I’m not going to lie to you. Expat life can be challenging. And it isn’t for you if you’re easily frustrated, inflexible, or rigidly set in your ways.
Today we’re looking at the darker side of the expat experience; all those little things that grind you down and all those hidden disadvantages that come packaged up with your exotic life abroad.
This article is part two of a series. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to go back and check out the first instalment, where we looked at the 10 best things about expat life. I wouldn’t want the list below to sway you from setting off on your own adventure.
Okay, let’s get rolling with the bottom of the bunch when it comes to living abroad…
Living Abroad Can Leave Holes in Your Resume
Like many of you out there, I did the ESL thing after uni. I spent two years working as an English teacher in Tokyo. It was a great job because it gave me an easy visa, and I had plenty of time to write in the evenings.
But when I moved back to Canada a few years later, I found I was unemployable. Prospective employers didn’t see the skills I’d acquired abroad as relevant, and they dismissed it all as nothing more than a vacation. In their eyes, I was “just travelling”.
Keep this in mind if you’re eyeing up a particular career path. Living as an expat might be an advantage, but it might also be an unforeseen mark against you if employers see it as a gap in your resume.
Isolation From Like-Minded Friends
Sometimes I miss my old friends back home. You know the ones. The friends you grew up with, those people who know your past and where you came from. Getting together with them, even after a long separation, feels like nothing has changed. No matter how cool those new expat friends are, they can’t replace that feeling of total belonging.
You might also have trouble finding like-minded friends in your new country. And that can leave you feeling cut-off and alone. The Internet helps you stay connected to the people who matter, and it’ll get you through those times when you feel like you’re living in an outpost on Mars.
Expat Circles Can Be Boring
I’ve found that expat groups tend to divide into two broad circles here in Malta: retired British people who moved here for the weather, and temporary expats who came for work. When socializing, both groups spend much of their time complaining about the country we live in. The retired Brits tend to talk endlessly about the cost of things. And the working expats one-up each other with travel stories of the “back in my day I was more hardcore” variety.
I’ve found this to be true in any country or city where I’ve spent extended periods of time. Expat communities hang out with each other mostly to kill time, and because they’re thrown together by default. I’ve always stayed away from the expat social scene for that reason.
Living Out of a Suitcase
One of the greatest gifts of travel is that it taught me how little I need in order to be truly happy.
That being said, it can get tiring to feel like you’re living out of a suitcase, especially if you left a lot of your personal belongings in your country of origin, or if you’re moving from place to place with long stays in between.
On the plus side, it makes the decision to travel light a lot easier. You can’t accumulate too much stuff if you don’t have anywhere to put it. And really, you can buy most of the things you need just as easily abroad, whether that’s summer clothes to match the season, or hiking boots for an upcoming trip.
But even for the most committed minimalist, travelling light has its downside. Sometimes you really do need to flip through those old books you’d marked up, or look through those old family albums.
Feeling Like an Outsider
Not speaking the language can leave you feeling like everyone around you is sharing a private joke at your expense, or whispering about your terrible choice in paisley shirts.
Until you move abroad, you never realize just how at home you feel when you hear people speaking your own language, especially in your own regional accent.
But on the other hand, I find that not being able to understand the people around me helps me filter them out when I’m deep in my own thoughts on a train or in a coffee shop filled with babbling strangers.
Poor Access to English Books
This is a big one for me personally. Malta sucks when it comes to libraries. The staff is friendly, and they do their best with the resources they’re given. But this is a country where people don’t read.
Even the regional branch libraries here are quite small. Mine is a single room. I get the sense that they’re mainly patronized by expats and retirees from the UK. The collection has that random feeling of having been donated by users rather than purchased.
I used to be a weekly patron of the Ottawa Public Library, but since moving to the Mediterranean, I’ve had to buy a lot more books than I normally would have in Canada or Tokyo. Thankfully eBay and Amazon UK ship throughout Europe quickly and reasonably cheaply.
When Cultural Differences Clash
Sometimes you just can’t connect to the culture you’re living in no matter how hard you try, and some aspects of the life there will always rub you the wrong way.
When I first moved to Malta, I just couldn’t reconcile myself to the way people don’t take personal responsibility for anything, from tradesmen making appointments and then not showing up to people driving recklessly and then shrugging and crying “What happened?” when they cause the inevitable accident. Even after living here for four years, I still can’t understand that aspect of the culture. I don’t respect it, it clashes with my own world view, and it’s not something I could ever adopt for myself.
When frustrated by such experiences, I remind myself I’m here by choice, that not every country checks every box on my ideal list, and that there might be places out there which suit me better. As an expat and a traveller, it’s up to me to go out and discover them.
You Miss Out on Holidays Back Home
The trade-off to relocating more than a short domestic flight away is that you’ll miss out on all those family holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays and the like. And holidays can be a lonely time for the expat living abroad.
But on the plus side, you’ll miss out on all those family holidays…
If your family gatherings involve regular fist fights, Uncle Harold passing out in the punch bowl, and Aunt Martha sobbing in the bathroom and vowing never to come out, then I suggest you put one or two more time zones between you and your home. You’ll thank me later.
Feeling Like a Foreigner at Home
When you do finally go home for a visit, you might find yourself feeling like a foreigner in the place where you came from.
You’ll be completely out of touch with current events, whether political or local. You won’t recognize the actors and actresses, or the current TV shows. You won’t be able to relate to some of the stories your friends tell, because you weren’t there for them. Old familiar streets will look strange with new buildings on them, or with new shops and new faces where you expected to see the familiar.
Those old friends will have more and more trouble recognizing you, too, because you have changed.
This can lead to the feeling that you no longer have a home: a place where you fit in. And it can leave you feeling disconnected. But don’t worry, it isn’t true. You’ve learned how to feel at home anywhere.
You Have to Choose
And finally, I think the worst thing about expat life is that you have to choose just one place among so many amazing countries and experiences!
So yeah, that’s it. These are the downsides to living abroad, as I’ve experienced them. But as I’m sure you can see, it’s a small price to pay. And most of them are livable, given the incredible new experiences that expat living has to offer.