What to expect when your an expat…

Really, you should expect anything and be open to as much as you can. Being an expat is sometimes tough, very tough and sometimes seems completely normal and common, especially since the majority of people you will either come to know are natives or expats themselves.

I recently read a motivational article from the Expat Women website written by Heather Carreiro, a former expat now working toward an MA in English titled, “How To Overcome Expat Withdrawal. A Repatriation Article“. In this article she offers advice about returning home after spending time abroad. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think this is exactly what expats should do when they are so far from home, not just when they return. Okay, in truth it is what I am trying to do as an expat.

As Carreiro states in her article:

“After living abroad, moving back to your home country can be even more of a shock than learning to live in a new country and culture. So much of how we define ourselves while living and working overseas is wrapped up in being an expat. Our friends back ‘home’ think of us as “Mary in Japan” or “Susan in Dubai.” In our host countries, we are always the foreigner – the one who is different. Even the very way we introduce ourselves and think of ourselves tends to be connected with this element of ‘otherness’. “

I feel this point is very true. In my husband’s office, he is the token English speaker, also the token American. Among our close friends we, as a couple, are the token Americans, which also consists of a mishmash of other expats from all over the world. It wasn’t necessarily until I became an expat that I began to fully make sense of what it means to “be an American” and how one can tell which, of course is something I am still making sense of otherwise this blog wouldn’t exist. Here so far away from home, I feel more American than I ever did when I was surrounded by my fellow countrymen. This doesn’t mean I go about wearing the American flag or proclaiming the awesomeness of all the is the United States of America. I’ve always been a little more subtle than that, even when I lived in the US.  I think part of the reason I feel more American than ever before is because I am not up to my neck in American-ness that makes up America. From where I’m sitting I feel that I can look more objectively at how Americans view themselves and then better see how they see the rest of the world.

Additionally, another article from the site, “7 Habits of a Happy Expat” by Margarita Gokun Silver is yet another article that brings up simple yet profoundly important points that are easily forgotten when your thrown into the turbulence of expat life.

This opportunity is allowing me to look at myself, as I represent both my home country and myself in this international context. Part of this means making sense of what the heck I am doing here, or perhaps at least figuring it out in the first place.  So, with this post I would like to discuss Carreiro’s five points to repatriation, which I think can also be used as a tool for expatriation as well as the seven habit of a happy expat. I feel they fit nicely together and will explain why.  I understand these are originally from a women’s website, but the points that are made are not gender specific.

Carreiro’s list:

  1. Explore Your Town and Region
  2. Set Goals for Your Time at Home
  3. Continue Language Study
  4. Check Out Ethnic Restaurants
  5. Creatively Reflect

Gokun Silver’s list:

Happy expats…

  1. Are Intensely Curious
  2. Accept Others As They Come, They Don’t Judge, And They Don’t Try To Change People To Their Liking
  3. Look At Everything As An Amazing Learning Experience
  4. Find Opportunities Wherever They Are And They Don’t Lament Those They’ve Left Behind
  5. Know That Feeling Sad At Times Is Part Of The Game
  6. Share
  7. Stay Clear Of Criticism, Sulking, And Stonewalling

My take on all of this:

Remain curious, explore your local town and region

When you move somewhere new, this should be a given. However I am always surprised at the number of people I run into who move to a new place, either in their home country or abroad and don’t actually do this. Why is ultimately beyond me. I am sure the excuses run like water for some, but the bottom line is that you should never really stop exploring, whether your an expat or not. Just as Carreiro adds, this can be done relatively inexpensively through budget options like home exchanges, couchsurfing or volunteering on an organic farm (WWOOFing)!

My husband and I agreed that if we were going to live in Europe, then we would travel at least once a month. Often, we were short on money and could be too elaborate with our travels, so we kept it close to home, either hiking a local trail or taking a short train ride to a nearby town or village to explore for the day. Sundays after all are frequently good days for day trips because along with local restaurants and cafes being open, museums and cultural institutions usually are too.

Set goals for your time

“Think about things that you would love to do and learn, but that you do not necessarily have time to do or access while [at home]. Do you want to earn a professional certification or move forward with any of your hobbies? Do you want to improve your writing, start selling your photography or start an internet-based business to earn residual income while you travel? Living in your home country, where you already know the ropes, can be an ideal time to try something new. So think big and live boldly” (Carreiro)

Even if both my husband and I regularly worked a full work week we would still have evenings and weekends to have time to do other things. Yes, I  understand that our energy for such things wouldn’t be as fresh as it would be if we were not working as much, but how truly different is working abroad than working from home, especially when the language of the office is your mother tongue or you can speak the official language of the office? I also understand that there will always be exceptions to the point I am attempting to make here, of course there always is. Yet, why let a job stop you? Just like you probably work out three to five days a week, which you find time for, why not find time for other things you’ve always thought about, but never put to paper or otherwise committed to?

My husband has a dream of opening his own business and has been working on his business plan for some time now. We are also taking German together because it will not just benefit us here, but will continue to do so after we leave. I also write this blog, in my free time as a way to make sense of my new home, my old home, being married and being me. My husband is also learning to play the guitar, something he has always wanted to do. Additionally, I am at something of a crossroads myself. I understand my level of German comprehension must improve, but then what? Since I am here teaching English I might as well become more qualified with the language by working towards a second masters degree. Alternatively, I might just pursue my Phd in American Studies, why not since it is practically free here. I think I have even found my topic too. So, needless to say, I have options! I just have to pick a path and follow it, because the opportunity is there waiting for me to choose.

So what keeps us from doing these things when we are home? Probably the same things that would likely keep my husband and I stuck where our relationship was before we left for Germany. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place, but it wasn’t necessarily a good place either. We were just sort of in stasis not going anywhere, but not necessarily sad about it either. Reflecting back on this time of our life together, attempting to make sense of what were doing, I think part of the main issue was that we just had enough other stuff going on. We were individuals with our own friends and jobs and interests. Yes, we had shared interests and friends, but it was too easy to escape into the many other things we used to distract ourselves, but that is just us. Perhaps you’re different.

Continue your Language Study

So perhaps you can only speak English and surround yourself with other people who can speak English too, because your job allows you to get away with this. Whether your home or abroad I think that language is always important. For years, while struggling through Spanish courses, I would just say “One day I will just go to the country and learn.” Now I am here and it is hard. Mind you it is much easier to learn here rather than learning back home. Still my husband and I live in a little English bubble in the middle of our town and we like to spend a lot of time together in this bubble. We love to go out, but would rather save our money to go on an adventure than eat out or have drinks with friends at the local kneipe on a regular basis. This leaves us to our own language which makes learning our new homes language all the more challenging. We are getting there, and I have plans to get back to Spanish once I get this pesky German under my belt.

In retrospect, because it is so hard to look back (not!) I now wish I would have just stuck with the Spanish and then learned another language. I understand that we are at a bit of a disadvantage in the US. Spanish is the most likely second language for us to learn since the majority of our immigrants are now coming from Latin American countries. We aren’t necessarily surrounded by countries that speak different primary language, like Germany, or any other European country. The point however is that Americans need to learn other languages more than ever. International business is becoming the norm, and learning a language means more than just learning the language anymore and is part of accepting others as they come, or intercultural awareness and acceptance. The days of thinking of others as backwards and needing saving is (or at least, should be) over – how very last nineteen and twentieth century.

Look At Everything As An Amazing Learning Experience, but Know That Feeling Sad At Times Is Part Of The Game

You live in a different country for crying out loud, you better be looking at everything in life as a learning experience, or at least as much as you can. Otherwise you are likely squandering opportunity by not seeing the forest for the trees. Even if you don’t live in another country, you should be attempting to look at life this way. It might help you to appreciate your life and all that is in it that much more. Additionally, not every is happy all the time. That is simply impossible. A few days ago I had a no good, very bad day. It was an absolute worst of the worst! Why however, I can’t necessarily tell you. I know that I woke up a little sad and feeling disconnected or distant from my husband, even though we were in the same room together. One thing led to another and next thing I know, I am holding back tears on the phone as I cancel plans that I initiated only to go run off and cry in the shower. Then little things happened throughout the day that seemed to keep telling me, “No, not today!” I was so happy to go to sleep that night and am still trying to make sense of why exactly I was feeling that way.

I think it is normal sometimes to feel down, being so far from what I’m used to, with people who I don’t yet share a language with, without the same support network – it would be strange to not feel down at times. I know part of me was definitely homesick, and perhaps a little professionally stunted (what exactly am I doing here?), but that day was no different from any other day except that I was sad – all day. I will continue to process it, but sometimes maybe we just get a little down.

Find Opportunities Wherever They Are And They Don’t Lament Those They’ve Left Behind

You don’t really leave people behind, in my opinion. I don’t know if that is possible. It is our human nature to act and react to other people, to constantly dance with those around us, all playing various roles while impacting each other in ways we often cannot immediately see. It is this impact that we have on each other which makes me believe that we don’t leave people behind, they help shape who we are. I frequently think of my grandmother. She died now just about ten years ago. We were very close and sometimes I miss her because of how easy our relationship was. However, because I miss her, one of the inspirations for learning German for me is so that I can eventually sit and talk with older people to find out about their lives. Thus, share yourself and encourage others to share with you too.

Eat at Ethnic Restaurants

Stay curious, accept others as they are and explore good food! There are 196 countries in the world and as many different different ethnic cuisines all waiting for you to try. One of the great reasons to travel is for all the great food you get to try while traveling!  Some of the foods we miss here are Korean and Mexican. We have excellent Italian all around us and even decent German, but Indian and other cuisines leave us wanting! We make Korean and Mexican at least once a month to make up for the lack of international cuisine here. I do miss the ability to eat just about anything from anywhere in Portland. Things are a bit drier around here on that front.

Stay Clear Of Criticism, Sulking, And Stonewalling

People are often critical of people who are fighting for their dreams, or even simply out to discover them because they themselves abandoned their dreams long ago. Misery loves company no matter where your from or where your going. Being around people who criticize, sulk and stonewall will not help you look at everything as a learning experience, to remain curious and setting goals.

So, really this list isn’t just for expats, women, or those repatriating, but for people in general. These rules are good general rules for living, no matter where you happen to live.

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