Today marks three years of life as an expat. If you asked me three years ago, when I arrived wide-eyed to Chiang Mai if I ever would have imagined being in Spain today, I would have likely looked at you and laughed … because really? That notion, then, seemed absurd.
And yet … here I am.
The past three years have been some of the most beautiful, the most amazing and the most challenging three years I have ever lived. I have laughed, loved and struggled more than words could ever convey. I’ve been on elephant rescues, I’ve seen more of the realities of life than I ever thought possible and I’ve battled with my own demons.
I know I write a lot about being an expat and what it is really like, and the challenges I face. I do this because I don’t want people to have the misconception that expat life is a cure-all. Because, it isn’t.
Yes, expat life can be amazing. It can be awe-inspiring. But, it also possesses the power to sink even the strongest into a dark hole.
Being an Expat isn’t Easy
You don’t just land in a foreign country and have everything. There are so many challenges when first arriving to a new world. Language, housing, friends are just a few. Depending on where you go, cultural differences can be a huge adjustment. For me, going from Western life to Eastern life was a enormous difference. I had to learn to bite my tongue, to understand the act of saving face and to comprehend that my values weren’t the same as those in my new country.
It was a constant learning experience.
Creating friendships in Chiang Mai was easy, though. There, an entire world of expats awaits, and it is a small enough town where meeting others is easy.
But, Madrid? Oh, it is hard. Harder than I ever imagined it would be. It is the first time I have picked up and not had a built-in network. When I moved to Vegas (both times) I had a job with co-workers who I adored. When I moved to Atlanta, I had a job, was in a fantastic neighborhood and was introduced to some amazing friends through someone I went to high school with. In Chiang Mai, I had work and a (albeit not always wonderful) neighborhood packed with expats. In London, I had plenty of people I knew and lived with a friend.
Madrid has been nothing like that.
For the first two months, I was paralyzed. Paralyzed with culture shock. Paralyzed with re-entry. Paralyzed with fear over moving (again) to a foreign country without so much as guaranteed work. Paralyzed by my own mind and the games it was playing with me.
I lived outside of the city center and spent most of the time in my room or drinking wine on the balcony and alternating between crying and … well … not crying.
It has taken me the past six weeks (after returning from America with my student visa), my cats and lots of help to get where I am today: which is content.
And, to be more specific, I have only really felt at peace the last two weeks. I have started to find a routine for my work, find the spark I used to have for writing, and starting to explore.
I have gone out of my way to make new friends. I have made it a point each day to get out of the flat and go to a space to work. I have even gotten out of town.
Most importantly, I have tried to practice being mindful. Which — let me tell you — is perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever done. But, here I am. And I write this post today with a smile on my face and more motivation than I have had in a long time to make this expat life in Madrid work.
The Only Person Responsible for Me, Is Me
At the end of the day, that is the most important thing I have learned. I am in control. If I don’t like what I am doing, only I can change it. For a long time, I relied on others as an expat. To comfort me. To listen. To help me navigate my new world. The thing about that is, other people are doing what is important for them. We all face our own struggles, and relying on others to help weather a storm is nice, but it isn’t practical.
Creating a Support System Isn’t Easy
I’ve never felt more alone and lonely than I have living in Madrid. The first few months, I knew a total of two people in the city. I’m slowly getting there, but in a city like Madrid, when I work for myself and don’t speak the language well, it isn’t a simple task.
In Thailand, it was a lot easier to create a support system. I had a close group of friends, loving co-workers and a motley crew of expats who had everyone’s back because “we were all in it together.”
Being here has forced me to get out. To mingle. To talk to people. To say “yes” to invites that I normally would pass. But, it has afforded me new friendships, which truly is a blessing.
Learn to Let Go
Man, this one is tough. And sometimes it can totally suck. But, learning to let go is important. Let go of the preconceived notions. Of the expectations. Of anger. Of disagreements.
Since I’ve started being more mindful, the results have been interesting. This concept of letting go has permeated my life. I find myself being more forgiving. More tolerant (except when slow people are walking in front of me). More kind. And I think this comes from simply letting go. From realizing that I can only control myself. Therefore, I can control my reactions. It’s a lot easier to let go and be free from the things which haunt my mind and just be open and kind.
When I started having anxiety attacks, I started to sink. Quickly. On top of that, I became severely depressed. There were days when I would not be able to see the forest through the trees. The important thing I learned is that perspective is important. (Ah, the mindful thing again, even though then I didn’t realize that was what it was.) The times when I was my worst, I would wander up to the moat and stare at the world I was in. I would wander, aimlessly, listening to cathartic music and try to find the beauty of my world.
It isn’t always easy to see, but perspective is one of the most important things to hold dear as an expat. I remind myself constantly that I am living an extraordinary life. I have had extraordinary experiences. I have met extraordinary people.
Life is extraordinary.
Being an Expat is Brave
It takes a lot of balls to be an expat. It is uprooting myself from a comfort zone, a world I know, and becoming a stranger in a foreign land. I never looked at it as being brave; it was simply the world I wanted to exist in, so that was it.
The longer I am an expat, the more I realize it is about bravery, thanks to the friends who constantly remind me of this.
This bravery has permeated every aspect of my life. I say what I think now. I make boundaries for myself and others. I let myself be vulnerable and admit when I need help.
Find a Place that Works
Not every city/country is ideal for being an expat. Thailand worked because the cost of living was incredibly inexpensive. Madrid works because I am so in love with Spanish culture. London … oh, London. London did not work. Not because I didn’t love it. Not because I didn’t have wonderful friends. But, London is bloody expensive. The money I make doesn’t come close to covering a life in the Big Smoke. Because of that one reason, I knew I needed to leave. Being an expat there and working for myself did not work.
Ask for Help
Other than London, I haven’t spoken the native language. Sometimes, I have to ask for help, even if I don’t want to.
Language and cultural adjustments aside, I have learned to ask for help. For a shoulder to cry on. For company when I need it most. I don’t let myself sink too far into my mind. Instead, I turn to those I know — whether or not they are where I am, or a Skype call away — and have had overwhelming support as I adjust to this new life.
Sometimes, I Miss Roots
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about roots. This move to Madrid made me start fresh, and it also made me realize the importance of having roots. For years, I have wanted to travel. To see the world. And now? I’m tired. I don’t want to witness beautiful places alone. Sometimes, I get exhausted being alone. I don’t want to move again, unless it is with someone.
I swore I’d never move back to America. That I’d never miss it. But, I do. Sometimes, I miss it a hell of a lot. There are some expats from America who are vehement about never returning to the States. Me? I teeter. I didn’t used to, but as I grow up more and more, I do. I long for a stronger sense of normalcy. Of relationships. Of not constantly thinking about where I will be in a year, whether or not I will get another visa.
What Does it All Mean?
At the end of the day, I count my lucky stars that I am able to live this life. It can be a struggle being an expat. It can seem like it is impossible to get through another day of being alone. But, there is always a a light at the end of the tunnel.
People always ask me what my plans for the future are. Lately, I’ve taken to simply saying, I’m in the present and have no idea what tomorrow brings. Because that is life as an expat.