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12 Tips for Surviving (and Thriving in) Expatriate Life

Life abroad is equal parts adventure and hard work
Life abroad is equal parts adventure and hard work

Moving to a new country is not easy and can challenge even the most thick-skinned adventurer. As a psychologist, mother and weathered survivor of a move abroad, I hope I can offer you a number of tips that will help you to flourish in your new expatriate home.

1. Keep your sense of humor. This is far and away the most important piece of advice. Without an ability to step back from a situation and laugh at yourself, your time as an expatriate will be difficult. Just yesterday, my son and I used the boys’ locker room at the pool. I did not know the German word for “boy” and there wasn’t a visual representation on the door so after a quick eeney-meeney-miney-mo, we chose one. Luckily it was empty but the lifeguard informed us later of our mistake. After turning a deep shade of fushia, I laughed and vowed to start German lessons.

2. Learn the language. Before moving to the German-speaking part of Switzerland, we lived for three years in the French-speaking part. I found that learning French helped me feel more connected to the community. For instance, once I learned how to properly tell the cashier at the grocery store to “have a nice day,” I relished the smiles I received in turn. However, make sure that your expectations regarding language learning are reasonable or you risk demoralization. Most native speakers will appreciate your efforts and overlook your mistakes.

3. Find a group. I found that taking language classes was an important way to meet other people who could share my experience of being abroad and learning something new. Connecting with people helps to ease the feeling of isolation that naturally occurs after moving abroad. If you have a baby or small child, see if there is a teacher willing to provide lessons to you and a friend at your home. Sharing a teacher cuts costs. Taking lessons is activating, creates routine and contributes to the development of a social support network, which is crucial for most people to maintain their mental health. If you already speak the language, joining a running group, church or parenting group may be something else to consider.

4. Find your niche. What did you do in your home country that helped you feel like yourself? Are you a gym rat? A coffee house aficionado? Are you a movie buff or an animal lover? Sports fan? Do you enjoy volunteering? Find a place in your new location that supports pursuits where you can connect with those parts of your personality. Perhaps it is a special park or museum or even the public library. Integrate a visit into your routine so that it can be a place to check in with yourself on a regular basis.

5. Be aware of your personal risk factors. Prior to moving abroad, I had no idea how much the weather could impact my mood. As a native Floridian, I never had the opportunity to see how three weeks of gray weather would affect me. And now I know. When I feel edginess or low motivation coming on during a spell of bad weather, I have a plan for managing it. And other factors can also impact how you feel you are handling your expatriate life, such as hormones, stress, loneliness, change in physical activity level, change in diet, lack of sleep. Know your triggers and how to work with them.

6. Cultivate friends with whom you can both brag and whinge. There is a tendency in the early years of life abroad to join any social opportunity that presents itself but at some point, it may be important to select which relationships to focus on in order to cultivate more quality than quantity. I would recommend finding friends with whom you can both brag and “whinge” (whining binge). These are people who can celebrate small victories with you because they recognize that life is difficult and can also listen nonjudgmentally to you when you just need to vent.

7. Give yourself a year- or more. A client once reported to me that she was having a “bad Switzerland day” after experiencing a number of incidents that she felt illustrated the worst part of the country’s cultural values. These days will occur a lot in the first year and into the following years. Resist the urge to make any big decisions on these days and start fresh the next day. Beyond that, the mounds of PAPERWORK and reorganization involved in moving abroad often takes an ENTIRE year before it is settled. However, take your time and monitor your stress level. It will get done.

8. Resist culture blaming- you’ll just feel more isolated. We expatriates are in a unique position to compare our own native cultures to our host culture. There are some things that work better and some things that may not work as well. When you notice yourself tallying all the things that do not work as well, resist the tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking. When you start to feel like the culture itself is flawed, you will only feel more alone. Let the thoughts and emotions pass and recognize that you may feel differently the next day. Cultivate a gently curious “let’s see how I feel tomorrow” mindset.

9. Be aware of resentment in your partnership. This is an insidious scourge of expatriate relationships. Often, one partner is relocated abroad while the other goes along. When things are not working well for the partner who does not have the benefit of routine and socialization provided by employment, it is easy to hold the other partner responsible. Be open about how you are feeling with your partner so that resentment does not fester. Recognize that acculturation is hard and ask your partner for extra support and patience while you attend to self-care. Your relationship will be better for it, even if it means spending more money or time to get what you need.

10. Establish a routine but leave room for spontaneity. Following a major life transition, routine and predictability are very important. Setting in place a rhythm can help you to increase your resilience to the small and large bumps in the road that will inevitably occur. Even small routines like going for a walk every evening, or visiting your favorite coffee shop each week, or buying an English newspaper will help you to establish a sense of order. However, avoid clutching rigidly to routine- if an unexpected opportunity for joy or long-term gratification occurs, seize the moment.

11. Keep your traditions but adopt some new ones. At our house, we have established a “Swiss-giving” tradition (no turkey, just a big chicken!) that helps me to tap into holidays that are important to me and to teach my son about his American heritage. Advocate for those traditions that help you and your family connect to what is important for you. It may not look exactly the same but the intention itself is affirming. On the same token, partake in the local traditions and try them on for size. Is there space for you and your family to integrate them into your way of life? If so, new and unexpected pleasures await you.

12. Get support in your native language. Need a little extra support as you adjust to life abroad? There is no shame in finding a professional who can help you to figure out your own plan for flourishing, whether a medical practitioner, psychologist, yoga teacher, midwife or priest. If possible, finding someone who speaks your mother tongue as a native speaker is ideal but otherwise make sure it is someone with whom you can freely utilize the richness of language to describe how you are feeling and doing.

(Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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