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Expat Life and Culture Adjustment

The Expat lifestyle can be profoundly rewarding and enriching, while at the same time come with significant emotional cost. The joys of new career prospects, international travel, foreign friends, exotic foods, new languages, cultural insights and education opportunities also include the pain of social isolation and exclusion. When you don’t speak the local language or have a network of peers to connect you socially, it can be lonely and daunting at times.

Moving to a new country involves a magnitude of changes geographically and culturally. You are suddenly stimulated on a level you never knew was possible and find pleasure in decoding your new environment with google translate then suddenly one day feel helpless and frustrated when you realize it’s no longer fun being unable to read food labels in the grocery store because you don’t speak or read the local language, or still after 3 months can’t understand how to use your home appliances and just want to wash a load of clothes in the washing machine that you still randomly press buttons on hoping for the best outcome for your clothes. Even worse you are sick and wonder at your doctor’s appointment what just happened during the exam and did you even leave with an appropriate remedy? I’ve experienced all of those things having lived in 4 different countries. While I was so excited each time I arrived to a new country and every novel experience brought great pleasure, there were days I was in tears because I was an adult unable to get my most basic needs met due to language barriers in some of those countries. This was especially so for me in Japan because the writing system does not involve the use of Roman letters so everything looked like a Rorschach inkblot to me. Everything is electronic and comes with a remote in Japan so there were days I didn’t know which Kanji symbol button flushed the toilet, turned on the lights, heat, fan, stove, you name it. Was a total guessing game and I would become mentally exhausted researching online the Kanji symbols on the remotes to my appliances in the hopes I could operate them. I soon forgo basic living needs for a day of not researching how to operate something in my own home.

Then there’s trying to socialize and meet local nationals. I didn’t mind initially being a spectacle in some cases or an apparent foreigner in Japan but over time I wanted a sense of inclusion beyond the expat community that can be very transient. Here is where language is essential for foster acculturation and assimilation. I was not good at learning Japanese and German was grammatically tough for me when living in Germany. I found the language structure to be that of an algebra formula. This meant there were times I was very lonely and missing a sense of being part of the greater community within my host countries because I couldn’t participate in meaningful conversations beyond an elementary school level.

With that said, I would do it all again and I am doing it again here in the Netherlands. I feel so proud of my resilience and endurance. I have the fondest memories of when I mistakenly bought a carton of Sake in the Japanese grocery store thinking it was fruit juice, burning cookies to the point of disintegration in my new German home oven because I didn’t know it was Celsius so cranked it up to the highest of 250 because I needed 350 Fahrenheit and thought German stoves were weird, showing up to the grocery store without my own grocery bag and having to walk home with groceries in my arms dropping them all over the street, or driving mistakenly onto tram tracks not having understood a European road sign. I eventually learned to do all the above proficiently but it came with mental anguish and fun laughs.

Feeling anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, lonely, sad, isolated, angry, or resentful are all normal responses to change when living in a new country. Adjusting to your reduced autonomy in your new environment takes time. I found the best way to move through those emotions and stages was to get emotional support, take language and cultural classes and to be patient. Expat social groups, expat support groups or a therapist who speaks your language can be of comfort and help.

Embrace the journey!


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