My Expat Life: 10 Ways to Thrive As An Expat (Guest Post)

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Today’s guest post is from one of my favorite bloggers, Allison of The Sprouting Seed. She lived as an expat in Central Europe for a time with her husband, and is still an expat at heart.

I’m ashamed of the story I’m about to tell you.

It ended in tears and humiliation, but it was also a much needed wake up call–I wasn’t ok. Living overseas for a year was harder than I let on, harder than I wanted to believe. This was my tipping point.

It was Christmas time. Snow softly fell as the aroma of mulled wine lured passersby into a warm café. There was no time for sipping and savoring as I was on a mission to find gifts for family and friends. Through snow and ice I trudged by train and foot to the little handmade lotions and soap boutique I’d seen only a few weeks earlier. Apparently everyone else in the city had the same idea.

A line snaked around the shop. I hurried to find the extra-heavy, cracked hand healing balm and stepped behind the twenty people to wait. An eternity later, it was my turn. “Wah wah, blah, blah”, I heard the clerk say. I smiled and nodded. I’d gotten pretty good at faking my understanding of the freakishly difficult language. “Wah, wah, blah, blah!” She said, this time it louder. And then a few more times.

My fake smile and nod weren’t working. I didn’t know what she wanted and I couldn’t maneuver my way out. Like angry animals in a pen, the line behind me started to shift and groan. I panicked. The clerk grabbed the money out of my hands and announced to the rest of the mob that I don’t know what I am doing. (I understood that at least). She gave me my change and with a crooked smirk, told me, “you’re a smart one, aren’t you?”. (I understood that too.)

I graduated at a tier-one university at the top of my class. I passed biochemistry with flying colors.

I couldn’t explain any of that, but I wanted to, with all my might.

Instead I yelled all the colorful, foreign expletives I knew and told her that at least I’ve learned those.

Have you ever experienced this helpless, frustrating feeling?

The first year overseas, I lost my identity, pride and sense of self worth. I felt like a child all over again, learning to speak, share my thoughts and even accomplish simple tasks like mailing a letter. That day at the boutique was my tipping point. I lost control and yelled at that clerk like a crazy woman. It was a wake up call to me. I wasn’t thriving as an expat. I was barely getting by.

After that experience, I worked to change my mindset. I worked to enjoy my life abroad, savor the learning experience and laugh at the invaluable adventure of living in a foreign land.
Maybe you are just moving overseas, maybe you are settled and loving your life. Wherever you are, here are ten ways I’ve learned to enjoy living in a new land.

10 Ways to Thrive As An Expat

  1. Embrace the culture. Find things that you genuinely enjoy about the culture and incorporate that into your life. For me, I fell in love with the café culture. I learned to stop at a coffee shop and sip a latte for hours while with friends or reading a good book. Those people really knew how to relax!
  2. Embrace yourself.  You may feel like you’ve lost your identity, but remember—where you live does not define you. Maybe you find yourself to no longer be the person you were back home, but you don’t quite identify with the people you live next to. Enjoy yourself where you are. Give yourself permission to grow and evolve, to have feelings and to change. Don’t rely too much on your past and don’t be afraid of your future.
  3.  Get away.  Nothing helps make a home quite like getting away. Get out of your city or town, get some fresh air, and get some perspective. Whether it’s a day, weekend or extended trip, getting away helps you breathe. And then going home makes your expat home feel all the more home-y.
  4. Take a break.  Sometimes you need a break. Go get some outrageously expensive Oreos or peanut butter and watch a re-run of Friends. It’ll do you some good. Just make sure you save this for special moments and don’t do this on a daily basis. It’s really easy to escape and avoid reality if you do this too often (lesson learned).
  5. Be a learner.  Love learning and you will love your life. Let learning to do new things be a game. Go on walks with no end, explore your new place and take notes. Always keep your eyes and ears open to understand your neighbors, their culture and your city in new ways.
  6. Share.  Share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with family and friends. Talk with them and paint a picture of your world. Often friends and family back home don’t know what questions to ask you, so learn to initiate sharing. Send pictures, make videos and invite them to visit.
  7. Feel free to feel sad. You are away from your family, friends and home you always knew. Feel free to feel sad sometimes. It’s OK. Find a friend with whom you can process your emotions.
  8. Have a sense of humor.  Ok, so maybe you can’t figure out how to pay for a tin of lotion. That’s totally embarrassing, but remember to have a sense of humor. Laugh at your blunders, mistakes in speech, and cultural faux pas. You are essentially an adult baby, learning a totally new way of life. It’s OK to fall down and be a little silly.
  9. Make friends.  You can live in the most gorgeous place in the world, and yet without community it can seem dull and grey. Find friends and enjoy your adventure together. The friends I’ve made overseas are some of the best and dearest friends in my life. Treasure them.
  10. Practice gratitude. A grateful heart can take you a long way. It’s easy to find faults in a culture not your own. Instead, practice gratitude for all the wonderful things you see in people, town, culture, etc. Challenge yourself to find 10 new ways to be grateful each day. Make a list or keep a photo journal to hold yourself accountable. Occasionally, go back and read those lists to remind yourself why you are grateful.

What about you?
Have you had any crazy outbursts? How have you learned to thrive in your new city?

profile pic Allison JordanAllison Jordan blogs at The Sprouting Seed. She’s a nutritionist with a degree in Nutritional Science and a full-time mom. With her husband, she moved half way across the world to live in Central Europe, where she learned about real food, vibrant health, and traditional methods of preparation. Allison has found a way to make friends with little old ladies around the world and loves to share their time-tested secrets of life.

Thanks for sharing, Allison! I love your thoughts on thriving as an expat and couldn’t agree more with the part about initiating sharing about your new life, looking for what’s new and different in your adopted country, and practicing gratitude.

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2 Responses to My Expat Life: 10 Ways to Thrive As An Expat (Guest Post)

  1. [email protected] Connections for Kids June 20, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    Loved this post and your honesty. I think your tips are also appropriate for life just about anywhere. I live in the Midwest USA. At times life become dull and boring here in small town USA. Your tips are exactly what I do when I feel life has become mundane. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Naomi June 27, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    Oh, your story is so familiar! I remember one time in particular coming home and bawling because I had been sick from morning sickness outside of a small store and the store clerk was completely rude and had no compassion (it was into snow and I cleaned it up). The steps to cope that you’ve described are the only way to learn to love where you are!

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