Tag Archives: living abroad

It’s the Small Stuff

23 Oct

Isn’t there a book called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… And It’s All Small Stuff”? I’ve never read it, but I’m betting the author never lived abroad.

Why? Because when you live abroad, it’s the small stuff that wears you down the most.

It’s having to remember to say “lolly” instead of “candy”. It’s having to think twice about which lane you’re turning into because you’re driving on the wrong side of the road. It’s having to strain to understand what people around you are saying because their accents are so thick they don’t even sound like they are speaking English.

I was talking with another expat recently, Stacey from South Africa, and we’ve both found that there seems to be this perception that if you, as an immigrant, speak the language of your host country, then integrating shouldn’t be a problem for you, that feeling at home should come easily.

Yeah… right… That couldn’t be further from the truth.

While I can imagine how much more difficult it is to move to a country where you don’t speak the language and are from a radically different background. the truth is that even expats who speak the language and share a similar culture to their host country also face plenty of challenges. In some ways, I think it might even be harder.

Take for example, the refugee or asylum seeker from a third world country. Everyone knows he has come from a disadvantaged background and that he’s probably led a pretty crappy life without many opportunities. It’s taken for granted that he will have a hard time as a new immigrant and as such, people will cut him some slack and expect less of him. Furthermore, he’ll be given loads of help by various charitable and governmental organisations to help him get settled. Of course it will still be hard for him, but everyone else understands that and treats him accordingly.

For the English-speaking expat to Australia, the assumption is that Australia can’t be too different from where we came from, so there should be no problems whatsoever. Sure, we don’t face the same challenges that the refugee does, but that doesn’t make us any less prone to feelings of isolation and depression. That’s something I don’t think people who haven’t been there can understand. Even my own husband doesn’t get it.

I’ve written before about my difficulty in making new friends and general feelings of loneliness, and recently another blogger did as well. Stacey told me that she spent the entire first year in Melbourne living on South African time, trying to keep up with her old life there, and almost never leaving the house. Like many of us, she wasn’t immediately eligible to work or study and found it hard to make new friends. Six years later, Stacey says she still feels like an outsider, as most of her friends are native Australians who have no concept of what it is like to move abroad.

So while the challenges an English speaking expat to Australia may face aren’t as glaringly obvious as the challenges other newcomers may face, they are still there.

They’re all little things, small stuff. But after awhile, it wears you down psychologically. Everything that was easy and automatic before now becomes something you have to think about.

Ordering a side of fries becomes a conscious effort as you remind yourself to order “chips” instead and then find yourself hoping they will actually bring you “fries” and not “crisps”.

It takes you forever to cross the street because you have to stand there and figure out which direction you should be looking for traffic or you creep through every intersection because you can’t remember how hook turns work.

You’re constantly trying to convert the weather report into Fahrenheit so you know if you should bring a sweater or not. Oh, sorry… I mean a “windcheater”.

And you make your husband call to order a pizza because you get embarrassed that the pizza people can’t understand a thing you say on the phone and you can’t understand them, either.

Or, if you are from South Africa, like Stacey, you might suffer extreme guilt from causing your friend to miss a turn by telling her to turn right at the “robot”, instead of at the “traffic light”, and wasting valuable time explaining what you meant by that strange turn of phrase.

They are things that, as a short term visitor, would be only mild annoyances and inconveniences, with perhaps one or two major faux pas thrown in for good measure. But when you’re staying for the longer term, those constant frustrations start to wear you down and make you feel depressed because all of it is a reminder that this isn’t home and might never feel like home.

Because while America might have the same green coloured street signs, they’re not surrounded by eucalypt trees. Nothing looks the same, feels the same, smells the same. The only part of home you have with you is what fit into your suitcase; maybe a favourite outfit or some small heirloom, if you’re sentimental.

But your family and friends don’t fit into a suitcase. Neither does your comfy bed. Or that oak tree that provides such nice shade in the summer. Your hometown definitely won’t fit, along with all of your memories from your “old life” that you had there. And if you try to pack snow to save for Christmas, it will either melt or be confiscated by customs.

No, you pack your suitcase with your “essentials”- some clothes, some applicator tampons, a laptop- and off you go. You take the small stuff, things with minimal power to make you happy, and you leave behind all the big, important stuff that you love. All in the name of adventure, of a better future.

I think a big reason why expats tend to form their own communities and cluster together the way that they do is because it’s so much easier to cope with the challenges of living abroad when you know there are other people who feel the same way you do, who talk the same way you do, who are going through the same things, and who understand what you love “back home” and why it was worth leaving behind. Another expat will always understand what it’s like to miss the things you left behind and also why you don’t “just go back home if you don’t like it here”.

After several years (like 10 or 20), I’m told you don’t sweat the small stuff anymore and you only sweat because the summers are so stinking hot. Eventually all those things that frustrated you in the beginning because they were different just become normal and you make your peace with the small stuff. Here’s hoping!

Unexpected Homesickness

31 Mar

Before leaving for America a week and a half ago, I thought I was doing pretty well here in Australia. I considered our flat my home and having had almost total control over decorating and furnishing it helped make it feel like my own. I felt like I was finally starting to feel comfortable in Melbourne, learning my way around and getting involved in different activities. I had sort of come to terms with being ignored by people “back home”. In fact, I really didn’t even want to go back to America at all, but I had to because of pressing issues at home. So I reluctantly went and H followed me two days later on a cheaper flight.

It was a very hectic week and a half, but it was nice to be back on my own turf. I was able to see some of my friends again, too.

One thing I had to do while there was move a bunch of my stuff out of storage and into the house. I also had to sort through a lot of it and decide what I wanted to take back with me. There are a lot of things I have been missing that there was no way I could take back with me, like a lot of my music equipment. Then there were things that have a lot of sentimental value that aren’t practical to take back when I have things to pack that I actually need. I’m an extremely sentimental and nostalgic person and it pained me to have to leave behind a lot of those things. I know I don’t have room for them here and I don’t need them and all that, but I hate thinking that I have just left them behind in America and I might eventually even have to get rid of them someday.

There’s my little pink bear with a bell inside that I’ve had since I was a year old.. well, okay, she’s sort of more gray than pink now, and a stuffed tiger whose tail I chewed off a long time ago and whose nose is twisted sideways. There’s a beautiful knitted blanket that my great-great aunt made for me when I was born. There are my American Girl dolls that I started collecting because I desperately wanted one as a child and no one would buy me one, so now I’m compensating for that as an adult… except you can’t get American Girl dolls in Australia. There are the family photo albums that I rescued from my parents’ damp, cold garage. And my ice skates that I’ve had since I was 14 that I bought with my own money and still fit me. And my wool coat that my grandma bought me when I was 19 and she found out I didn’t have a coat at all for the winter. And so many other things.

At this point, I have no plans to go back to America for at least another year and a half, maybe longer. By then we might even have a baby and travel would be impractical. So who knows?

Until we moved into our flat, H had been living in the same house where he grew up. He has never had to get rid of anything from his past or downsize his life in any way. He doesn’t really understand what that is like. He’s also not as sentimental as I am and doesn’t have attachments to things and what they represent. He can’t quite figure out what I’m so upset about.

It’s not that I necessarily want us to live in America because I do actually like it here in Australia better, but it feels very final and I feel like I have left a huge part of my life behind, never to be reclaimed again. Not that it’s ever happened to me, but I imagine this is sort of how people who lose all their possessions in a house fire must feel. In some ways, I feel kind of stupid to be this upset over things and obviously if I have to choose between my things and H, the choice is obvious.

But they are my things and they represent my life. It’s hard to let them go, especially when I’ve had to say good-bye to so many other things.

I had a chat with my colleague and friend while back home about what to do about my business and there is really no other option but for me to give it up within the year. I can’t manage it from here and trying to is only hindering the people who are actually doing the real work. I poured my heart and soul into that business- it was always my dream to own my own business- along with a lot of time and money. It was a hard decision to agree to start extricating myself from it and I feel a huge sense of loss.

Between losing my business and leaving all my things behind, I feel extremely ungrounded and lost, like everything that happened in my life before coming to Australia doesn’t matter anymore. I know my life was nothing spectacular before, but it was mine and I don’t like the idea of erasing my whole past and starting from scratch.

I’m sure in a few months, I’ll be fine again and forget all about this nonsense. At least, I hope I will. I was totally unprepared for feeling this upset and depressed. It’s never happened to me before, but I guess before, I always knew when I’d be going home and there was never a feeling of finality to any of my previous travels.

Expat or immigrant?

9 Mar

What is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

I guess to some extent, there may not be a difference. I’ve heard two common definitions. One is that an expat is someone who one day plans to return to their home country, while an immigrant intends to stay in their new country permanently. The second is that expat is the term used for middle- to upper-class white people who are enriching themselves with other cultures whiles immigrants are poor people from third world countries looking for a better life.

I think the first definition is fair enough, though a lot of people who call themselves expats don’t intend to return home, or at least don’t have any plans to do so. If that’s the case, then I would be an immigrant, not an expat, and so would a lot of other people who call themselves expats.

Due to a recent turn of events here, I think it is extremely unlikely that we would be able to live in America at time in the foreseeable future and it’s possible we may not ever want to, depending how things go. I’m applying for a permanent residency visa, which rather indicates I intend to put down roots here.

The second definition is one that I find a bit insulting and I don’t really like it. It implies that expats thinks of themselves as superior and just out for a good time while “real immigrants” have it tough.

Anyone who moves to a new country has it tough. It doesn’t matter where you came from or what your background is. There is almost always the challenge of learning a new language and culture. You often go to a new place with nothing. That wealthier people from developed countries have the means to get on their feet quicker doesn’t negate that. And poor immigrants often receive a significant amount of help not available to people from wealthy countries. You leave behind your friends and family and everything you know and there are a lot of challenges.

I also dislike making a distinction between immigrants and expats on the basis of a desire and willingness to enrich and immerse oneself in the local culture. That is not snobbery, which the second definition somewhat disdainfully implies. It’s called integration and it’s what one should do when moving to a new place. You learn the culture and you participate in the culture. Integrating is something all newcomers to a country should strive for, regardless of their background. It is not exclusive to a certain class of people from certain countries, or shouldn’t be.

Expats or immigrants? Hard to tell. They look poor, but they also seem to be on one hell of an adventure.

Nor do I care for the implication that expats are just having some sort of grand adventure, out for a good time.. Nobody makes an international move just a for “good time”. That’s what vacations are for. Or study abroad, if you’re a student. Everybody who makes a major move does so looking for a better life. Some people will immigrate from a poor country to a wealthier one because they want to raise their standard of living, but that is not the only acceptable marker of a “better life”. Many expats/immigrants from developed countries move for jobs or for love or for family and these are all things essential to being happy and having a good quality life. One doesn’t need to be escaping from war-torn impoverished country to seek a better life.

So I think the better definition is that expat is simply someone who eventually intends to return to their home country, whose stay in another country is only temporary, even if long-term, regardless of whether or not they integrate into the local community and put down roots there, where an immigrant is some who plans to stay permanently. I think the other definition uses the word expat in a somewhat derogatory way and also implicitly removes the expectation that immigrants from poor countries should integrate into their new host country, which I don’t agree with.

Thus, I will officially be an immigrant once my permanent residency visa is approved. Until then, I guess I am an expat, since Australia could theoretically kick me out at any time that pleases them.

Feeling disconnected

29 Feb

Global Coach Center has a post up about 8 mistakes expats make that can leave them feeling disconnected.

I admit that I am guilty of a few of these and they are possibly the reason for why I’m just not entirely happy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Australia, I love Melbourne, I love being here with H, and I don’t have any strong desire to go back to America permanently (mainly because Australia is so much nicer and I wouldn’t want to be apart from H), but as it always is when living abroad, it’s been a difficult transition and there have been times when I’ve felt really down and depressed.

Here are the mistakes that I have consistently made and continue to make while living abroad:

Mistake 1.  You have very high expectations that people back home will continue to want and initiate consistent interaction with you.

Every time I have gone away, whether I moved or I was just away on a long business trip, it was like my friends back home instantly forgot about me. Life for them went on as usual and it was like I no longer existed in their world. Not only did they never email or call, they even stopped commenting on my Facebook updates, which is probably the most egregious sin of all. When I did occasionally catch them on Skype, they’d always act like they weren’t interested in what I was up to and never wanted to tell me what they were up to. And it hurts probably the most because it’s an active sign that they don’t want to maintain that relationship with you anymore.

I then instantly felt cut off from my entire support network, leaving me feeling very alone in a strange new place. I’m sure a lot of them just assumed I was off having a great time, like being on some sort of long vacation, and that it never actually occurred to them I might be lonely, scared, or just want someone to talk to. Inevitably, I would get angry with my friends for ignoring me and start feeling sorry for myself, which just made the whole situation worse. And it only made it worse for me. It’s not like they knew or cared that I was angry with them, so I was only upsetting myself.

Mistake 2. Somehow, somewhere you’ve decided that making new friends isn’t your strength.

I am not an outgoing person and I have a lot of social anxiety. I do okay if I’m meeting new people in the company of someone I already know, but I am totally incapable of introducing myself to people or making new friends on my own. I can’t even get involved in any group activities because I am so terrified of having to meet new people and possibly be judged or rejected by them. I even canceled some classes I signed up for because I was too shy to go by myself. In most places I have gone, I have made very few friends, sometimes none at all. It’s hard to feel at home in a new place without even a single friend to hang out with. I recognise this is a problem, I just don’t know how to change my personality such that I can fix it on my own. It’s basically really pathetic.

Mistake 5.  You take trips home every 3-4 weeks for a vacation, just a visit, or… just because.

When finances allowed this, I did it a lot. And I was always disappointed because a lot of times, my friends would not make time to see me and I always felt resentful about having to leave again. I wasn’t happy being anywhere and it got to the point where I had one foot in each place- not enough to stand on- and didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere or that I was even wanted anywhere.

Mistake 6. You feel uncomfortable chatting up to people because your language skills are not perfect.

This isn’t such a problem in English speaking countries, but when I’ve gone to non-English speaking countries, I try to avoid talking to anyone at all, for fear of either saying something wrong or having to ask them to use English. Again, it’s a social anxiety thing. I really admire people who are willing to try out new language skills in front of native speakers without worrying whether they get it right or wrong. I’m a perfectionist, though, so I always refused to speak unless I knew I could say the perfect sentence without too much of an accent.

Mistake 7.  You engage in unfavorable comparisons of your current place of residence with home (or with the one you left).

I’m happy to say that it’s hard to make unfavourable comparisons about Melbourne, though sometimes I do get frustrated that things are simply different and not what I am used to. I don’t usually voice these frustrations (no one around to listen to them if I did), but it’s a bad frame of mind to get into because those nasty little thoughts start eating away at me and I just make myself feel worse about everything. I mean, for crying out loud, being able to find butterscotch chips at the supermarket is NOT going to solve my life’s problems, but at the moment when I’m tired, irritable, and have been searching through every grocery store in town all day, only to learn that no one sells butterscotch chips in Australia, I just want to go into meltdown mode and have a tantrum like a fricken two year old and tell the whole world that where I come from is a million times better because our supermarkets in America are so much better stocked. As if that would convince the supermarkets here to start selling what I want them to sell. It’s always little things like that and sometimes I have so many of these little frustrations in a day that I end up feeling very down and convincing myself that I hate it here and fail to see all the things I enjoyed about the day, like the fact that I got to ride my bike in beautiful weather and pig out on Tim Tams.

Mistake 8.  You use social media like there is no tomorrow.

Fortunately, I’m not as bad about this as I used to be. I do still live mostly online because otherwise I get very lonely and bored during the day with no one to talk to. And even though my friends and family still mostly ignore me on Facebook, at least I can write down my thoughts and get them out of my system. But living mostly online instead of in real life is probably not the best way to integrate into a new environment and I’m already trying to limit how much time I spend on the internet.

I’d be curious as to what some of you other expats think about these eight mistakes and which ones you’ve been guilty of or how you’ve managed to avoid falling into these traps. How do you go about making friends in new places and keep from falling into depression? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on this topic. (Or on any topic I post about here, that’s fine, too!)

A hidden cost of living abroad

20 Feb

One of the most difficult things of living so far away from family is that you’re never around when bad things happen. Most of my family still lives in my home state and I haven’t lived there since 2005. Whenever something bad happens with the family, I feel like a bad person for not being able to be there.

When my paternal grandmother died in 2007, I moved heaven and earth and spent every penny I had left to buy a plane ticket and get a rental car to go to her funeral and I was so glad I did. However, two weeks before she died, I’d been given the news that she was in the hospital and that she might only have a few months left and I contemplated taking a weekend and driving the ten or so hours up to see her in case it was the last time I ever got a chance to do so. And for the two weeks that I debated whether or not I could manage to do that, she got steadily worse and then died without warning. To this day, I still feel awful that I did not go up to see her right away. In retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t. I was living in Indiana at that time and it was only nine hours away by car. If I couldn’t have afforded a plane ticket, I could have at least driven up there. I was in university at the time and while I do not remember now what schoolwork I had going on that seemed so important at that time that I just could not tear myself away from it, I do remember that I missed out on seeing my grandma before she died.

Only a few months later, my maternal grandfather died unexpectedly. I was in South Carolina on a job when it happened and couldn’t get back for the funeral. I never saw much of him growing up and didn’t know him well. He was busy with his own life and didn’t have much time for family and there were times when I was bitter about that. However, when he died, I certainly did feel that I had missed out on getting to know someone who was such an essential element of who I am- there are traits I have that I’m told come from him and he is, after all, 1/4 of my genes. But what hurt the most was that I knew how upset my mom was by his death and that I wasn’t able to be there for her.

When I was about 10, my family got a miniature poodle puppy. I’m not a dog person, but he was a pretty good family dog and he was a source of comfort for me during my tumultuous teenage years. He wasn’t allowed upstairs, but I often sneaked him into my bedroom and he would sit with me and keep me company. Unlike all the people in my life, he never judged me. The younger kids didn’t like him as much as I had, and I felt bad that as he got older, he did not get the love and affection that he had from us older kids. When I visited at Christmas, I always wished I could take him home with me. But I had one brother who was very attached to him and took good care of him until the end. The end came in the spring of 2010. I was studying abroad in England at the time and my mother has this problem where she never remembers when I inform her of a new address or phone number. Unfortunately, the dog had taken a turn for the worse and it became apparent that he was in a lot of pain and was very confused. They had to put him down. I wasn’t informed until a week after the fact, as apparently nobody knew how to get in touch with me. I remembered that the Christmas before, as I was leaving and saying good-byes and carrying stuff out to the car, that I had neglected to run back downstairs to give the dog a hug and feed him a treat like I usually did. I still feel bad about that and about not being there to give him comfort when he was put to sleep.

This past Christmas, while visiting my family, I wondered if it would be the last time I would get to see some people. My paternal grandmother is in his mid-90s and has a lot of health problems. My best friend has a terminal illnesses. And my maternal grandmother, while in reasonably good health, is insistent that should she ever collapse she is not to be resuscitated.

My family doesn’t make regular contact with each other, unfortunately, so when I hear from one of my parents, it is usually to convey bad news. This morning I had an email from my mother headed “Grandma” and I knew for sure she wasn’t writing to tell me what a wonderful birthday party they had given her (it was on Wednesday). No, she was writing to say that my grandma is in the hospital with a fractured spine and some sort of abdominal problem and that she is in a lot of pain and they’re not entirely sure what’s wrong with her or what her prognosis is.

This grandmother and I are reasonably close, as my family goes. I lived with her for a time and she is the only relative that still writes me regularly. Actually, I quite adore her and think she is a spectacularly amazing woman. One thing that upset me about moving to Australia was that I knew I would rarely see her again, as going back home every year for Christmas is just too expensive. It bothers me a lot that I can’t go visit her in the hospital or help look after her in any way. I hate feeling helpless and I hate feeling useless. The best I can do is send a get well card. Big whoop. I also find it very upsetting to think that she might not be around to meet her great-grandchildren, as I really would like my future children to get to know her. And I know that if she dies, I will probably not be able to go to her funeral and say my good-byes.

When my other grandmother died, I remember discussing with a cousin about how grandparents are not supposed to die. When you are little, they seem so old and so wise and you figure that anybody who is as old as that is probably just immortal. Nevermind that grandparents are often the glue that hold extended families together. After she died, a lot of relatives stopped showing up for Christmas. I guess because grandma wasn’t around to give them an earful anymore if they didn’t. And when grandpa dies, I don’t think there will be any Christmas get together with all the relatives anymore. I really think grandparents ought to realise how important they are and try to stick around for as long as possible. I can’t say until they are not needed because the day when they are not needed will never come, but they really ought to think about the damage they will do to the family with their passing before they decide to die.

My mother didn’t have much news about my grandma, but said she’d keep me informed. I’m hoping that they can find out soon what is causing her problems and help her heal quickly, but I guess I’m old enough to know how these things often end up. Simple problems can often turn deadly for the elderly.

A lot of people think traveling and living abroad is exciting and glamourous, like a big extended vacation. Yes, it can be exciting, though it’s rarely glamourous. However, what most people never think about until they’ve experienced is the true cost of it. You gain unique experiences, sure, but you definitely pay a price in being so far from your family and friends. The reality of being unable to visit or to be there for each other is not the first thing people think of when they think of living abroad, but it really can be heartbreaking at times. And not just for the person living abroad, but also for the people they leave back home who worry about them. My mother has expressed concern over the years about not being able to be there for me when I have been injured or ill and she most recently said that it bothered her a lot that she wouldn’t be able to be there for me when I have children.

You can always meet new people and make new friends wherever you go, but there really is no substitute for family.