You’re excited about your move: you’ve packed your bags, figured out your visa requirements, sold your home. You’re ready.
But are you? Despite the rosy images, international living is not all piña coladas on the beach. I know this because I grew up in an expat family. In the 1950s and ’60s, when my dad worked as a diplomat, my family moved from country to country.
Years later, I bought a home in Mexico with my husband and resumed the expat life. While I’m grateful for my nomadic childhood, I also know the challenges of that lifestyle firsthand. Here are three common issues expats face and how to address them.
Navigating Change and Transition
Growing up, I became accustomed to my family’s lifestyle and usually felt excited about a move, even though I knew I’d have to leave behind friends, teachers, my school, my bedroom, and my home. Of course, I’d enjoy gains too, but those did not erase the losses.
In embracing the expat life, you too will face loss. For example, you may be thrilled to never have to endure another glacial Midwestern winter, but you feel a pang that you won’t see those brilliant fall leaves anymore.
I find making a list of what I’m losing soothes me and helps me feel more in control. I include the very small (say, lingering over coffee at my favorite café), to the larger (no more long weekly walks with my dear friend Sue).
Rituals are powerful—they involve the senses.
Performing a ritual can also help. Rituals are powerful because they involve the senses, which help to integrate change at a deeper level. Let’s say you’ve decided not to take all the art that hangs on your walls. You could assemble the paintings you’re leaving behind, put on your favorite music, light a candle, and honor them in a ceremony. It’s fun, and good for your social life, to embrace local community and culture.
Overcoming Loneliness and Missing “Home”
According to a 2018 study by the insurance company Cigna, chronic loneliness is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But occasional loneliness is just part of life. I think of it like catching a cold—unpleasant, but temporary. When I feel lonely, I try different things. If I’m feeling strong enough, I just breathe and notice whatever sensations and emotions come up. Feelings, I find, are fickle. They’re like weather—constantly changing. They always pass, often before long.
Other times, I do act: I pick up the phone and make a date. Although my planned get-together may not happen immediately, I feel better just knowing I have an upcoming date on the calendar.
Even if you know a few people in your new town, chances are you had more friends where you lived before. You’re not a native, you may not speak the language, and among the circle of expats, you’re a newcomer, so you can safely assume you probably will feel like an outsider at times, especially at the beginning. For ideas on how to make friends, check out my article, “The Expat’s Guide to Meeting People and Making Connections.”
Staying connected with family back home helps, too. Thanks to technology, international communication is almost seamless. Many expats get a phone number that allows them to call the U.S. or Canada at no extra charge. Some countries are expanding their features in the face of this competition. Our Mexican landline now allows 100 minutes of international calls within its monthly fee package. Many expats also use Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp to stay in touch.
A friend uses Facebook Messenger to communicate with family members by text, video, or audio. “The video calls on the phone app are particularly fun with my three-year-old grandson. There’s a feature where you can digitally put on funny masks and hats and switch them on and off, trading out for different ones,” she says. “A great game with a toddler!”
Staying Well by Reducing Stress
No one wants to get sick, but you especially want to avoid illness in a foreign country where the healthcare systems may be new and unfamiliar. One particularly effective way to stay well is to take care of your stress level, because high stress damages your health in multiple ways.
Create a daily self-care routine that includes the basics: eating, exercise, and sleep. Routines are very therapeutic in times of transition. The Dalai Lama (an expat himself), when asked what word described his secret to wellbeing, replied, “Routines.”
As an expat, you may have chosen a walking-friendly location to live. Walking is one of the best all-round, low-risk exercises, good for body and spirit. Or you may have chosen a town near water. Great. Swimming is another excellent physical activity. Eat fresh (disinfected) food, watch out for street food, don’t overdo alcohol, and drink plenty of water, bottled if necessary. As expats, the challenges we face rarely have to do with the host country. Rather, they’re the inevitable “teething stage” in the process of moving to a new culture. As an expat, you’ve already proven you’re resilient. These minor kinks are nothing you can’t handle.