5 things to know before moving abroad

02.02.2016

I received a contact note a few weeks ago from a reader who asked me about my experience of expatriation. Her husband got a great job opportunity abroad and the family is debating whether to make the jump or not… I never really talked about it in detail on this blog, but I moved to three continents in a short amount of time [from the US after I finished grad’ school, back to France, my homeland, then Morocco, in Africa, then back to the US, first to the East Coast, then to San Francisco, CA]. And it got me thinking that what I had learnt over this journey should be shared on this blog, because some of you may be pondering the idea of moving to another city, country or continent.

Expatriation is fun. It takes you out of your comfort zone, makes you grow as a person and it’s great for kids to experience life abroad. But expatriation also comes with cons, difficult adjustment times and a general blues that comes from being away from your loved ones, your homeland, and your culture.

Please keep in mind that this is my experience, and that I am in no way, an expert at expatriation. However, I have a few expat’ friends who share similar perspectives about expatriation.

This is what I learned from my expatriation experience:

  • New life, new habits

Moving abroad means that all your habits, your go-to references are gone and you have to start all-over again. It can make life challenging : from grocery shopping [you can’t find your go-to yogurt brand, your regular shampoo, or the basic stuff you put in your cart without even thinking about it] to finding a new pediatrician or a hairstylist. However, while this may sound scary, it’s also very exciting. Think of it as the chance to start fresh and new. How many times in life can you start all over?

  • Culture shock

After a few months of post-travel excitement – usually the first 2 to 3 months are packed with positive emotions – culture shock hits you like hammer on the head. You did it, you jumped into the new adventure, everything is new, challenging, but in a good way… You are excited about this new life, your new apartment or home, your kids learning the local language. Life is great. Then, culture shock hits, and it hits hard. Almost overnight, you miss your language, your baguette, your neighborhood, your friends, your language. I remember calling my mom just to hear someone speak French to me. It was bad. I went from being super excited to being super scared, sad and uncertain : did I make a huge mistake? Why do I miss “home” so bad? It’s normal. All normal. Everyone goes through that, they just don’t share it. After this culture shock period, things get better as you build your new social circle and develop your local habits.

  • The one-year test

There is a simple rule when it comes to expatriation : if you haven’t settled into your new life, created new habits, a new social circle and you still feel “exiled” after the one-year mark of expatriation, then chances are this new place is not the right one for you. If may be time to re-assess as a family your length of stay abroad, apply for a new move within the company that expatriated you, or go back home. By this one-year mark, you either fit into this new culture, or you never will completely.

  • The grass is not greener at home

This is a tough one, and a hard one to learn. You finished your expatriation contract, and decided to move back home to be in your culture, your language, your friends. But things don’t always go as planned. Friends who took the extra time to meet with you when you were visiting from abroad and put their daily life aside won’t do this when you come back for good. And then YOU changed as well. When you thought that sharing a culture and a common language makes all the difference, you realize that you changed as a person, and the people within your culture have different mindsets than you. This is because you became a ‘world traveler’ , a citizen of the world, but a foreigner/outsider within your culture. I went through this when I returned to France the first time after 5 years in the US, and it was a tough time. I did not have the excuse of being an expat, yet I felt so different from my French compatriots. It took me at least a full year to feel back at home.

  • Embrace your new “culture”

So it turns out you’re different because of your world travels and exposure to new cultures. So what? You celebrate Christmas a little too “French” while living in the US, or a little too “American” while living in Europe or Asia. That’s the beauty of family traditions, they can evolve with your family experiences and matter just as much. We do things completely differently as a family expatriated in San Francisco : on Thanksgiving, we usually have friends over and we cook roasted lamb and have foie gras on toasts. On Christmas, we have a giant buffet with everything everyone requested on the table. We may not be a typical French-Moroccan traditional family, but that’s what makes us and our family culture and traditions so unique. Living abroad has challenges, but oh, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Have you lived away from your homeland as an expatriate? Have you experienced a similar adjustment? I’d love to hear your story! Xo, Si-

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33 comments

  • Chantale

    I can relate with the culture shock part, I still remember thinking ‘what on earth am I doing so far away from my loved ones?’ Then everything got better.
    Thank you so much for sharing your expat journey, Si. I really enjoyed reading this piece.
    Chantale

    • French By Design

      Ha, yes, culture shock is a rough phase. Glad everything ended up well for you Chantale. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience. Xo-

  • Claudia

    I just read your interview on At Mine. Thank you for your authenticity. It’s so refreshing to read real true people.
    A fan from Austria

  • Sabrina

    Hello, this is a wonderful blog post, thank you! I also experienced being an ex-pat. I’m American and lived for three years in Brussels. Moving overseas was a wonderful experience. I felt like I had worse culture shock coming back to the states. I *knew* things would be different and there would be much to learn when I moved to Belgium. I thought coming home would be easy…but my friends and I had all changed in such different ways that we didn’t have the common ground we once had. Other ex-pats and I have talked about this too, the culture shock of coming home is sometimes worse than going out on the adventure.

    • French By Design

      I couldn’t agree more with you Sabrina, the culture shock going back ‘home’ is a double hammer on the head!

  • Mau

    What a great topic! I am also an ex-pat, Scottish primarily then spent my teenage years and about 20 years in Canada before returning to Europe and living in Copenhagen. I must admit my first move to Canada was the hardest, age being a main factor, but most recently my move to Copenhagen has been the best decision I have made. It is such a beautiful city and with a culture that speaks to all that I love. The transition here has been absolutely lovely but was most likely because of both the beautiful city and people along with the decision to remain here from the beginning.

    Everything you have mentioned, Si, speaks so much of feelings that I have had throughout these journeys but as you mention at the end embracing the new culture is probably the best way to feel success and happiness in the new country. Thank you for your lovely writing.

    • French By Design

      Oh, thank YOU Mau for taking the time to share your story and perspective. Xo-

  • Heike

    I can really relate to your experience and feel the same way. I have lived several times abroad as well moved back to Germany. First stay abroad was New York City as Au pair when I was 19. Great to experience family life in a different culture but the downside was that I hardly meet any Americans my age. But adjusting to normal life in Germany was not that easy either. The second time I moved to Canada With my husband. During our time there we moved to Australia for a project my husband had close to Sydney. What a gift to even travel further. I had a project, too because I got pregnant in Canada and gave birth in Australia. Really interesting how different countries and health care systems handle pregnancy. But I can definetly recommend to give birth in Australia. They took great care of us! When our daughter was 3 months we moved back to Canada. The biggest challenge there was to make new friens there. Canadian young families are extremely busy with themselves – they already have friends, family, jobs, a big mortgage. They are really friendly and interested but it is not easy for them to find time to make new friends. A lesson learned – you really have to make an effort to estasblish friendship. But the the people we met are great and we are still in touch 15 years later. Due to my husbands job we moved back to GErmany 3 years later which is great, too. I really appreciate we had the opportunity to live aboad. And now our daughter is about to travel the same road. She lives in Paris now to learn French and will start her stusies in the fall in Scotland. We terribly miss her already – but completely understand why she wants to live and study abroad. Sometimes I wish I was that young again ….

  • Lene Christoffersen

    Wonderful , spot on blog.. Rings in tune with our family’s experience.. We’re danish, went to France, to Sweden, then some of us back to DK.. There’s a wonderful southafrican writer/ lawer , Joanne Fedler who’s written a wise and funny book on this topic and claims it’ll takeyou twice as long to adjust to going back as the amout of years you were gone.. No all wrong.. Maybe it’s due to setting down a few roots in several places..
    Thanks for great blog. :-)

    • French By Design

      Ha, didn’t know about this author, but what a great equation! Thanks for stopping by Lene! Xo-

  • Sophie

    I have been an expat a few times now. Currently an Australian in Switzerland. It’s the language I find difficult. After a year I’m still really struggling with my French. I find it can be isolating and stop you from really settling in. I keep working on it but there is such a long way to go before I will begin to understand subtleties and humour. And that’s such an important part of the life experience.

    • French By Design

      Ah, I remember that part. The first 6 months in America, I would not answer the phone if my life depended on it. Total block. Then, one of my ESL intensive course teachers told me I would be fluent the day I dreamt in English. I still remember that morning, awakening and feeling so happy and relieved! French is a hard language tough, as you said, there are so many subtleties., but you’ll get there… Enjoy Switzerland!

  • egle

    First of all, thank you for the nice blog, I really enjoy reading it!
    My experience in relocations is so big and some people say that they get headache when I start telling about it.. :) I am originally from Lithuania, moved from there just after my studies to Greece as a volunteer. The trip was supposed to last 10 months, but I stayed there for 6 years because…I met my husband. After 6 years I moved to Scotland for my postgraduate studies and my husband to Bulgaria as an expatriate. After 2,5 years I went back to him. To Bulgaria. There our son was born. When he was 6 months old, my husband was offered a job opportunity in England. So, after some consideration (we just had a small baby!) we went there. And, unfortunately, I could not adapt there.. Maybe it was my postpartum hormones, maybe the location (we stayed in a remote area of England) but I felt like I was the loneliest person in the world. My husband was travelling a lot, so it was just me and my son, trying to see the bright side of life.
    My husband offered for me and my son to move to Lithuania, so that I would be closer to my roots (through all these years I was so nostalgic about my country) and he would travel every weekend to be with us. But, as you said, that grass in not greener at home. During the years of my absence, I lost my closest people, we sold the house that I grew up, so there was nobody waiting for us. Just memories. And I really felt different from my friends that I left in Lithuania, I had changed since the time I left so much and, I think, in their minds I was a crazy person who is wandering around the world trying to be happy…
    After 6 months in Lithuania, my husband was offered a possibility to move to Spain, Madrid. New language, new culture again, but maybe finally a home for us, and the most important to our son. I am feeling really bad for re-rooting him so often. He is 4 years old now, and I can really see a difference in him and other children that has not travelled so much. He is more open minded, he loves travelling but, of course, he loves being at home and having his own room and playing with his friends. I really hope our next stop will be our home.

    • French By Design

      Thanks Egle for sharing your personal experience. I think if YOU are happy with the place you live in, your little one will settle just fine. We moms worry so much during a relocation that we put ourselves on hold for the family. Take time for yourself to make sure you settle in your new location, and the family will be happy if you are. Spain sounds exciting! Wishing you successful adventures. Xo-

  • Janet

    Thankyou so much for writing about this! I am an expat and have found it to be quite an emotional and isolating experience. Its VERY hard when you realise that ‘home’ isn’t ‘home’ for you anymore. I found this to be especially hard because it was not something I had expected or prepared for (one year away became four years and will probably be up to 10 years) and because most people can’t understand what you are going through. The part that I find most difficult is raising young children in a foreign country – so many heart breaking moments involved!!

  • melissa miller

    I spent seven years overseas,in India,Turkey and Thailand,when my father was a US Diplomat. I attended six schools while living in these countries,and probably moved at least ten times. Yes,I did experience most of those things,culture shock,new routines,new food,culture and adapting to all of it,sometimes not so easily. I loved living overseas and my time there gave me a new outlook on the world. I would not have traded those years for anything!

  • Mark Joshua

    Being away from home is very hard yet full of excitements. There’s going to be a lot of challenges that’ll teach us something. Still in the end, We’ll realise there’s no place like home.

  • Catherine

    I’ve been in the South of France for 11 years, preceded by 6 years in Belgium and 2 in Kenya. Adapting depends on where you are in life, your personality, your horizon (are you planning to settle, or is it an adventure for a few years?) and ALSO where you’re moving to.
    For me, Kenya was hard (no running water, no electricity, no other ex-pats around), but exciting (so different from the Midwest!) and doable just because I knew it was limited to two years. It helped to have a job that gave me an anchor.
    Belgium started as a two-year gig, and again having transferred for work helped give me a ready-made social net. Knowing I wasn’t going to settle, I didn’t make many local friends, but I did travel all over Europe on weekends.
    France was hard because I went from NYC to a village of 700 (not only not 24/7, but everything shuts for siesta between 12 and 2). I speak French and have a kid, which opened doors–immediately I met all the other moms. Dogs have a similar effect–all the dog owners know each other. We had English neighbors who never fit in–same age as us, but no kids and no dog, plus weak French skills. They became very unhappy and left. I eventually created work for myself, because employment opportunities in small towns are very scarce. It was hard not being a big boss of a big office anymore. The career switch and urban/rural switch are culture shocks that could happen with a move in the same country, but they’re amplified when you also switch countries.
    Happy to say, I became very integrated. Elected to the PTA for 8 years in a row. Know everybody. When I had a small operation on my toe, people practically fell over each other to help out.

  • Brittny

    I love reading posts like this! I am an expatriate from Seattle, currently living in Germany. We’ve been here almost two and a half years, so we’re past the settling in stage, but there are of course still days where everything feels different. I had a friend describe expatriation a while ago to me as a pendulum between love and hate. The first few swings are huge, but over time the swings ease until you settle in to a comfortable middle ground.

  • Barbara

    This post is one of the most insightful and true that I’ve read in a while. I needed to hear this, to know I wasn’t the only one not feeling at home in my hometown anymore and yet being a foreigner everywhere else.
    My blog started with my study abroad experience, and here I am now, during my working abroad experience. I just posted something about everyday life as an expat, you can read it here: http://300daysofengland.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/everyday-issues-of-expat.html

    Barbs

  • Alida

    My husband, 12 year old son, and I moved to Lyon, France January 1, 2014. My husband is a football coach and was offered a position as a coach for an American football team. Truly the best 6 months of my life. I felt more at home there than I do here in Huntington Beach CA! I have made wonderful friends and my French has improved leaps and bounds from this experience.

  • Mady

    Thank you for this great post. I just needed to hear this…. I am moving back to my home country (Netherlands) after 22 years living overseas in different countries with my partner and young children. Soon we will find out if it’s the right decision we’ve made. I’ve always been on the move, I’ve spend a long time (I’m still here) in Australia and I must admit it took the longest to settle in. I think what I liked most moving to a new country is to get to know the culture, the different foods, the language… And no one knows you!

    Mady

  • Trine Wissum

    This post is seriously spot on!

    I’m an expat in Singapore on my second year. When I read this post I caught myself saying “yes” or “exactly” after almost every paragraph. The three things I recognise the most is the following:
    1) Your first point “New life, new habits”. There are still so many go-to references that I have yet to find. One of the latest posts on http://www.awayandtogether.com actually touches this point briefly.
    2) Your third point “The one-year test” is so true. It takes some time to feel really at home in a new country but it shouldn’t take more than a year if the new country is the right country for you. Having said that, you also need to make the new place as your home and see it as your home in order to feel at home.
    3) Your fourth point “The grass is not greener at home”. This part was so interesting for me to read. I’m still a newbie expat meaning that it’s my first time aboard so I haven’t had the experience with moving back to my home country yet. However, what you are writing is exactly what I was “afraid of” and one of the reasons that I know that I’m not ready to move back to my home country yet (even though I of course miss the family and friends I have there).

    Your post made me want to write about my experiences on the same topic and I will elaborate on the above in more details in a post on http://www.awayandtogether.com shortly.

    Thanks for sharing yours.

  • Laura

    I just discovered your blog, and I absolutely love it. I’ve been binge-reading while my toddler naps. :)

    This post is so accurate. I’m an American married to a Frenchman, and I lived in Paris for years. It was simultaneously the most best and also the most confusing time. There are ups and downs while living abroad, sort of like in a relationship. But what stuck out to me most, like you said, was coming home and realizing that I had changed and felt like I didn’t fit in anymore. I loved the last paragraph where you said “so you celebrate Christmas a little too French? So what?” That nailed the sentiment entirely. Though I’m from New York, it took me two years to stop calling the subway the “metro,” which people understandably found annoying and pretentious! Anyway, thank you for this brilliant post! :)

    • French By Design

      Ha, I can totally relate with the ‘metro’ part. When I go back to France, I tend to speak Frenglish the first 3 days. My friends always tease me and tell me I sound like a snob, like I’m trying to be hip using English words in French sentences, but I can’t help it! ;)

  • Patricia

    I’ve been an expat only for about 2 years, and now I’m back home for some time now. But I don’t feel adjusted, and I don’t feel at home.
    It’s strange how travel changes you. After you start seeing the world, you just want to see more. People, culture, way of seeing life…
    We want to start planting our roots, but we haven’t found the place to call home yet.
    Hopefully soon we’ll find it. Fingers crossed!
    Patricia

  • Jemi

    Thanks for this great post and the stories it has prompted in response. Definitely a comfort to read so many shared experiences. I agree that moving back home can be the hardest – friends are not there for you as much as when you’re ‘visiting’ home or living your ‘special’ life abroad, perhaps the hardest is when you return to an empty space and need answers as to how things work at home, but friends are too busy now…..But it also is payback time for all the occasions they allowed you in to their cosy brunches despite seeing you only twice a year, sent you little gifts because you were stranded out alone somewhere, spent hours on whatsapp listening to you discover a new place on the first days; time to listen to mundane stories and help with chores. And it is saddening to be accused of being the snob or being the privileged world traveller, when you are just being yourself and missing the scattered friends and experiences around the world that made you you; yet inside you know how privileged you are to have had a rich life, and to have braved all the challenges…

  • Thelma Zimmerman

    It is really difficult for some people to adjust to the new lifestyle that another culture offers. Some people are really open for changes and love to make such big moves like you did… but not everybody it like this… may be even the majority of people. I really love to travel and to live in foreign counties… but my parents and my sister really refuse to adapt to anything that is new to them. Thank you for the post! I find it really interesting!