The realities of being an expat

Notes From Another Land / Life is beautiful

Everyone has their own take on what changes you should expect when you move abroad and they differ for everyone. After three months in our new city, I’ve decided it’s time for a round up of my thoughts on the matter. Every day I discover something new that makes me laugh or question the way I’ve always done things. It may be something as silly as trying to figure out how the postage system works here – what do you mean you can send things by first or second class? I thought it was a postage celebrity status until I realised it just meant more money = quicker delivery. No special sparkles or singing telegram on the delivery side of things! Or finding the closest thing to an Australian flat white with a good kick around the corner from our new flat, with little positive message printed on their takeaway cups. These daily gems keep me thinking life is great and we have so much to be thankful for. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows!

Notes From Another Land / Coca Cola

Small London delights – Coca Cola served in retro glass bottles

Life in a new country has its’ setbacks and you will need to dig in your heels if you want to stay happy, healthy and create the most opportunities for yourself. Australia was a chance for me to complete my degree, learn about new industries, make new friends and build new networks. We had such a great time there that when we moved to Ireland, we suffered hiraeth (Wikipedia says it’s a noun to describe “a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was”).

Ireland was a whirlwind 15 months of time spent with family, solid work, short adventures and hibernation. I didn’t feel there was much of a change in seasons (much like Australia) but due to our lack of humidity, beaches and warm weather, and the amount of woolly jumpers I sported, it felt like I was in hiding and waiting for summer to arrive. Alas, there are still things about Ireland we wish we could pack in our suitcase and take with us (the amount of jumpers I own not being one of them) but Galway will always be a home to us that we return to.

If you’ve ever loved where you lived but decided to leave, you will know how I feel. I think of these far off destinations as a foreign affair – beautiful, enchanting and you love spending time with them but you know in your heart and your head…you can’t commit.

The week of Canada Day (July 1st people!) marks five years since I packed the bags to move from Ottawa to Brisbane and I haven’t relocated back to the true north strong and free since. Instead, I’ve been in Galway, Kildare and now London. So after living in three other English-speaking countries with very different cultures and personalities, here is a summary of a few things that may help you get through your current or future expat move.

Notes From Another Land / Oxford Street

DIY tourism: taking in the sights from the front of the double-decker bus

Returning to student life.

You may not be moving to a foreign country where you need to learn new language skills but if you’re from North America and you move to a British English speaking country (like I have done three times now in the past five years), you will need to adapt. From local slang to basic grammar, doing a bit of research will go a long way. You can Google just about anything these days but local sites with user generated content like Gumtree in Australia, boards.ie in Ireland and BBC’s message boards can give you an insight into the local lingo. You can also scan social media networks in your new country and keep a look out for advertising and editorial copy tag lines as a good way to learn new phrases and decipher what they actually mean!

If you are moving to a country that has recently experienced the hard effects of the Global Financial Crisis (basically anywhere in the EU) and is on the upswing or gradually getting there, the job market could be drastically different to your home country. Look into the job outlooks, salary ranges and basic qualifications required for your chosen career path so that when you register with a recruitment agency or go out to pound the pavement yourself, you can negotiate a fair wage and summarise your skills and experience as they relate to the current market.

You may need to upskill or reskill – only you can decide what you need based on your prospects. But if you’re moving to a fairly big city or don’t mind online study, the opportunities are endless with networking events, workshops, webinars, free MOOCs from around the world and more traditional courses on offer from your local colleges, universities and professional associations. Think about where you want to be five years from now and work backwards – how will you get there? What can you do in the next six months to take a step towards those goals? And how can you put it into action this week to get cracking on this exciting chapter in your new life? Whether it’s a career, language or personal development course, lifelong learning in your new home is guaranteed to give you a new perspective (and hopefully some new contacts!)

Grass is not always greener.

Everywhere has its’ quirks – what drove you nuts about your home country may not be an issue in your new one. But you can rest assured knowing something in your new country will replace that old quirk. The key is to draw on your flexibility, resilience and adaptability. If you don’t have much in the way of those three qualities, start developing them now or get ready to pack it all in within a few months or years time.

When life gives you a few hard knocks, as it does to most people regardless of their location and lifestyle, you need to be able to bounce back. If you’re prone to bouncing back only when surrounded by loved ones, within the comforts of your home environment and routines you may find you end up on struggle street pretty quick.

Notes From Another Land / Hampstead Heath

The grass is pretty green in Hampstead Heath

But don’t despair! Do you have the internet or access to a local library? Do you have a mobile phone or the ability to call someone to have a chat? If you’re travelling solo and lack a confidante, you can (and should) try to keep in touch with your loved ones at home via Skype, WhatsApp, Snapchat, snail mail or the old jingle jangle. There are tons of local groups looking for volunteers in your new community, support networks that exist for people struggling to integrate into their new home and there are always helplines you can call where a real person is waiting on the other end to help you pull through your problems. Don’t give in and don’t try to go it alone, reach out for help and you will find it.

Notes From Another Land / Homesickness

Souvenirs and notes from friends and family

A good step in preventing the grass is greener syndrome is to accept things as they come. Accept the fact you will struggle to understand how things work in your new home. Accept you will appreciate little things that locals seem to ignore or not realise how great they are. Accept that you will feel different and sometimes like an outsider. Most likely because you are! But that doesn’t mean you should compare yourself to others or try to adapt to become the same as your new neighbours. Hold onto yourself and keep your integrity, good qualities and use this time to lose any of the bad ones you may have acquired along the way. Every day is a chance to begin again (that is where the resilience comes in). If you’re similar to me, then your stubbornness and persistence may help you – lucky! While some may view those qualities as ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ I choose to view them as ‘we’ll see who has the last laugh when I try those tricks again’.

Keeping it all in check.

Just be sure to balance your resilience with humility. Leave people better than you find them and try to be kind to yourself.

Open doors for others, smile at strangers (within reason if you live in London like me) and treat others with respect. All basic principles that are sometimes forgotten in the hustle and bustle of new big city life. Do you really need to run up the escalator on the tube? Or interrupt someone’s transaction at the till to place your order because you’re in a hurry? Or leave your rubbish lying around because someone will eventually pick it up? Yes, these may all be thinly veiled protests against things I’ve seen others do but they remind me to never stoop so low. I will always stand to the side for others and say ‘excuse me’ if I need to get past. I will patiently wait for the customer in front of me to finish and I will actually treat the person behind the counter like a human being instead of a customer service robot. And I will always separate my trash and recycling because that’s what those bins are for. I blame it all on Canada and growing up in the countryside – it’s ingrained in me to say hello to others and try to be kind. We all have our moments and I’m not saying I’m perfect but spend a few days commuting into the city centre of London and you’ll know what I mean. A little humble pie goes a long way, sugar.

Getting through some days (changes and all) may be easier than others but accept and expect that will happen. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to adapt straight away but put that energy into trying new things, joining new networks and going out to explore your new neighbourhood.

Notes From Another Land / Friday flowers

Be kind to yourself: start with some flowers at home!

I have alway sought out a good local cafe to have lazy weekend breakfasts, with decent coffee and newspapers. For me this reminds me of home on the farm in Canada, where I would go through a few cups of coffee while reading the local news. Find a good bakery or grocery store where you can get a few of your favourite snacks to remind you of home. Or get cooking those handed down recipes to make your own versions in your new kitchen! Whatever gives you comfort on days when you don’t feel like trying another local dish. After a while you’ll find you have established a new routine, comprised of bits of home you’ve taken with you and experiences you’ve had since leaving. Your new life will be a mish mash of tastes, hobbies and happenings but that’s the exciting bit. You get to mould your expat life into what you want it to be – whether it’s impacted by worldiness or homesickness is up to you!

Notes From Another Land / Canadian pancakes

Soul food in the form of pancakes, bacon, maple syrup and strong coffee

It’s not about what you’re capable of, it’s about what you are willing to endure. – Orrin Woodward

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4 responses to “The realities of being an expat

  1. Very interesting indeed. It’s always great to get some insights of life as an expat. Everything always only sounds so glamorous, but the reality is always a little harsher!

  2. Yes indeed, Moritz! Depending on how you look at it (if you’re a glass half full or half empty type), it can make all of the difference 🙂

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