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 “lucky”. You 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 lessonslanguage 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
- 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