As ex-pats, our friends and family always tell us how brave we are to move so far from home. Some also say they’re jealous of all our foreign experiences – the sights, the sounds, the tastes. Most of the time we love being different and living life as an ex-pat, but we all have those times where we feel a twinge of regret about leaving the comfort of home. A lot of those feelings are caused by general homesickness and the fear of missing out. What can an ex-pat do to ease these feelings?
Missing out on friends and events back home
You’re at your apartment or office and you check Facebook. Your mini-feed is filled with pictures of your friends back home laughing and smiling without you. They check-in to your favourite BYOB restaurants. You see friends changing their relationship status or post a new job and you feel completely out of the loop.
The obvious suggestion is to download apps like Whatsapp and Skype, but sometimes a major time zone difference causes communication to be severely limited. So what can you do if you feel your old friendships slipping quickly away?
First off, don’t panic. Most of your friends will be ecstatic to see when you return for a visit or for good. It will feel like nothing has changed. For the friends that do seem different, people – especially in the decade after university – grow apart for numerous reasons – even if they live on the same street. Don’t start to feel like living abroad is the sole reason because this will cause you to resent your new home and hinder great experiences and new friendships.
Second, there are lots of small things you can do to make sure you stay a part of your home friends’ lives. Sending greeting cards for no reason is a nice gesture that my friends back home really appreciate. Remembering big events like birthdays and sending some local candies home is also a great, easy way to keep your friends close from far away.
As for missing out on special events like weddings, it’s inevitable and can be heartbreaking when you have multiple events that you must choose between. I managed to save up enough money to fly back home for my best friend’s wedding, but that meant missing out on a cousin’s wedding a couple months later. Make sure to send a card, and a gift if money allows, to show that you’re thinking of them on their big day. You’re not RSVP’ing ‘no’ to their whole lives, just one night. Real friends understand this.
But, once again, it’s important to realise that living abroad is not the only reason people miss out on special events. Money and holiday time are sadly finite resources and people are forced to miss out on celebrations even when geography isn’t a big issue. Making decisions that make sense but don’t always make us happy is an unfortunate part of being an adult.
The isolation of being an expat
Lack of friends in a new is the most common cause of the ex-pat blues. As someone who lives abroad, I know how incredibly isolating life can be when you’re in a foreign country.
Living abroad is not the same as travelling or going on a gap-year. Hostels and backpacking offer an endless supply of new people and experiences. But actually settling down abroad is a different story. It brings the same challenges of making friends as moving to any new city within one’s own country would, but made a hundred times more difficult depending on cultural and language barriers.
Finding friends within the greater ex-pat community is your best option, but oftentimes ex-pats find themselves only engaging with other ex-pats and cutting themselves off from truly integrating into their new home. And the truth is that if you only live within the ex-pat community, you’re not really getting the full experience of being abroad. I know someone who lived in Hong Kong for over two decades and never learned Cantonese or made local friends – all her friends were from the international schools and she said she always felt stateless. Learning the local language is a necessity for life abroad. Even if you’re not good with languages, you have to try to learn something new every day.
If there is a language barrier, try to join language exchange events and you could end up finding some great people to befriend whose English skills are better than your foreign language skills. Chances are some of the new ex-pat friends you make will also have native friends and partners – become friends with your friends’ friends. Being surrounded by native speakers and local friends will give you the best shot at picking up the language and feeling a part of local society.
Sometimes integration can be overwhelming and you miss things from home. Try to find small things that lessen your homesickness. Is there a local shop that sells a certain candy or beer from home? Treat yourself to a small taste of home. Watch a movie that was filmed in your home city for a boost. Utilize the global marketplace: the world is your oyster online where you purchase anything from homemade crafts from hometown artists on Etsy to even a US Powerball ticket to play your home country’s lottery. Just don’t go overboard to the point that you try to recreate life at home instead of adjusting to life abroad. These should be used as a taste of home, not as a barrier between you and your new community.
Seeing others succeed professionally
If you moved abroad to be with a partner or for just a change of scenery, you may end up taking a lower-skilled or -paid job than you’re used to. Tutoring English or helping with English-language call centers and sales team are common jobs. It can be difficult seeing some of your friends and former schoolmates getting promoted or getting wonderful positions.
The key is not to be jealous and feel like you’re in career prison. Many places abroad offer world-class education for much cheaper than the UK or US. Try to look at available English-language Master’s degree programs in your area and sit in on a class or two. Besides furthering your education, it’s important to use all available resources in your local area to gain more experience. Is there an English-language magazine you can write for or a radio station that could use your vast music knowledge? Try writing for websites that cater to expat communities like The Local. Creating vlogs, blogs, and podcasts are also a great way to advance your resume outside of the work you do for money.
And remember, living abroad is great for any resume. Between language skills and showing adaptability and independence, working abroad will open many career doors.
Twinges of regret and frustration are inevitable in life. Any choice you make means you didn’t make another, but living and working abroad is one of the most challenging and fulfilling choices that a person can make. Be confident and make the most of your life abroad. Then when people back home tell you how brave you are, thank them and smile knowing that you’re having the time of your life.