5 Things No One Tells You About Living Abroad

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Preface – this is a long post. Make yourself a cup of tea.

Through looking up info on travelling to Turkey (one of the two places on my ‘must visit next’ list), I came across a really lovely blogger called Liz. I really love her blogging style and it kind of made me sad that I am a lot more swift and thoughtless with my posts. I am going to try to put as much detail into things as she does.

But anyway, she wrote this really great post on 5 things no one tells you about moving abroad, and I thought I’d quite like to write my own list. I agree with a lot of what she says, but I think our experiences are so different that I see things from a different angle as well. So, here is my list.

1. You will miss really stupid things.

A girlfriend recently took a trip to England and asked me if I wanted anything. You can get most things here in Frankfurt, but what I really fancied was a packet of Nik Naks. Now, I rarely eat junk food. I’ll eat a handful of organic corn chips from DM once in a while but I don’t really crave bad food any more. And when I was living in England I rarely ate Nik Naks. I can probably count the times I’ve eaten them on one hand. But right that moment, the thing that could bring me a slice of my home country was a packet of Nik Naks.

As an expat you suddenly really miss things that you’d never think you’d be missing. Those small things that you see every day but don’t pay attention to. A certain cereal, a certain tv show, a certain snack…things you rarely interacted with, but now you just miss the presence of that thing that makes you think of home.

I’m going back home this weekend to see my family but also because I really miss British shopping. With fashionable, bright sales staff with massive eyebrows. With sales that are not just 50 euro trousers brought down to 35 euros (come on Zara. Really?)

Sometimes, in all the excitement of leaving your home and going into something new, you forget to take in all these little things that you will miss as an expat.

2. You will feel like you’re in a bubble.

A friend said to me the other day “I’m really looking forward to getting back home and actually understanding everything that’s said around me”. I understand a small amount of German these days, but still not enough to catch snippets of passers by. And I am fully aware that, unlike in Japan, if I say something in English here, people will probably understand – I grumbled to a colleague on the bus this morning that people never use all the space in public transport which makes clumps of people near the doors while there is a lot of space in the back. The German lady next to me instantly clapped her hands and shouted loudly in German that people need to move down the bus to make room. I thanked her nicely.

Even in Japan, where I understand the language, I felt like I was in a bubble. It’s sort of like my brain is a radio – it’s main station is English, but unless it’s been tuned into other language stations, it’s not going to pick up on conversations around unless I pay attention to them. While some people don’t like this, I actually quite enjoy this feeling, since it gives me more peace and helps me focus on whatever I’m doing.

3. You will sometimes hate everything.

When I joined the JET Programme, they gave us extensive warning about the 4 stages of culture shock that we would go through;

1 Initial Euphoria (Honeymoon Period)

Anything new is intriguing and exciting.

2 Irritation and Hostility (Culture Shock)

JET participants often feel homesick and have negative attitudes towards the host culture.

3 Gradual Adjustment

JET participants start to adjust and the culture seems more familiar.

4 Adaptation and Biculturalism

JET participants are completely adjusted to the host culture and may even experience reverse culture shock upon returning to their home countries.

 

Since I had been in Japan for long periods of time before going on JET, I was already well aware of at least the first two stages. When I was 16 I spent a month in Japan travelling around with my Japanese class and staying in homestays. Everything was magical. Everything was just as I had imagined it. I came home with stars in my eyes and wouldn’t shut up about all the amazing things I had done, seen, tasted. It was very much the honeymoon phase.

Then when I was 20 I went to study at a Japanese university for a year as an exchange student. At the start everything was nice and I was really happy to be back in Japan. But then small things like waiters only addressing Asian people in our group when we ordered, or people treating me like an idiot, or things that I saw that I didn’t understand and disliked a lot all made me go through a really long period of the second stage. It wasn’t that I hated Japan (despite what the readers of my Lang-8 blog said), I just needed to vent and rant in order to arrange these feelings in my head.

It is TOTALLY normal to be super angry at your adopted country sometimes. Even if you understand the language, EVERYTHING you do will become 100x more difficult – from sending a letter, to registering as a foreigner. I am the type of person who just “gets on with it” when the “it” is something difficult, but I do often have panic attacks about really minor things. My little sister’s present was 3 days late for her birthday because, while finding something she likes and buying a card is easy, queuing up at the post office, asking for it to be sent the right way, asking for the correct box to send it in and getting all this kind of stuff correct really scares me. It’s so easy back home; I just go to the corner shop and ask the nice lady who knows my mum to post it for me, but here I have to deal with burly, grumpy German men with beards who will ram the nice bag I bought my sister into a box I don’t want and force me to use a sending option that doesn’t suit my needs.

No matter how much you love your new country – as I did Japan – there will be days when you want to scream at the top of your lungs WHY CAN’T THINGS JUST BE LIKE THEY ARE AT HOME????

3. You will sometimes feel very very lonely.

This also differs from experience to experience. I have been slowly writing a different post about expat friends and the troubles they can cause, but in general it can be very hard finding people you feel close to while abroad.

While studying and working in Japan it was easy for me to find people – aside from the fact that anyone non-Asian is suddenly your “comrade”, we had exchange student groups and JET Programme communities that helped group us together. However, that doesn’t always mean you’ll get along really well with these people. Sometimes you’ll wonder “if I was back at home, would I be friends with a person like this?”

Luckily, over time you do tend to weed out people you are perhaps not so fond of and bond better with people you think are really great – though we don’t talk as much as we used to since she’s in a far away country, I found a certain Canadian girl in Japan who I think will be one of those friends who last a lifetime.

When you do feel lonely as an expat, all you can do is artificially build your social circle, and this takes a lot of time and effort. When I found that, while my colleagues are wonderful people, we don’t share a whole lot of common hobbies, I made it my mission to go out and meet as many people as possible. Every. Single. Night. I was out doing something, going to an event, a meetup, going for drinks with that person I started talking to at that thing last week. For a solid 3 months I was doing this and I was exhausted, but I managed to make a social circle and meet people who I felt were a little bit more like me.

4. People back home just won’t understand.

One of the hardest things about reverse culture shock is that people just don’t understand what it’s like to be abroad. While your expat friends would LOVE to sit and listen to the funny thing that happened on the S Bahn on the way to work with the group of Portuguese buskers who annoy people with their saxophone playing, your family do not. Your friends and family back home cannot relate to the things you have been through, or the things you deal with on a daily basis.

An extreme example of this for me comes from the days after the tsunami in Japan. Every day for 2 weeks I skyped my family as soon as I got in from work, mostly crying because I was scared. I’ve not asked them about it, but I’m pretty sure they felt helpless. I was nowhere near in dire danger in Mie, but there were expats leaving anyway and people back home freaking out because the media was blowing everything out of proportion. Mum happened to say something negative about the Japanese government, and I suddenly felt so protective over the crappy government that was epic failing all over the place. Because they were MY government, and I was there, with the images on the tv all the time, and the earthquake warnings happening and living in constant fear. That government were the people looking out for me (or pretending to) and so I just felt so angry at my mum, who was sat in the British countryside safe and sound, for saying something negative. I just felt she didn’t understand, and I guess she really didn’t.

Since I’ve not really been back home for a long period of time since becoming a full time expat, I can’t really give advice in this section. But I imagine as you slowly settle back into your home country, this feeling of frustration will go away.

5. It will make you an infinitely better person.

I’m reading an awesome book by Caitlin Moran right now (if you are a woman, I urge you to read it) and there is one point in the book where Moran says that having a baby is an experience she thinks most people should go through because you just become a bigger, better person for it.

I have never had a child before so I wouldn’t know, but as I read that I scoffed and thought that living abroad does all of that and more. Living abroad shows that you can cope in high stress. You can adapt to new surroundings. You can make the most of confusing situations. You can live in a different language. It is simply amazing how much the simple (hahahahah) act of living abroad can change a person. You suddenly understand what’s important in life; you have to take with you only the belongings that are the most important but you also understand what abstract things are important to you, too. What kinds of friends you cherish the most. What you look for in a relationship. What you need in order to live a fulfilling and happy life.

 

…So that’s my list!

The original blog post that I read is here, so please do check it out and compare mine and hers with your own experiences (if you are a fellow expat!) If you have anything else to add to this topic, I’d love to hear from you so go ahead and comment away!

Comments

  1. Your number 1 could have been written by me! Before I came to Germany, I hadn’t had a packet of NikNaks in yeeeears… now I have a friend who sends me care packages with them in. Haha.

  2. I agree with all of these, though I thankfully didn’t experience any deep culture shock. Just sorta skipped that one, I suppose. But between the traveling, loneliness got to me that first year. Just got to find a way to fight it until you find a place in a circle somewhere.

  3. I have a small stash of my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They are too precious to actually eat, but I like seeing them when I open my cupboard.

    I remember when I got home and I remember waking up and seeing a bottle of skin cream on my desk and looking at the label in English and French. In our country, one language is not randomly inserted because it looks cute, and the language is not horribly mangled beyond comprehension. I actually got weepy seeing multiple languages on a bottle that weren’t just there for show. And I felt incredibly proud of my country for making this a law as we aspire to be a bilingual country.

  4. Another thought is that list of phases of culture shock is not linear. I find myself every 3 months or so slipping in and out of stage 2. I’ll be fine, and the some stress at work or the change of seasons will make me hate everything for a while. It usually takes some quiet and some good meals to pull me out of the funk.

  5. Interesting read!

    Personally, a lot of the things I hated about Frankfurt wasn’t because it was in Germany. It was more that I went from a massive city (London) to what felt like a small town. (I realise it’s a reasonable sized city but take away the financial area/people and the airport? and it didn’t amount to much)

    Obviously there was the extra issue with he language, but I think I would have hated an English village/town just as much.

    Didn’t experience number 3 but I love my own company as much as socialising.
    Number 5, not sure. I’m still arrogant, pigheaded, overly confident and a smart arse.

    • Yeah I think a lot of people come to Frankfurt expecting a big city lifestyle but it is just a big town – you have to really try hard before you get a good life here. It won’t come to you like it would (I imagine) in London.

  6. In a weird way, I’m glad I lived in Niderrad as it was so different. I embraced the fact that there was nothing to do, see, buy or excitement. It was so quiet and I enjoyed the experience. Had I lived in Borenheim, Sachsenhausen or another “cool” place, I would have constantly compared it to Angel, Islington…and it would have lost.

  7. Awesome post, Charlotte.

    On #2, the bubble- I am so there. One of my German colleagues asked me how my Deutsch was, and I explained it like this: If you’ve ever tuned an old style radio with a dial, you have periods of perfect clarity, but most of the time you hear a lot of static with the occasional clear word or phrase coming through. That’s what listening to native speakers is like for me. Or even ex-pats who’re just better at the language than me. (Hint: That’s all of them. I can barely keep up with a five year old native speaker.)

    You have two number 3s.

    On the second #3, I definitely feel the lonely. I’ve made a few friends here who I believe will be life-long friends. I’m like that- I tend to make a lot of friendly acquaintances, and a few deep friends. Although, weirdly, Regensburg is turning out to be a small town despite the 600,000 or so people that live here. I keep seeing people I know, everywhere, over and over. It’s bizarre. This doesn’t stave off the loneliness, though.

    By the way, your post office stuff is a great example of this. When I tell people that I’m leaving at the end of my contract, and that I don’t want to stay in Germany after that, I get a lot of why questions. One of my typical answers is, “I’m tired of needing to get help or use Google translate to parse my *junk mail.*” Yeah, it’s like that.

    I suspect I would handle being an ex-pat MUCH, MUCH more strongly if the primary language around me was also English.

    I had another point I wanted to make, and then shuffle play spun up Jason Mraz and now it’s gone. Stupid, stupid Jason Mraz.

    • I totally forgot to reply to you – I don’t know where my head has been.

      I do feel very much like a radio most of the time. It’s getting better (and I don’t think I’d wish to be in an English environment) but that was the closest thing I could use to describe it.

  8. I remembered what my other point was as soon as I clicked post on that last comment-

    I have a post brewing, one that I’ve been thinking of for a while, that basically starts with this thought: Whenever I talk to people back in the US about the stuff I’ve done here, the places and things I’ve seen, the train rides to nearby cities and countries, a lot of them say, “you’re so lucky!”

    I immediately want to stab them in the ear with a ball point pen.

    It’s not luck. It’s not luck that got me to agree to sign two contracts, one in German and one in English, to stay here for three years. Luck had nothing whatsoever to do with my decision to pause my entire life back home for a then-uncertain time-frame while I came over here and did my company’s bidding. Luck didn’t get me to store my stuff, sell my car, and completely uproot my entire universe for a span of years.

    That ain’t luck, and it pisses me off immensely when people think it is.

    • Yeah I quite agree. Though anyone born in an English speaking country can get a job as an English teacher in Asia, I did have to work hard to get my place on the JET Programme, and there’s no denying it was a tough journey into Nintendo. Sometimes even now I wonder how the hell I passed that test…

  9. I loved this post! And all of this is so true. Sometimes, actually most of the time, I feel like I have no idea what’s going on and I just take things day by day. I think the biggest one for me so far is loneliness. I knew it was going to be hard to find friends, but I didn’t think it’d be this hard. It’s hard to find a commonality with the people here and with a lot of them, I don’t mesh with their personalities. I know I’m going to have to keep on trying and meeting with people and not get discouraged throughout the year.

    And you lived in Mie?! I’m currently living there right now. That’s so crazy!

    • I know exactly what you mean because I went through the same. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers as I didn’t find the solution myself – I got into a relationship I didn’t want because I thought it would make me less lonely. It didn’t.

      I really hope you find a way out of this though. And we can be skype buddies if you like as well. <3
      And also GO MIE! Hope your shopping today was awesome! I miss it so much. I wish I could go to Tutuanna.

  10. I love this post! It’s like, exactly my thoughts put into words. I’m currently studying abroad in Japan at Kinjo =] Take a look at my blog if you would like to!

    http://colorfulkittendoll.blogspot.jp/

  11. Those stages are interesting. I hadn’t seen in articulated like that before. I wonder if those stages only apply when you’re in a really different culture like Japan vs. just AU/NZ/UK/US type thing.

  12. As an English girl living in Canada, I crave Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. Even though I rarely ate them before coming here. Oh, and really sour pickled onions.

    I can probably get both in shops with a British section, but then I’d just grumble about paying through the nose for them. Sigh!

    • Ah I LOVE pickled onions! I’m lucky because in Germany they love to pickle things just as much as we do!
      I totally get you on the fruit gums! I’d never think to eat them when I was back home but I do get cravings every now and then.

Trackbacks

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