There are so many changes that happen when you move abroad. You go through all the pains of settling into a new country and making a new life for yourself. You learn the ins and outs, the quirks of your new home. It’s your new normal.
And then you return to your country of origin for a visit, the place that you called home for so many years, and it feels like you’re in another foreign land.
Moving overseas is hardly a piece of cake. In some ways, it’s so rewarding. In others, so confusing. It doesn’t come without its own strange set of challenges, not to mention all the WTF moments.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve compiled a list of all my “You know you’re an expat when” moments. You’d think these quirky realizations would only happen in your adopted country. But the real mind f**k occurs when you go home, to your old normal, and you lose your mind…just a little.
So here goes.
You know you’re an expat when…
1. You go back to your home country and spend an hour totally overwhelmed in the grocery store. The sheer variety and choices are mind-boggling to me now. Someone usually has to wrangle me out of there.
When I first moved to Malaysia, I was overwhelmed by the variety of soy sauces. There is an entire AISLE of them. In my previous life, we had two types, regular and low sodium, which isn’t even a thing here. Now I know which brand I like and head to it. Not overwhelmed at all. But when I go back to Chicago, I’m lost in the tomato and cheese aisles.
It’s not because we don’t get tomatoes or cheese, we just don’t get the variety. If I want greenish and hard tomatoes, I’ve got a thousand to choose from, but ripe, juicy, flavorful ‘maters, not a chance.
And the cheese aisle… don’t get me started!
2. You’ve never been so excited to go to Target. One-stop shops don’t exist in many countries, def not Malaysia.
3. You pick up the phone to call someone and realize it’s 3 am. The time zone struggle is real.
4. All you want is take-out pizza or Thai, but food delivery is just catching on here. And it’s delivery by way of scooter, so when you get your pizza, it’s a sloppy mess, all stuck to one side of the pizza box. And nobody likes that.
5. You start hoarding imported food. Not because you love it, but because you may never see it again. At any given time, I have three jars of Hellman’s mayo. I don’t even like mayo. But when I need it, I can only stand Hellman’s.
Grocery stores here haven’t quite figured out how that whole restocking idea works yet. If it’s something you like, buy it all and buy it now. I know one expat who bought an entire shelf of Tillamook cheese because she knew she’d never see it again. That was five years ago, and she was right.
6. You lower your booze standards but not your intake. In Malaysia, there is a sin tax on booze. I’m sure that’s not actually what it’s called, but that’s what it is. So my favorite vodka, Grey Goose, is only available here at the grocery store where it’s at least three times more expensive. Sadly, I’ve had to downgrade my vodka tastes to Smirnoff, something I would never drink in the US. I guess I used to be a vodka snob, now I’m just happy they have vodka here at all.
7. You are so excited by the slightest amount of customer service. You tell all of your friends, post it on facebook, and shout it from the rooftops, so they can all go and support said business.
8. You don’t even try to shop at most boutiques. Because the staff will say something like “You no fit, lah,” or “Cannot try, you’re too big. We no carry giant sizes.” Ahhh, the subtleties of Asians.
9. You stop speaking in full sentences. You quickly realize when you move overseas, that too many words cause confusion. So instead of saying something like, “I would like to get a ham and cheese sandwich, with extra cheese, and an egg on top.” I say, “Ham and cheese, add cheese. Can? Add egg, also can?
10. You are asking for something, and they say yes, but they really have no idea what you are asking for. Cue their wide-eyed blank stare of confusion. They say yes, not because they are trying to misinform you, but because they don’t want you to know that they don’t know, ya know?
11. You say, “Yes, mmm-hmm, sure.” But you have no clue what they are saying, even when they are speaking English.
12. You can’t just order things from Amazon. Life would be so much simpler.
13. You get into the car on the wrong side. After 6 years, I still do this weekly. I am continually flipping on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals. I do the same thing when I get back to Chicago, except the opposite.
14. You use an umbrella, but rarely for the rain. Most of the time, when it rains here, it’s a deluge, never a light sprinkle. It’s like using an umbrella in a flood or trying to find the truth in today’s news, utterly pointless.
Umbrellas are for the sun, not the rain!
15. Everyone knows what happened in the finale of Game of Thrones, or who the new Bachelorette is before you. And then it’s all over social media and the news. You basically have to lock yourself in a dark cave without the internet, or you’ll know then ending before you see it.
16. You stop converting money in your head. In the beginning, we thought everything was cheap because we were thinking in US dollars. A week’s worth of food at the market would be RM100/$23USD, the cost of a nice lunch for one in Chicago. Now when we spend RM100 at the market, I’m shocked at how much I’ve spent. I’ve become a complete cheapskate.
When we visit Chicago, we force ourselves NOT to convert back to ringgit, or we’ll have apoplexy every time we spend any money. One Grey Goose martini at our favorite steakhouse? US$18 (with tip). That is how much we pay for a LITER of Smirnoff.
17. You let the locals call you anything remotely similar to your name. So now I answer to Kristen, Kreeersten, Kwearsten, and my all-time fave is Mrs. Mark.
18. You spend more money in two weeks when you visit your home country, then in 2 months in Malaysia.
19. You buy a year’s worth of hair products, deodorant, and vitamins, every time you visit home.
20. You stop driving courteously, and by that, I mean within the lines. There are rules here, but no one knows them, let alone enforces them. You drive where there is space, and sometimes that means the sidewalks.
When I return to Chicago, I have to constantly remind myself that a red light means stop, not go faster, and also not to bribe the cops if I get pulled over. They aren’t very appreciative of that in the US, but in Southeast Asia, it’s a regular occurrence.
21. You realize that us “westerners” really do all look the same to the locals.
22. You have no idea who any of the stars in People magazine are anymore. And you’ve never heard of any of the movies that are up for Oscars.
23. July weather in Chicago is still chilly for me.
24. Getting a weekly foot massage isn’t a luxury. It’s normal, everyday life.
25. You’d rather eat with a spoon and fork, than with a knife and fork. In most Asian countries, knives aren’t a thing. We get chopsticks and a spoon, or a fork and spoon. I’ve become very adept at using a spoon to break apart a piece of meat.
26. It’s cheaper to eat out than to cook at home.
27. Waiting in lines seems so orderly. Now you do what everyone else does; walk straight up to the counter and talk over everyone else until you get served.
28. You no longer have personal space when you’re out in public, and you’re used to it.
29. A 12-hour flight seems remarkably short.
30. You start using British and Aussie terms. Now I say things like queue instead of line, boot instead of trunk, chips for French fries, holiday instead of vacation, lorry for truck and lift for elevator.
31. You’re brave enough to go to the bathroom in a public place. Then the conversation turns to toilet talk.
It sounds something like this
Her: “How was it?”
Me: “Well, not the worst I’ve ever been in, but I’ve lived here for six years and I’ve seen a lot.”
Her: “Squatty or western?”
Me: “Ha! Bring your own.”
Her: “Oh forget it, I’ll hold it.”
32. You say the word home, and it means more than one country. Home is where you are now.
33. You’re forever lost converting everything. Fahrenheit to Celsius, feet to cm, lbs to kilos.
34. You are no longer horrified when you see the dishes being washed on the street corner by some old lady that should have retired 20 years ago, judging by the hump in her back. She has a bucket full of the dirty utensils in one, and a bucket of cold water for “rinsing.” That is all. Try not to think about that too much.
Something funny happens when you move abroad. It not only broadens your horizons; it blows your mind. Just when you think you’ve got it all under wraps, something happens, and you realize how little you understand.
And all you can do is laugh and add to this list.
So tell me, expats, what am I missing? Add it in the comments below!
And don’t forget to read these amazing posts…I know you want to. So You Want to Be an Extra in a Movie, The Most Unusual Things to do in Phuket, Pros (and Cons) of Being an Expatriate in Malaysia, and Worst Mistakes When Starting a New Life Abroad!