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-