Exasperated Expats: It’s OK

When you move to a foreign country, you decide what and how to share with your family, friends and social media network. As you don’t have the time to share everything about your new city, you have to be selective with your news, images and anecdotes. Many expats I know – myself included – are guilty for glamorising the experience of living overseas (whether deliberately or subconsciously). Your audience usually gets the weekly highlights, not the downsides or day-to-day frustrations. Maybe you want to promote where you’re living, encourage your loved ones to visit or reassure them that you’re not suffering from homesickness or culture shock. Perhaps you just don’t want to dwell on the negative. After all, would my loved ones prefer to hear me bitching and moaning about the sixty minutes I waited at a bus in Rome (which was meant to be every twenty minutes – ha!) in the 35°C heat… or see photos from a day trip to a charming little town near Rome? Unless they partake in a little schadenfreude from time to time (don’t we all?), they would probably enjoy the latter more.

Once I posted a grumpy status on Facebook and an acquaintance commented: “What are you complaining about? You live in Rome!”. I’m sure he didn’t mean to minimise my feelings and just wanted to put things in perspective, but I felt indignant. None of us live in a euphoric utopia so we should all be able to vent from time to time…. whether we’re in a 2000-year old city, on a sandy beach or even the top of a mountain! I’m British, after all, and we’re known for our superhuman complaining abilities, preferably over a cup of a tea and some biscuits! I left the UK three years ago and it has been a very rewarding, enjoyable experience but not without its challenging, embarrassing, infuriating and baffling moments! Today I would like to reach out to everyone living, working or studying abroad and tell you IT’S OK!

  • It’s OK if you feel annoyed when people call you “luckyYou may be in a more privileged position than others but it’s not just down to luck. You got yourself into the position you are now by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, working hard, seizing opportunities and being pretty damn brave.
  • It’s OK if presenting yourself to new people (again and again) feels incredibly tedious after a while. Just remember, you may have recited the ‘speech’ [where you’re from, how long you’ve been here, what you do for a living….] a hundred times before, but the person in front of you is hearing it for the first time. So keep it short and be enthusiastic!
  • It’s OK if you dread the “Where are you from?” question because you know what controversial, topical subjects might come up…. or the stereotypical views some people associate with your country.
  • It’s OK if you sometimes don’t want to tell people what you do for a living! As an English teacher, I’ve been propositioned many times for spontaneous free lessons language exchanges, when I can barely string together a sentence in their language.
  • It’s OK if you don’t LOVE your job. I know many people who like their expat-friendly jobs (such as language teachers, au pairs and childminders) but it isn’t what they always dreamed of doing or what they studied/trained for. Some ‘settle’ for expat-friendly jobs because they can’t enter their desired sectors due to language barriers or visa restrictions.
  • It’s OK if you’ve thought “Why do they do things this way over here!? It makes no sense! The way they do it back home is much better!” It’s OK if you’ve even said it out loud! You don’t have to love everything about your new country; you can compare and contrast different practices and behaviours from the different places you’ve lived. It’s OK if you don’t see yourself living in this city forever… or if you preferred somewhere you lived before.
  • It’s OK to be a hypocrite. For years, I fantasied about living in a hot country…. then found myself whinging about the mosquitos bites and sticky, sleepless nights!
  • It’s OK to be annoyed by how much you stand out; whether in the supermarket, in a bar or on the street. In Rome, people could tell I was foreign just by looking at me. It meant that I had to be careful of tourist prices and scammers thinking I was there on holiday and could be easily duped. As it happens, I was wise to their ways and capable of arguing back awkwardly in Italian!
  • It’s OK if you like the attention you get by standing out! It’s a great conversation starter after all. When I was in China, I found people’s curiosity and fascination amusing. I didn’t mind them taking photos of me (although it was weird when they took photos of me without permission). It was fine for a holiday but I imagine it gets old really quickly when you live there! On a positive note, experiences like these make you more mindful of taking photos of people when travelling and respecting their privacy.
  • It’s OK if the prospect of a medical or dental appointment is so daunting that you leave all your (non-urgent!) check-ups for your home visits.
  • It’s OK if you’re worried about your savings and pension (or lack thereof). Along with your future long-term career options if/when you decide to stop country-hopping…. and allll the other things that keep you up at night.
  • It’s OK if you’re envious of your friends back home: of their financial stability; their houses; their security; their investments; their close relationships with your mutual friends, even their routines! It’s daft because you could have had those things but you actively chose a different path. Still, the envy is there, along with the fear that you made a HUGE mistake moving away from the comfort and familiarity of your home country.
  • It’s OK if you have an abundance of acquaintances and very few close friends. Or if the majority of your friends are international, rather than local. You can’t help who you really bond with or how easily you connect to them. In many cities, it’s really really hard to infiltrate locals’ friendship groups (especially when they’ve known each other for decades).
  • It’s OK if you feel there’s a language barrier when it comes to your humour and some of your new friends don’t ‘get’ why you’re funny. Not everyone gets my deadpan British humour or sarcasm (at least I think I’m funny…).
  • It’s OK if you’re reluctant to grow really close to short-term expats. Some long-term expats I know keep their guard up as a form of self-preservation. Expat friendships can be incredibly intense and fast-paced, reaching surprising depths, and saying goodbye really hurts.
  • It’s OK if you feel out of the loop when it comes to local, cultural events. I don’t have a TV, listen to the radio or read German newspapers, so the only way I keep up-to-date is through Facebook and word-of-mouth. Maybe you struggle to find events and hobbies which interest you – what you’re into back home may not be available or popular where you are. On the other hand, there may be lots of events you want to go to, but can’t afford them all! As a Londoner, I’m spoilt by the number of free museums, art galleries and exhibitions there. In other European cities, you pay between €8-15 per entrance fee. That really adds up if you’re a culture vulture!
  • It’s OK if you suspect you may be spending too many dark wintery nights in, watching Netflix (Me too! What are you watching at the moment?)
  • It’s OK to give yourself a break! Stop pressurising yourself and feeling guilty. Guilty about not going to enough events, not meeting enough people, not travelling around your new city or country enough, not socialising enough, not learning the language better, not using your language skills often enough, not seizing each day of this fantastic overseas opportunity etc etc. You are doing more than enough. You’re doing great!

It’s OK if you feel bad complaining about any of the above points…and anything else I missed!. And you know what? It’s OK if you do it anyway!

Ciao for now!

The Curious Sparrow

Photo: www.picjumbo.com

50 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post and identified with your “you’re lucky” point. I was getting into my (second hand) convertible car one morning and a man walked past and said “is this your car? You’re lucky!” To which I replied “Lucky? I worked hard for it”. Things rarely fall into our laps. We have to reach for them.

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  2. It’s OK to be amazing, courageous, spontaneous, hard working and living life fully every day. And having these fantastic experiences you worked so hard for! I am always in awe of your bravery and wanderlust! xxx

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  3. Wonderful post! The first item is the one that really hit me though “It’s OK if you feel annoyed when people call you “lucky”.”. Seriously. People use the word “lucky” far too frequently and it comes across so insultingly. You DID get yourself! And they could too!

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    • Yes, definitely! I think it’s used as a compliment but it seems dismissive of all the hard work, effort and energy put into making such a dramatic lifestyle change. Thanks so much for reading and commenting 🙂

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  4. I love your take on being a disgruntled Expat! I can relate to a lot of what you’ve expressed. It’s especially important to give vent to the not-so-rosy aspects of living abroad so one can keep sane 😉
    Cheers and keep the great writing coming!!
    Nicola

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  5. Reblogged this on petrahedwig and commented:
    My amazing friend Isie on living abroad. She regularly posts thoughtful blogs on her time living in Rome and Hamburg, and her current plans on moving to either Asia or South America. If you need any info on what to do in Rome, or how to plan to live abroad, then look no further!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I did a Study Abroad for 6 months (like 20 years ago) so cant really speak from experience (I was in Rome BTW and this was before social media) but alot of these sentiments apply to everyday life as well! Esp abut what you post on social media. We are a family that makes the decision to put our resources into lots of winter travel (to warm places) we do alot to ensure this will happen and people are always like ” you are so lucky” so I hear ya on that!

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  7. I have felt so many of these things in my nearly 3 years living abroad. I always remind myself that these daily frustrations are part of the life – that I’d have frustrations anywhere, even back home. Thanks for putting it all down on “paper,” solidarity helps a lot!

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  8. All so very true! I’m a Brit living in America and I do often show only the ‘good bits’ on my blog…but then I wrote a book and it was the best thing I done. I literally poured out all the difficulties, the homesickness, the anxiety (along with all the good parts as I wrote it in a diary form that covered my first year) and I’ve had so many nice comments from people saying they can’t believe what I’m going through and that I’m so brave to be living somewhere different which has been nice…I was worried I’d get ‘but why don’t you love our country, it’s the best country in the world!!!’

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  9. Haha I really loved this post. I’ve been living abroad for the last 4 years, and I recognised myself in SO MANY of your points. Thanks for sharing and making me feel OK 😉

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  10. Well, I moved to Africa from China. I am quite on the contratry being labeled as’unlucky’ by friends back home. They may not speak it out, but I could feel the prejudice. They don’t understand why I keep staying. I don’t want to prove my choice or convince them. Honestly I enjoy the life here, I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s back home, somehow, somewhere, it’s better. Good things and bad things co-exist everywhere and it’s just as normal. The world is just a village, one can choose moving from one side to the other, as ordinary people, we experience very human things on a daily basis despite where you are. ‘It’s OK’ –well said!

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    • Thanks for your comment Peter. I definitely agree that you shouldn’t have to justify your choice to anyone, even if your family and friends might have made different decisions. I’m glad you enjoy life in Africa – which country do you live in?

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  11. I love this article! It’s so true, travel isn’t always glamorous. I’m finding followers get so much more value when you share the stuff that *isn’t* going well versus that stuff that is! #gltlove

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  12. I really like this article! I’ve spent 4 months in Europe twice – once for study abroad and once to teach English. Both semesters were incredible, but I definitely get what you mean when people talk about being “lucky”. I always felt like my friends back home minimized some of my feelings of confusion or home sickness because I had worked towards an opportunity or saved money or taken a pay cut, etc. to do something they weren’t able, willing, or brave enough to do. The not getting your humor and dreading the “where are you from” talk resonated too. Love this post!!!

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  13. I don’t even know where to start with how spot on you are about so many things!!!I One other thing is that friends didn’t want to tell me anything bad or moan to me about anything from home because they didn’t want to ruin the great time I was having abroad. I lived in China for 4 years (that brings a lot of frustraions in itself) and had a 1.5 hour commute to work, I wasn’t always having a great time! and yes being called a foreigner, photographed and laughed at begins to grate!

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    • Thanks Tanya 🙂 I know what you mean about home friends keeping the daily gripes and stresses from me. You tend to get the summarised version rather than the details. Some of my friends are not very active on social media or aren’t good texters/Whatsappers and prefer to give me a full update in person. Which doesn’t work well if we only see each other a couple of times a year! I know when I move further away, out of Europe, I will have to address this and suggest we Facetime/Skype more often than text/write. I’ll encourage them to be open with me, sharing the good and the bad. Regardless of my location, I want to be a good friend and support them however I can!

      Which part of China did you live in?

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  14. YES everything about this post! Especially the part about looking at the people back home enviously and feeling self doubt even though this is the path you’ve chosen. It puts it in perspective this way to think that despite all these heart wrenching difficulties, most of us would still choose it!

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  15. Wow, I can relate with EVERYTHING…. I’m from South-Africa, teaching English in Asia (Korea and now Taiwan), and soon moving to the Middle East… My pet peeve is when being asked what I love most about “their” country (*let’s face it, Asia is pretty much the same…well, it was for me…) So I am forced to fake some Googled answer (because I also don’t want to be rude you know 😉 ) when I actually feel like telling people exactly what I think….(because I’m frustrated as hell!!)… Or when people bluntly notices how “curvy” I am or how white my skin is (for someone from South-Africa…..)… Anyway, onward we go… 😉

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    • Thanks for reading Carien, I’m glad you could relate so much 😀 I’d be very interested in hearing about your experiences in Korea and Taiwan as I am considering moving to one of them next. Would you mind if I email you to ask a few questions?

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