understand a word of German. I used to walk the streets, not knowing what people around me were saying and it was the most unnerving and frustrating experience ever. I felt I’d become illiterate overnight since I couldn’t communicate or read the newspaper or make sense of any of the road signs.
Learning the local language is a must in so many expat locations, and it provides an amazing insight into the new culture you find yourself in. Even if you can get by without learning the local language, it definitely helps to have a basic understanding of it and the local lingo. In Denmark, it sure helped to realize that a sign outside a boutique which said “slutspurt” meant final sale, and in Dubai, although my expat essential Arabic lingo is limited, it is powerful – “yallah” (lets go), “habibi” (dear) and “inshallah” (God willing) get the job done on most days.
5. Perfect the balance between belonging and saying goodbye:
This is a tough one; I struggle with it each time. Each goodbye seems harder than the previous one. Hard because once you live in a place, that place becomes part of you, and you carry it with you, no matter where you go next in the world. And then the funny thing happens: you are in a new, unfamiliar environment, you are trying to figure things out, and you can’t help but compare everything to the previous place, which you truly miss. However, the irony is that the previous place was just as unfamiliar in the beginning, and being rightly or wrongly compared to another place. Before you know it though, the comparisons diminish, you start to develop a feeling of belonging, until one fine day just when you’re feeling settled, you’ve found a fantastic hairdresser and have just paid next year’s school fees upfront, it’s time to move on of course and say goodbye.
Expat life is a perpetual battle between pragmatism and nostalgia. It’s a strange and beautiful and bittersweet struggle at times, but it is wonderful to experience how a place that used to be so ‘random’ will now follow you on your journey and will never totally fade away from your heart. I still sit up each time I hear something about Copenhagen on the news – whether it’s about a climate conference or about Danish design – it’s a small reminder of a place I once called home.
6. Trust your spouse:
Marriage is tough – an expat marriage is even tougher. Dealing with a hectic job, a traveling spouse, an unfamiliar environment, and being away from family and friends – can all easily take a toll on your marriage. (The divorce rate for expat marriages is alarmingly high.) You may be dealing with cranky kids, not knowing who to call to fix the washing machine or where to go to find Italian bread, and your husband may be dealing with a different working culture, corruption or nepotism in the port terminals of Africa and a different way to get things done etc.
Trust is key, and open communication is paramount. A move abroad can strengthen a marriage if both partners are on the same page and tackle the challenges together. It’s important to view it as a joint adventure – share learnings and key insights, try to explore together as much as possible and always be compassionate and kind and put yourself in your partner’s shoes.
Personally, one of the toughest aspects of our expat marriage I found, was being dependent on my husband in a way I had never been before. In Singapore, I was quite literally his “dependent” on a “dependent’s visa” which meant that even dealing with the phone company would require his consent. Such challenges can be very hard but it’s the stuff that makes you stronger. And bitter. Just kidding!
7. Pass on an identity to your 3rd culture, expat kids:
Parenting is no easy job, but raising expat kids in a 3rd culture where neither you nor your partner are from, can be plain overwhelming. In the midst of the expat haze, it’s important to pass on an identity to them, and teach them where they come from, where their parents come from, where they were born and where they currently live.
Three things that have worked greatly for us have been:
- Regular visits to our home countries and quality time with the grandparents
- Cooking food from our respective countries at home
- Speaking to our kids in our native languages
So much of our own identities have been shaped by language, food and culture, so we try to pass all this rich heritage to our kids too and make sure they are as familiar with eating biryani as pasta. That they are able to understand German and sing in Urdu.
However, it’s natural that the kids will only know our home countries as vacation spots, and that’s okay. They will probably end up identifying the most with the place they spend the majority of their time growing up in. As long as we give them roots and wings, they are allowed to fly in any direction they want.
Travel is the grease on your expat wheels – it’s what makes your life fall into perspective. Travel keeps you going, it shows you that the adventure is never finished and that you still have so much to learn. Being an expat in a foreign country offers you the best avenue to travel and explore a certain region or continent, so grab this opportunity by the horns. You will never regret trekking across temples in Cambodia as Monks reach out to bless your 8 month old or being caught in the middle of an elephant parade in Northern Thailand.
9. Accept you will be homesick for many places simultaneously:
The concept of homesickness becomes a complicated one for most expats. I sometimes feel I am in a state of perpetual homesickness – craving a Danish pastry in Singapore, and Chilli Crab in Dubai. Longing for a beautiful fall in Massachusetts and winter in Karachi.
My advice is not only to accept that you will be homesick across continents, but to embrace it and make it part of who you are. Keep the memories alive whichever way you can, whether it’s looking back at photos or reconnecting with an old friend you made during your time there. This will not only make it easier to deal with the various nostalgia, but will also enrich your life and the expat journey you are on.
10. Collect experiences but treasure something from each place:
Everyone tells you to collect experiences and savor memories, but sometimes a physical reminder of where you’ve been can really cheer you up when you’re having a bad day. These are the things you point to the movers to take extra care of, because they are of sentimental value. Some of the things that I like to look back upon which remind me of my expat journey are:
- A book by Hans Christian Andersen (my favorite Danish author) given to me by my work colleagues in Denmark. My husband received an old map of Viking Denmark which he treasures too.
- A Peranakan Elephant with Singapore street names given to me by close friends in Singapore the day I left.
- Paintings of Brighton, UK given as a wedding present from friends at Sussex.
Have you been an expat and lived away from home? What would your top tip be, on being a kick-ass expat?