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.
What are the things to know about expat life?
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.
25 thoughts on “9 Things to Know About Expat Life”
Madrid has a huge international population, it will only take some time before you begin to make friends. And as soon as you start your Spanish lessons you’ll have more than enough of them. Prepare to spend quite some time in the metro!
YES! I am getting there … slowly. Enrolling in Spanish classes this week. Fortunately, I live in the city center, so I can walk most places 🙂
Hard to believe it’s been FOUR years since our girl getaway in Napa, huh? So glad you’re rocking the expat lifestyle!!!
I KNOW!!! Time FLIES! Thank you for the support ❤
Ah, Diana, I SO relate to you on all of these points. What you said about bravery wasn’t something I’d considered much but when you said that you now say what you think, it reminded me how my mom told me, when I’d just come back from living in Chiang Mai for more than a year, that I seemed “more opinionated.” And she was totally right. I had a better understanding of what I wanted and knew I wasn’t going to get it by keeping it to myself. And I’m right there with you about needing roots. I think we all reach that point after living and traveling independently for so long.
It is interesting. I used to think the same: I wasn’t brave, I was just living my life and couldn’t imagine my life any other way. But, that IS being brave. I didn’t really think about roots much until this year. Maybe it is because I am almost 36 and starting to want more stability in my life. I always want to travel, but I don’t want to be constantly moving and starting anew. It gets exhausting and overwhelming.
I can relate to all of this. After travel, you assume that living somewhere new will be exciting and simply like life on the road, only stalled. But it isn’t. You can get bogged down by the monotony and bureaucracy of a new country, one where you aren’t surrounded by the support system you have at home. And it’s definitely true that the older you get, the harder it is to make friends. I’ve found this in Amsterdam because I’ve met several of the expats you’ve mentioned – the ones who are so negative about their home countries that it makes you sad (especially when that country is YOUR home country). And as much as I like Dutch people, sometimes slight mis-communications/cultural references and a difference in sense of humour can make things more awkward. It does get easier, and I’m sure it will for you, but for me, I still continue to teeter on the edge of not knowing whether expat life is really for me or not.
I’m so glad you can relate! I teeter, too. There are times when I romanticize being back in the US and have some stability, structure and routine, but then I have a moment drinking a tinto de verano and watching the locals just embrace the hell out of life that makes me love where I am. It is a constant struggle, and you are right, the older we get, the harder it is. You’re close by though! We should meet up somewhere and have an expat get together!
Being an expat is definitely a different way of living but is similar to “regular life” as well in that it too has ups and downs and things to work through. There are different things to learn in each new country as well and we find ourselves constantly saying things like, “oh the health care system is set up here like it was in such-n-such country” and “this type of government is like it was in this other coutnry I lived in”. All expats constantly compare everything to their home country when they are living in their first country abroad (both Mindy and I did that in Germany) but after that you have more countries to compare to, which is nice. And eventually, the comparisons stop and you just take things as they are in the country you’re in and less things surprise you. It’s a wonderful life: the good, the bad and the ugly and even the worst of days beats spending 8 hours a day in a cubicle!
Happy expat-versary my dear~
Thank you!! Cannot wait to see you in October!! ❤
Such a great post and one I can completely resonate with. It sounds like your experience in Madrid was similar to mine here in Korea.
“I’ve never felt more alone and lonely than I have living in Madrid.” – It’s so weird that I read that here now because only last night I was skyping a friend and said, “In my adult life, I have never felt more lonely than I have living in Korea.”
I think it’s hard at times when you’re struggling. I constantly try to remind myself of how lucky I am and that I should be taking advantage of this incredible opportunity but that just makes me feel guilty and then feel worse.
I’m kind of getting there though.
Happy 3 year anniversary. 😀 I’ve been living the expat life collectively for almost 3 years too.
It takes time. I only VERY recently have started to feel comfortable here. It’s an odd thing, to be where we are and feel so lonely. Around us, there is so much life, and yet we are on the outskirts, looking in. There have been plenty of times where I have looked at my life and thought I was the biggest asshole alive for not appreciating where I was. But, I’m learning now how to be in the present, and since I have started the practice of being more mindful, my life has changed a lot. It has made me appreciate the little things, the nuances of life, and made me feel less lonely. Being an expat is an odd and beautiful and challenging thing!! Best of luck to you in Korea! I have some friends there … let me know if you want an intro!
Diana, I love your writing, just enjoying checking out your site. You sound like a beautiful, strong, vibrant, brave and imperfect woman which is perfect! You may know this already, but a tip for settling in to life in Madrid, may be to check out the Diverbo English volunteer programmes, it’s fun and a great way to make both Spanish and interesting Anglo connections. Just ask if you want any more background
BTW if this message repeats, then, well, what can I say??? I am a technical dinosaur!
Thank you so much for the kind words, Misha! I have actually done Vaughantown in the past. I’m slowly adjusting to life in Madrid and meeting people! It definitely takes time. Thanks so much for the tips and support! ❤
I admire your bravery Diana. I know it’s not easy living alone specially in a country that is not familiar to you. Can’t wait for more stories after this. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for the support! I appreciate it!
Oh this is so true! I have been an expat for more than four years now. The first four years in Papua New Guinea, which I could compare to your time in Thailand – very different countries of course! But the ease of meeting people, the networks. Now we are in Buenos Aires and it is so, so much harder. We’re having the same issues as you in Madrid – it’s MUCH harder to find people and make friends, the language is a challenge (even though I’ve been learning Spanish for years, there’s nothing like actually putting it in to practice!). I am lucky that I have my husband with me, but even then, knowing other people makes such a difference. We’ve been here for two months and it’s just in the last two weeks that I’ve seen an improvement. I hope it all goes really well for you!! What an incredible city for you to be an expat in – the food, the travel opportunities, the chance to learn a new language. While hard, it will be an unforgettable experience, I’m sure! We are definitely brave! x
You are lucky! There are times when I wish I had someone with me, if only simply to have someone to eat with or have a drink with! But, I am slowly adapting to life here and making a few friends. It helps getting involved. Last week, my friend made me go to an intercambio/language exchange with him, and I met a few people. And, I just enrolled in Spanish school, so will be meeting people there, too. It definitely takes time when there aren’t built-in communities like what we both had.
Wow, reading this post really resonated with me. I’ve been living in China for 5 months now and although it’s not that long I’ve definitely faced some of the challenges especially in regards to dealing with anxiety. Thank you for posting this.
It’s funny because just yesterday someone asked me “so, whats next after your one year in China is up” and I said “I have no idea” and for once I was okay with that.
Thanks again Diana!
I am so happy to read the, Kaila! I’m glad you are ok with having no idea. I certainly still don’t!
Oh I can totally relate to this! I’ve lived in a few different places abroad as a student, intern and now as a full-time expat (can that be a thing?!). There are a lot of challenges and doubts all the time, but it’s also been such an incredibly rewarding and enlightening experience!
It is TOTALLY a thing. 🙂 I wouldn’t trade being an expat and the experiences for anything.