Living in a foreign country is difficult and extraordinary and everything in between. There are some big expectations, assumptions, delusions, and wtf was I thinkings that go along with it. Here are my top expectations vs. the harsh realities that come with expat life.

Expectation #1 of Living in a Foreign Country:
Everyone will visit

Reality: No one does (or very few)

girl paddleboarding over clear blue ocean: living in a foreign country

In my mind, I really thought everyone would visit. I mean, we have a beautiful condo with a spare bedroom and a view of the water. The only expensive part of the whole trip is the plane ticket, but once you are here, everything is cheap.

Mark and I have always traveled far and wide and as often as possible. I forget that travel isn’t everyone’s jam. It never dawned on me that most people don’t travel like us. Just because it’s our lifeblood and we are currently going through airplane withdrawals doesn’t mean everyone else is the same.

There are a lot of other reasons why people may not visit. And I get it.

  • Malaysia is not the kind of place you travel to for a one-week vacation. You need 10 days to do it properly. Most people can’t take time off work to fly across the world. That being said, I know expats in Europe and Mexico, and still, no one visits – it’s not just Malaysia.
  • Also, so many of our friends have kids. Traveling with a family of 4 means four expensive plane tickets, which makes the trip cost-prohibitive.
  • Not to mention that people just have no desire to travel to Asia or anywhere out of their comfort zone, for that matter.

There is a reason why around 58% of Americans don’t have passports. For some people, traveling to the next state is far enough.

Expectation #2 of Life in Another Country:
Every day will be an adventure full of exploration

Reality: That’s only true for the first few months

girl living in a foreign country leaning on a palm tree

In the beginning, everything is exciting and new. You are stepping into the unknown, and every morning brings different challenges. You are surrounded by other languages and exotic cultures, and it’s all so thrilling, no time to be bored.  

But after a while, that wears off.

Once you find an apartment, you’ll get more settled into your daily routine. You still have the laundry, the grocery shopping, the cooking, ya know, the stuff that makes everyday life, I don’t know… normal. And in between all those normal life things, you work.

However, there is a bit of an exception here. If you are retired and living in a foreign country, that’s a game-changer. Because then you can make every day more of an adventure. Sure, you’ll still have all the “normal life” stuff to do like us working stiffs, but in between the errands, you can have as much fun and adventure as your little heart desires.

I’m confident all of our retired friends have far better social lives than we do.   

So overall, our day-to-day life looks pretty similar to how it was back in Chicago. Wake up, work, gym, work, run errands, work, eat dinner, work, watch an hour of Netflix, and sleep. Def not very exciting.

Don’t get me wrong. We have exciting days, and when we get to travel, that will be freeing, but for life on the regular… it’s basic.

Expectation #3 of Living in a Different Country:
We will travel ALL the time

Reality: Work gets in the way

white desk with pink flowers and accents

Unfortunately, Mark and I aren’t independently wealthy, nor were we born into royalty – we need to earn our keep.

One of the biggest challenges of working abroad is the work part. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for play, especially when building two online businesses from scratch. No one is paying us a fixed salary. Working from 9-5 is a dream I’ve heard about but never experienced. #entrepreneurlife

Expectation #4 of Living in Another Country:
Being separated from family and friends will get easier – the guilt will subside

Reality: Fat chance!

group of friends in sunset

If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ve probably read my moving away series: moving away from Family and How to not let the guilt kill you. So clearly, this is something I struggle with. But judging from the daily emails I get from people dealing with the same feelings, I know I am not alone.

Truth is, it gets more manageable at times, but not all the time. The guilt creeps up, and the sadness drifts in pretty often (oh god, cue the tears 😭, here they come). However, now I know how to handle it better – but it doesn’t go away.

Maybe it’s worse because of Covid, and I haven’t gotten my momma fix in over 2 years. Or that I wasn’t there when my gramma died, and if it weren’t for this worldwide disaster of a pandemic, we would have been there. But none of that matters anymore. I just miss family and friends and having no end in sight makes the struggle to pull through the sadness that much harder.  

I’m just so thankful for all my friends here and Penang’s expat community because they’ve made all the difference. Finding your tribe in a new country is essential, and will help you be a happy expat.

Expectation #5 of Moving to Another Country:
Your world back home will fall apart without you

Reality: Newsflash! The world did not implode

two tall trees with a sunburst between them

I realize this makes me sound like I’m so full of myself. In some ways, I felt like my family’s happiness depended on me, wrong or right. It’s how I felt.

However, no one and I mean no one’s world fell apart without me there. Even though I wasn’t there shooting happy glitter out my tush (as unicorns do), life went on… without me.

I’m not saying that it was easy for them to adjust to my absence and that my mom and gramma didn’t want to kill me. What I’m saying is that I’m not all that. I’m not that important. Life went on without me.

This brings me to a related but different expectation…

Expectation #6 of Living in a Foreign Country:
I can handle the FOMO

Reality: The show must go on, with or without me

plane wing with sunset vibes

Life at home remains the same. All your friends and family will still go through all the exciting events of life… births, weddings, parties, new homes, grad schools, all the fun stuff. And all the horrible things like deaths and divorce.

The reality is that you will miss most of it.

In fact, you might not even know your friend is pregnant until you find out on social media. It hurts. But the truth is that your friends are missing out on the same big things going on in your life. And they might also find out on social media. It goes both ways and hurts for both sides.

It’s one of the difficult things about living in a foreign country. And FOMO is real.

Speaking of friends…

Expectation #7 of Moving to a New Country:
Friends are friends forever, right?

Reality: Yes and no

girls sitting on the beach

There is def a probability that you will lose some friends. Not because you don’t like each other, but because long-distance relationships are complicated and take a lot more effort.

Not everyone will understand your new lifestyle. Or the reason why you would leave in the first place. They might even feel like you are leaving them behind. And eventually, they will become distant.

Keeping up with friends is one of the challenges of living abroad. Moving to a foreign country brings out the best and worst in people. And after a while, you’ll truly see who your real friends back home are.

Pssst, if you are missing a friend and want to let them know you are thinking of them, check out my going away gift guide because I’ve picked some of the cutest (and most hilarious) gifts on the planet.

Expectation #8 of Living in a Country that’s Not Your Home:
I’m sooo going to learn a new language so I can be really down with the locals.

Reality: There is really no need

girl with book on face in front of brink wall

I think it would be different if we lived in a small town in Malaysia where we would need to learn Bahasa or Mandarin to make our lives easier. But most of the people in Penang speak English which means I can be super lazy and not learn any language (I’m so American). Yes, there are some miscommunications as I wrote above, but nothing major.

I mean, I know how to order some food in Bahasa and my iced coffee in Hokkien (a dialect of Mandarin mostly spoken in Penang). I know how to say the pleasantries in both languages too. But that’s as far as my bi-lingual-ness goes. Unless you count making up words as another language, my only lingua franca is Ingles (sorry, I was showing off my mad Spanish skills).

If you are living in a foreign country where you have to speak a different language, it’s different.

Expectation #9 of Expat Life in Another Country:
Everyone speaks English so we’ll understand each other easily. I mean, English is English, right?

Reality: Well my friends, just because we speak the same language doesn’t mean we understand each other.

girl with hat by pool

There are accents involved for them and for me. English isn’t their first language, and I certainly don’t expect them to have an American accent. Many nuances go with speaking that can confuse people, even when speaking the same language.

It’s not so much a language barrier as it is an accent barrier. It’s even worse with masks.

Most of the time, I can get my point across easily here. But I’ve had to slow down my cadence and use fewer words.

Don’t even get me started on humor and sarcasm. I’m pretty sure sarcasm is a western concept. Also, it turns out that no two countries have the same sense of humor. If you don’t believe me watch a Japanese game show and let me know what you think.

Expectation #10 of What it is Like Living in a Foreign Country: I’m going to be a badass Malaysian cook and learn to make all the best local food.

Reality: Leave the local cooking to the locals

Overview of 4 plates of food, with people eating the burgers and salad.

The fact that it’s cheaper to go out for local food than cook it at home REALLY prevents me from even trying. I mean, who wants to spend hours in the kitchen making a curry when we can go out for it for pennies on the dollar? No mess, no sweating in the kitchen, no clean-up? That’s my kind of cooking. And it’s always better when the locals make it.

Plus, we know how to cook western food, so we cook pretty similarly to how we did back home. Our go-to’s are crockpot dinners, burgers, tacos, salmon, roasted chicken, chili – all the things we can’t find here as easily.

The Wrap Up

There are always difficulties of living in a foreign country. It’s not home. Things aren’t as easy – period, end of story.

However, it really does change you. It opens your eyes and broadens your horizons more than you could ever imagine. Even the best foreign countries to move to will have their challenges. Hello, culture shock. No place is perfect. You just gotta get close.

Is living in a foreign country overrated? In my opinion, no way, Jose. But that’s just my opinion. If you aren’t sure about making a full-time commitment, try living in another country for a year, or six months or for as long as your visa will allow. If you can work remotely, be a digital nomad.

Just try it.

So, did I miss any? Tell me about your biggest expectation vs reality moment in the comments below.

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