When people move overseas, they might expect a little culture shock. A little homesickness. But what they don’t expect is to feel melancholy and sad. Having a happy expat life isn’t a given, even if you are a generally positive person back home.
Let me put things into perspective…
You’ve just made a life-changing decision to move abroad. You are super excited as you start to tidy up your current life while planning for the next one. You sell almost everything you have or box it all for storage.
You say goodbye to your family and friends, and you finally get on that plane. Smooth sailing, right?
Well, not necessarily.
You land in your new country. Then you need to start all over. You begin the search; for a home, for friends, for the market, the grocery store, the post office, the bank.
Flash forward a few months or so, things start to quiet down; the novelty has worn off. The expat blues start creeping in. And all you want is a turkey avocado sammich. Well, OK, that may not be your comfort food, but it was mine.
Anyway, when you do settle in, you may start to feel depressed or lonely, and feel like throwing in the towel. But not so fast.
There are some things you can do to bring back that sunny side. To start or rekindle your happy expat life.
This is a long post, grab yourself a glass of wine and lean in.
First of all, follow your heart.
Don’t choose a location solely based on money. Even if your primary reason for leaving is budget, there are loads of countries that are more affordable, have better weather, a slower pace of life, and friendly locals. So don’t base it all on your budget. Be choosy.
When you move for your heart, it’s not likely that you’ll forget your head and think, “I want to live on $1500 a month, I should move to Singapore, Zurich, or Manhattan.” Your budget will always be a factor. You are still a reasonable person.
But if you move solely based on budget, you will find a country that fits the bill, but you might not be a fan of the culture, the food, the healthcare.
Your heart will find the country that suits you best, just listen.
It’s OK, not being OK. Accept that.
You’ve just moved to a foreign land, and it’s rocked your world. You’re feeling pretty down about it. It’s OK.
Feeling sad comes with the territory in expat life. It’s not all unicorns pooping glitter rainbows (if only, that would be so much fun).
Be with your emotions and accept what you feel. But don’t stay there. No one wants to stay there, and it is easy to isolate yourself.
After you’ve come to terms with your feelings, take action to get out of that place. Put on your big girl panties (or big poppa pants), shake it off, and change your state. Take a walk, go to a café, hit the mall, be around people, whatever used to make you happy in your home town. Hell, book a flight home if you want.
But just don’t stay there and sequester yourself.
But seriously, I know it’s not easy to snap out of it, but it is easy to change your state at that very moment.
Stay in touch with family and friends back home.
Just because you move away, doesn’t mean you have to lose contact with people. Nowadays, if you have a smartphone or computer, you can make international phone calls for free.
When I first moved to Cape Town, smartphones weren’t a thing. We were too broke to have a home phone. I had to buy international calling cards and march down to the payphones every time I wanted to call my mom. Now it’s a lot easier. And there is video calling, so life is good.
I know it’s basic, but having a set of wireless headphones made my life so much easier. No need to be wired to your phone these days, which means I can run errands and call my mom at the same time. We still plan our weekly video chats but now I can call my mom from the grocery store when I can’t remember that last ingredient. More spur of the moment. Having a wired set of headphones makes it more of a hassle when you need both hands.
Be intensely curious.
Find your inner child, that curious one that asked how everything worked, why everything was the way it was. Be that curious little meerkat and try to learn something about the culture, the food, the people. Your expat life will be richer for it.
You will find yourself immersed in something fascinating and probably meet a few people along the way. There is literally a whole new world at your doorstep, experience it.
Look at everyday life as an adventure or a learning experience.
Some days will be carefree, and others will be maddening. Didn’t you have days like those back in your home country? I, for sure did.
The difference is that in your adopted home, those annoying days are just learning experiences, adventures. As you find your groove, those days will become further and further apart… but they won’t disappear completely.
That’s life anywhere.
Learn the language, at least a little.
As a minimum, you should be able to say hello, how are you, please, and thank you. The pleasantries. It shows that you care and are trying to understand their world.
Expats in Penang, don’t you dare roll your eyes at me! 🙄
I do realize that everyone speaks English here and are happy to do it.
But a little Hokkien, Mandarin, and Bahasa go a long way. Admittedly, when I murder my few words of Hokkien to my favorite egg lady, she looks at me like I have a horn growing out of my head, but then it registers, and she lights up with a giggle and smile.
There is no better feeling.
“Everyone smiles in the same language,” — George Carlin.
Try the local food.
Food is the ingredient that binds us together. It’s a common ground.
No matter where you move, you’ll want to experience the local cuisine.
Forget Trip Advisor, Yelp, or any other food review website because you’ll only get tourists and nasty rivals trying to tank their competition. Unless it’s a local blog or Michelin guide, don’t even bother. The best way to find a local restaurant is to ask the locals.
Don’t know any locals? Then walk up to a stranger, tell them you are new in town and want to know where to eat. Not only will they tell you their favorite hidden gem, but they’ll also be happy to share it with you.
Or go to the fresh market, not a grocery store, but an actual market, where people are selling their produce, meat, and daily catch. In most countries, those markets have a cooked section where you can eat. Find a group of locals and ask them for advice. When your tummy is happy, you will be too.
Even if you can’t speak the language, everyone speaks food.
Make your house a home.
Unless you decide to ship all of your furniture abroad, which I don’t recommend unless you are being relocated by a company, bring a few of your favorite things from home.
I’m not talking about your favorite couch.
I mean something packable like bedding, bookends, or candlesticks. Sentimental items. They will give your new condo a familiar feel the minute you open your suitcase.
I just discovered Homesick Candles. Have you heard about them? The Chicago Homesick Candle smells like sandalwood, fresh water, and chocolate. It is sooo Chicago – the lake breeze with Blommers Chocolate Factory smells! They have them for lots of cities, states, and countries but also general places like cabins in the woods or beaches. These little touches will make your new home feel even homier.
Also, be inspired by your new location. Go shopping for little things that add just the right amount of local culture to your home. Find out what kind of trades, or art, the area is known for and seek that out.
And by all means, don’t forget your photos. Pick your favorite pictures of your friends and family and print them out when you arrive. Don’t bother doing it beforehand; you’ll have enough going on.
Another idea is to ask your friends and family to send you their favorite photo of you together. Then when you get to your new destination and print them out, you can make an album, a calendar, or frame them with locally made frames. Then you are mixing the old familiar with the new and exciting.
Little familiarities make all the difference.
Whip up something in the kitchen.
If you are feeling homesick, cook up something traditional from your home country. There is nothing like the smell of something cooking that brings you back. If your favorite meal was gramma’s meat-a-balls, then, by all means, make them.
And invite a few friends over too. Show them what home tastes like to you.
I remember the first time I saw Kraft mac-n-cheese on the shelves here; I almost lost it with excitement. Not because I genuinely like it, or ate it often back home, but because it is soooo American. Eating it felt so good. It felt better than it tasted.
If you must know, I’m a Velveeta shells and cheese kinda girl.
Try starting a cooking club. Once a month, pick a friend’s house and bring a traditional dish from their home country. No, you probably won’t know how to cook a traditional German/Chinese/Spanish/South African meal, but that is what google is for. And how fun will it be to have five friends come over with their take on your cuisine. Plus, it’s a great excuse to talk about expat life.
I can only imagine what my friends would bring.
Be a yes person.
Say yes to everything you are invited to, and I mean EVERYTHING.
Any Facebook groups, meet-ups, art openings, book readings, local events, whatever… just go. You will meet a lot of people. You won’t like them all. But you’ll never encounter the people you might like unless you leave your home.
Remember, everyone is a potential friend.
Over time, after meeting loads of people, you will fine-tune your friendships and keep the special ones. But just because you’ve found your tribe, doesn’t mean you should stop meeting new people.
I know not everyone is an extrovert, and saying yes to everything might shove you outside of your comfort zone. I get that. Say yes as often as you can, but do push yourself.
Moving to another country probably tested the comfort zone boundaries, but you still did it; you are stronger than you think, give it a whirl.
And if you are still “no-ing” me on this one, then ask your neighbors over for coffee or a glass of wine. A sense of belonging is essential for happy expat life. Don’t isolate yourself.
Be a tourist for a day.
After moving to a new country and finding a home, it’s normal to start doing everyday life things: work, gym, grocery shopping, laundry. Life happens, you create a routine, and you forget to be a tourist.
You take it for granted that this is where people come for a holiday.
This isn’t your home country, so it is bound to be leagues different. Take a day to explore. Go to the park you keep reading about, go into town and walk around in a new neighborhood (I’m channeling you, Dawn G.).
Additionally, research the 10 best tourist attractions and check them out one by one. You’ll get a new appreciation for where you live. Your expat life could feel meaningless if you don’t explore all that is available.
Take a walking or historical tour of the town. Loads of cities have free walking tours these days. Even if you think you know the city because you’ve walked through it a dozen times, do it anyway. Getting the lowdown from a local will enlighten you even more.
Accept that you are no longer in your home country.
Clearly, you KNOW you aren’t in Kansas anymore.
But what I mean is to stop comparing your adopted home to your country of origin. This can be difficult at first. You’ll hear yourself saying, “In America, we do it this way.” “Or we don’t do it like that in Chicago.” Or the worst, “Why don’t you do it as we do in the UK?”
You are comparing apples to oranges. In doing so, you’ll never have a happy expat life. Or even be mildly satisfied with being in your new home.
Look, you moved away. Your adopted country doesn’t look, smell, or taste like home, acknowledge it, accept it, and embrace it.
When you are busy lamenting what you left behind, you are missing all the opportunities in front of you.
Everyone loves the spring season for a reason; it’s a new beginning, treat your move as a new spring season in your life.
Self-acceptance and the trailing spouse syndrome.
This one is a hot topic.
The term trailing spouse is used to describe the person who accompanies their partner to a new city because of work. So, if Mark were hired to work in Malaysia, I would be the trailing spouse because we moved for Mark’s career.
In many countries, only the person who has the job gets a work visa, which means the “trailing spouse” is legally unable to work in that country.
I am not a trailing spouse, and I think that term is utterly horrible and demeaning. I mean, who the hell wants to be called a trailing anything? It sounds mousy and weak. Like you had no say in moving across the globe. You’re just a yes person, do as your told.
OK, sorry, rant over, but it’s awful.
For the purposes of this blog, I will use the term “courageous spouse.” It takes a lot of courage to be a career-driven person, and walk away from that dream for your partner, even if it is temporary.
If you are a courageous spouse, on day one, your partner carts off to work, and what do you do? You were an overachiever in your past life, and now you are sitting in a new country, with no friends, waiting for your person to come home.
It’d be easy and certainly more comfortable to stay in your cocoon while waiting for your partner to come home. But fight that urge.
Time to reinvent yourself.
Use this time as a chance to evolve. All the things you never had time to do before with your full-time gig, do them now. Start a hobby. Take a class, go back to school, write a book, start a blog, volunteer. Start an online business.
Call me! I’ve got loads of ideas.
This is your time to grab life by the who-hah and make it your own.
For the first time in years, you don’t have to work. Make your expat life even more meaningful. Better yourself.
The most important way to be happy is to be grateful.
On the daily! Not just once in a while, when someone reminds you to be. Practice gratitude first thing in the morning. Wake up and say five things you are grateful for and do the same when you go to bed.
These don’t have to be profound or grandiose.
Today I am grateful for the blue skies of Penang, Mark – the sleeping bear next to me, our health, our home, and good
vodka food. Find something that IS going well, no matter how small it is, and be grateful for it. It takes all of one minute.
When you are feeling grateful, it is impossible to be unhappy or angry.
Your brain won’t allow it.
Don’t expect miracles overnight. All changes take time to adapt to, even the ones we choose. Give yourself some time and grace. This too shall pass.
Expat Life = Happy Life
It can be easy to fall into a depression or feel a little sad once all the excitement of moving is over.
Just because you choose to move abroad doesn’t mean it will be easy. It comes with its own set of challenges. Nothing else matters unless you are a happy expat.
If you find yourself walking down the path to the expat blues, think of this advice. Or email me. I’ve got your back!
If you want to read more tips from other expats around the globe, read this post, it has tips from the pros.
Have you gone through the expat blues? Or have you successfully stayed away from them? Tell me in the comments below.
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